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 tzaddiks, each sect claiming to be the true faith. What was common to all was their separation from the world and even from other Jewish groups, their tightly knit communities, and the immense persecution visited upon them. Potok’s novels express an ambivalence about the Hasids and thus reveal a tension within his own life.
The movement had enabled Judaism to survive despite the European pogroms and had stood in the way of tendencies toward assimilation that would have diluted and eventually purged the faith of its uniqueness. Nevertheless, in its unyielding demand for obedience to “the rebbe” and its suspicion of modern scientific and literary studies, Hasidism, he felt, was in danger of making Judaism irrelevant in the twentieth century. For Potok, the world of the Hasidim was narrow and confining, as was his own Orthodoxy. In 1950, after taking his graduate degree in English literature from Yeshiva University, he began his studies for the Conservative rabbinate.
Ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 1954, Potok became national director for the Conservative youth organization, the Leaders Training Fellowship. In 1955, as a chaplain in the United States Army, he served in Korea during the Korean War. His overseas experience proved to be formative for his writing career. In Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews (1978), his nonfiction account of Jewish history, Potok explains:My early decades had prepared me for everything—except the two encounters I in fact experienced: a meeting with a vast complex of cultures perfectly at ease without Jews and Judaism, and a confrontation with the beautiful and the horrible in the world of oriental human beings . . . Jewish history began in a world of pagans: my own Judaism was transformed in another such world.
Though his first novel, based on his...
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