Borders present such complex issues, that for decades, the study of them has been a growing field of multidisciplinary research and teaching at many universities in the United States and abroad.
Editor and writer Rena Potok has a special affinity for border studies and culture. As an adjunct professor of English and Irish studies at Villanova University, she teaches border writing in the English department and a film class in the Irish Studies program.
Since 2015, Potok — the editor of Hills of Spices: Poetry from the Bible — has served on the faculty of Villanova’s two-semester Augustine and Culture Seminar Program. This interdisciplinary humanities sequence for first-year undergraduates uses the question “Who Am I?” as its overarching guide for critically examining ancient and modern texts.
At 9:15 a.m. Thursday, July 4 at the Chautauqua Women’s Club, Potok will give a talk titled “Friendship, Family, and Culture Confrontation in ‘The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok.’ ” It will be followed by two Chautauqua Theater Company conservatory actors performing scenes from two of Chaim Potok’s five collected plays.
“This is a book of plays written by my father during the 1990s,” Potok said. “He was invited by three theater directors to collaborate on plays. He died in 2002 after a decade of theatrical activity.”
Through Rabbi Chaim Potok’s award-winning literature, non-Jewish cultures have been introduced to the conflict between traditional and modern Jewish culture and thought.
“While I was (senior acquisitions editor) at the Jewish Publication Society, I got a call from someone who runs a small press, and that was the impetus (for the collection),” Potok said. “Well-known characters come to life in the plays in a way that’s different from and complementary to the way they’re portrayed in the novels.”
Potok edited and wrote the introduction to this first and only resurrection and collection of her father’s dramatic work, which was published in 2018. The Chosen dramatizes scenes from Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel of the same name; The Carnival does likewise from his 1969 novel, The Promise; The Gallery from his 1972 novel, My Name is Asher Lev; The Play of Lights from his 1981 novel, The Book of Lights. Out of the Depths was Chaim Potok’s first and only original play.
Chaim Potok’s and Aaron Posner’s theatrical adaptation of The Chosen — a New York Times best-seller — premiered in Philadelphia, ran in Pittsburgh and won the 1999 Barrymore Award for best new play. Director Jeremy Kagan had turned it into a movie 18 years earlier. Potok edited the 50th anniversary edition of The Chosen.
In her introduction to his collected plays, Potok wrote, “At the heart of Chaim Potok’s writings are three major teachings: Never force anything. Ask good questions. And above all, there is no such thing as a singular, absolute Truth.”
Potok said one of the scenes that will be performed at the Women’s Club is from The Gallery.
The other is from Out of the Depths, which was first staged in Philadelphia in 1990. It is based on the life and work of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, the legendary Jewish ethnographer, revolutionary activist, author and playwright who was born in the Russian Empire in 1863, and used the pseudonym “S. Ansky.”
While Potok’s primary academic area is late 20th century and contemporary British and Irish literature, she said her secondary specialty is Israeli and Palestinian literature.
Raised in a religiously, but not politically, conservative Jewish household, Potok said she spent summers in Israel and lived in Jerusalem for four years during middle and high school. The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 occurred during her first full year there.
After completing high school outside Philadelphia, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and Oriental studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Potok said that during the middle of graduate school she took a three-year leave to pursue a career as a modern dancer and choreographer in the Philadelphia area. She immersed herself in dance and creativity, and wrote a play for dance-theater called Eleh Ezkerah.
“It’s a line from Jewish prayer, which loosely translates to, ‘I will remember these,’ ” she said.
When Potok returned to the University of Pennsylvania, she earned her master’s in comparative literature and creative writing, and a Ph.D. in comparative literature and literary theory.
Over the years she has taught at many centers, colleges and universities in the greater Philadelphia area — Swarthmore College, Rutgers University, the Curtis Institute of Music, Bryn Mawr College, The Wharton School Communication Program, the behavioral health center The Bridge, Rosemont College, Drexel University, Saint Joseph’s University and the University of Pennsylvania.
This summer, Potok will be completing her first novel, which she said is in the final editing stage.
“While I was in graduate school, I happened to give a paper on Ulysses at the International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin,” she said. “In London I saw one of the performances of Hamlet at the Globe Theatre. When I came home, I started working on my novel.”
Its title has yet to be revealed.