Chaim Tzvi Potok was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1929, the son of Benjamin Max Potok (a businessman and Belzer Hasid) and Mollie (Friedman) Potok, a descendant of a Hasidic family. Though Potok was raised in Jewish Orthodoxy and was sent to Orthodox parochial schools, by the age of ten he became interested in drawing and painting, something both his father and his teachers frowned upon.
For the Orthodox Jew, art is at best considered a waste of time and at worst a violation of the commandment forbidding graven images. Potok was told that it was better to study the Hebrew Bible and the commentaries on it (the Talmud) than to engage in such “foolishness.” Writing, however, had a more ambiguous place among the Orthodox. In 1945, Potok’s reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) convinced him to become a writer.
Potok’s father was a Polish émigré whose stories of the suffering of the Jews in the Eastern European pogroms taught the young Potok that Orthodoxy must be preserved in the face of a world bent on destroying both it and the Jews. He was convinced that one day the suffering of his people would play a part in the world’s redemption. Much later, Potok would stand at the Hiroshima memorial in Japan, contemplating the atomic destruction unleashed upon the world and his own place in such a world. As he told an interviewer in 1981, all of his novels would flow from that moment in Japan.
Potok’s Orthodox childhood brought him into contact with the ultra-Orthodox, the Hasids (“pious ones”). Within the wide range of Judaism, from Liberal and Reform to Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic, the Hasids are the most rigorously fundamentalistic. Originating in Poland in the eighteenth century as a reaction against an over-intellectualized faith controlled by the rabbis, Hasidism at first emphasized the mystical elements of Judaism, though it, too, emphasized the study and interpretation of the Talmud.
Central to the Hasidic movement was the tzaddik (“righteous one”), a powerful leader who, it was believed, embodied the essence of the Jewish community and whose word was law. Various Hasidic sects followed different...
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