Chaim Potok was born on February 17, 1929, in New York City. His parents were Benjamin Max Potok, who had emigrated to the United States from Poland in 1921, and Mollie Friedman Potok, also a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Benjamin Potok worked as a jeweler and watchmaker.
Potok was raised by his parents as an Orthodox Jew. The family experienced poverty during the Depression years of the 1930s, and Potok also grew up in the shadow of World War II, in which millions of European Jews were killed by the Nazis. Potok attended elementary Jewish schools (yeshivas) in the Bronx, New York, and then the Talmudic Academy High School of Yeshiva University in Manhattan, an Orthodox Jewish school. During this period he read extensively in English and American literature, and first conceived his desire to become a writer. He began writing fiction when he was sixteen years old. He then entered the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City to study for the Conservative Jewish rabbinate. In 1954, he was awarded the master of Hebrew literature degree, and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. He served as a U.S. army chaplain in Korea from 1955 to 1957.
After leaving the army, Potok became an educator, teaching Jewish Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. In 1958, he married Adena Sara Mosevitzsky, a psychiatric social worker. The couple moved to Pennsylvania, where Potok was appointed scholar-in-residence at Har Zion Temple. He was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. In the same year he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America.
Potok wrote his first published novel, The Chosen, over a period of seven years. When published in 1967, it became a bestseller and was nominated for a National Book Award. It was made into a movie in 1982 (the screenplay was written by Potok), and was adapted by Potok for the stage. The play, The Chosen, premiered in New York, in January 1988.
Potok wrote another seven novels: The Promise (1969), My Name is Asher Lev (1972), In the Beginning (1975), The Book of Lights (1981), Davita's Harp (1985), The Gift of Asher Lev (1990), which won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, and I Am the Clay (1992). Potok also published three novellas, Old Men at Midnight, in 2001.
In addition to his novels, Potok wrote short stories, books for children, and a number of nonfiction works, including Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews (1978), The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family (1996), and My First Seventy-nine Years: Memoirs of Isaac Stern (1999).
Potok died on July 23, 2002.