Judaism, Art, and Hospitality: An Afternoon with Adena Potok

This month, the Templeton Honors College and the Agora Institute hosted several events centered around the arts and cultural engagement. One of these events was made possible by Adena Potok, wife of the late celebrated Jewish rabbi and author Chaim Potok. While he is known first and foremost for his acclaimed novels—such as The Chosen, and My Name is Asher Lev—he was also a prolific painter and Potok’s home in Merion is brimming with the works he produced and collected throughout his life. Stepping into the old stone house on a cold, rainy afternoon and being surrounded by the warm colors of Chaim’s art, we couldn’t help but get a sense of the man himself. The walls of the home do not resemble the antiseptic halls of the MOMA or the crisp, avant-garde color schemes of a gallery. These walls are home to paintings only secondarily: they first formed the home of the artist and his family, and this somehow humanizes and contextualizes Chaim’s art, and grounds it in the everyday. The house spoke of the lives of a family, and that lived-in, quotidien, overlooked beauty which Chaim partook of daily seemed to complete and complement the works within.

Templeton Dean, Dr. Brian Williams, moderating conversation between Adena Potok and Gregory Wolfe at the Merion Tribute House.

We were also invited to visit the Potoks’ synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, PA. Rabbi Neil Cooper gave us a tour of the synagogue and explained the symbolic significance of the architectural choices and the art throughout the building, including a series of paintings integrating the text of the Haggadah—a traditional text that outlines and directs the Seder meal at Passover—into the art itself. Rabbi Cooper gave us a thorough exposition the traditional place of the written word in Judaism, and demonstrated the tendency for Jewish artists to incorporate writing into their paintings rather than the human form. We also learned about the stylistic and ritual differences between Judaism before the destruction of the Temple, and modern Judaism. The modern synagogue intentionally does not bear likeness to the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, and the somber, tent-like architecture of Beth Hillel-Beth El underscores the sorrow for the destruction of the ancient Temple and the old way of life.

One of the highlights of the trip was being able to see the collection of Torah scrolls Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El has obtained over the years, one of which was saved by the youth of a temple in Hungary on the eve of the persecution of the Hungarian Jews during the Second World War. The Torah was carefully hidden away until after the end of the war, when it was brought out, repaired, and put back into use. The text was beautiful, and the calligraphy and penmanship were absolutely impeccable. To come into contact with such a work, knowing the history it had endured and survived, reified the incredible resilience of the Jewish people in the face of the persecution they have suffered through the ages, and was a powerful symbol of perseverance.

After having experienced the art and architecture of Judaism, we were able to have a conversation with Adena Potok and the editor of Image, Gregory Wolfe, where we got to hear their opinions on the humanizing values of art, how it transcends generations and allows us unique glimpses into the inner lives and minds of others. We were able to ask them our own questions, and had a wonderful time getting to know both Potok and Wolfe.

All of the Agora Fellows who attended the event were extremely lucky to have gotten such an experience, and the warmth and hospitality of Adena Potok and Rabbi Neil Cooper were deeply touching to all of us. We hope, as we continue into the world, that whatever fields, careers, and walks of life we find ourselves in, we can draw on the inspiration of our hosts and engage with the arts ever more fruitfully, emulate their openness and hospitality, and make society a more beautiful place by doing so.

Wayne Brown ’18 is a Templeton scholar studying History, Accounting, and Finance. 

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