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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The novels of Potok represent both a personal quest and an artistic achievement. The quest is that of finding a viable faith that affirms ancient beliefs yet is open to the best thinking of modern times. The artistic achievement is in the working and reworking of personal experience into the stuff of human transformation, an invitation to readers to learn from their own pasts and draw on the strength of their communities even as they move beyond or away from the traditions that nurtured them.
Potok’s quiet tales of small Jewish sects in New York are poignant in their simplicity and powerful in their evocation of the mending that art can accomplish in one burdened by suffering, anger, and betrayal.
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Born of Orthodox Jewish parents in the Bronx in 1929, Chaim Potok was reared in a fundamentalist culture. Potok’s father, Benjamin Potok, was a Polish émigré and no stranger to the pogroms of Eastern Europe. The young Potok was taught that the profound suffering of the Jews would one day transform the world. Yet, as Potok suggests in Wanderings, his service as a Jewish chaplain with the U.S. Army in Korea (1956-1957) confronted him with a world of good and evil that had never heard of Judaism. His attempt to come to terms with this larger world led Potok to a critical investigation of his own Jewish heritage and the limitations of the fundamentalist perspective. Though he was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 1954,...
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