Book Review: Collection Explores Chaim Potok as Playwright

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Collected Plays of Chaim Potok

Edited with an introduction by Rena Potok; contributions by David Bassuk, Carol Rocamora and Aaron Posner

Adam Kadmon Books

Fans of Chaim Potok, author of the bestselling The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, now have a chance to explore another side of the late novelist’s work.

His daughter, Rena Potok, has compiled five of her father’s plays in a new book, The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok, which came out in October.

Many of the plays, all of which premiered in Philadelphia, draw on Potok’s lived experiences.

Born to a Chasidic family in New York, Potok came of age during World War II, then went on to become a Conservative rabbi.

He served in the Army as a chaplain in South Korea, where he faced the cultural confrontation central to his writing. He found that Judaism, so fundamental to his identity, had no place in Korean culture.

Potok also has roots in Philadelphia, where he attended the University of Pennsylvania and was a scholar-in-residence at Har Zion Temple.

This collection includes Out of the Depths, an original work about Russian Jewish ethnographer S. Ansky; Sins of the Father, a combination of the two one-act plays The Carnival and The Gallery, the former based on The Promise and the latter based on My Name is Asher Lev; The Play of Lights, based on The Book of Lights about two young Jewish men serving in Korea; and The Chosen, based on the novel of the same name about a friendship between two young men coming of age during and after World War II.

The collection includes stage notes and prefaces for the plays. It also includes a transcript of an Out of the Depths post-performance panel discussion with Potok, which is probably the most fascinating section of the entire book. An introduction written by Rena Potok connects Potok’s life to the plays’ themes and analyzes how each explores his ideas.

These additions elevate the book, from simply a collection of plays to an in-depth look at the author himself.

In both his novels and plays, Potok’s protagonists struggle with what was maybe the biggest question of postwar 20th century American Jewish life: How do you live in a secular world without letting go of your Judaism?

The plays explore the idea of what Potok called “core-to-core culture confrontation,” when one grows up in the heart of a subculture and confronts an element at the heart of the umbrella culture. Characters face art, politics and other religions that challenge their Jewish identities.

Relationships between male friends and between fathers and sons serve as another theme in Potok’s writing. Fathers play important roles in symbolizing one side of the cultural confrontation, while friends serve as confidantes in the midst of this conflict and even sometimes as narrators. Women are noticeably absent from Potok’s work and, when they do appear, they are not given the same depth as the male characters.

The collection’s standout play is Out of the Depths, which is grander and more epic than the others. While the other plays tend to feel like they’re more about the ideas the characters represent rather than the characters themselves, Out of the Depths breaks from that trend, making for a much more interesting read.

Overall, the collection is intellectual and will provide plenty of material to muse on. If you’re looking to better understand Chaim Potok, this collection is a good place to start.

[email protected], 215-832-0729.

1 COMMENT

  1. When I was a letter carrier, I delivered thousands of Jewish Exponents. I have read many of Chaim Potok’s books and found them very interesting and educational about a rabbi’s life and sons. I’ve supported Israel since 1948.

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