Potok, Chaim 1929–
Potok's reputation as an American Jewish novelist was established with his first novel, The Chosen. In this as in all his fiction, his inspiration and focal concern has been traditional Judaism. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
To read Chaim Potok's Wanderings, a superbly written … history of the Jews, is to understand why [the] theme of vengeance is so much a part of Jewish history. It also serves to remind that, though the major event of Christianity celebrates birth and love, and Judaism the memory of slaughter and vengeance, both have often practised in each other's territory….
[Wanderings is] the story of civilization—as it affects his people. Explains Potok: "Though I had studied history with great teachers in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, I hesitated to move from the world of the imagination to the hard country of fact." His fears were unnecessary. As he traces the ancient exodus from Egypt of the "pitiful rabble, a mass of frightened, quarrelsome Asiatics wandering through the merciless sand and stone wilderness somewhere east of the Nile," Potok the novelist considers the great questions of imagination that historians may overlook. What, he asks, made Moses realize that slavery, an accepted custom, was wrong? "This is the point," answers Potok, "where the mind of man might turn a corner and come upon new and luminous awareness—an act of creation as mysterious as life itself."
Behind Potok's account of the Jewish struggle to stay alive through the vicissitudes of ancient and classical paganism, Islam and Christianity is Potok's own moral search: to understand how a people managed to survive...
(The entire section is 420 words.)
One cannot resist the temptation to observe without being facetious that as a historian, Potok solidifies his reputation as a fine novelist. Claiming no credentials as a historian, using hundreds of eminent sources and texts in several languages which he appreciatively acknowledges, he has fashioned an intelligent, thorough and credible one-volume chronicle [Wanderings] that breathes with a passion that is more common to fiction than to history.
It takes a writer with a flair for imagery, for example, to view the Jewish creative forces in Islamic-dominated 11th-century Spain as "nightingales in a sandstorm," and to describe the enthusiastic—though ominous—entry of Jews into the high culture of the 18th-century European Enlightenment as "whirling and pirouetting in a pagan danse macabre." And it takes a certain dramatic perception to shape two simple sentences—"Who was king? Who was not king?"—into ubiquitous signposts along the historical route of ascension, decline, revolution and resurgence….
Fully aware that one cannot isolate a particular group's experiences from those of the rest of civilization, Potok treats carefully and fully the various religions and cultures—from ancient Sumer to 20th century America—that impinged on the saga of the Jews, and their political, social, cultsral and economic components as well as their dominant personalities…. He asks questions, poses possible answers based on archaeological or new historical data, and frequently relinquishes the issue unresolved. (p. B1)
It is not a book to be read in a concentrated period of time…. Rather, it should be savored, scene by provocative scene, mulled over and retained. No matter what one's faith, there are urgent lessons to be learned among the codes, covenants, triumphs and tragedies of the panoramic saga that continues dauntlessly along its unpredictable path. (p. B4)
Michael J. Bandler, "Faith's Long Journey," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1979 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 12, 1979, pp. B1, B4.
Chaim Potok has not written a scholarly history of the Jews. No one person could possibly do that…. But what Potok has done [in Wanderings] is to dramatize all of Jewish history and bring it to life, as only a novelist could. He has done his homework well and has gone to the scholars….
But after that, he has done something more, something they could not do, which is to make the bare bones of their scholarship come alive. He has made of Jewish history real theatre. He describes each period in dramatic terms as a conflict and a contrast between the Jewish people and the people whom they came in contact with, the ones who harbored and oppressed them. (p. 116)
There is a point to the subtitle of this book. It is indeed "Chaim Potok's History of the Jews," for the book is personal. In a way, it is as personal as his novels were. Just as there he really sought for his self in the guise of a story about a young man wrestling with modernity, so here he searches for his soul in the form of a confrontation with his roots and with his memories.
This is the story of a people that has endured much, that has endured almost as much as a people can. And yet, its last word is Yes: yes to life, yes to hope, yes to tomorrow. It is a story that all people who live in a frightening and fast-changing, broken and bewildering universe can read and take to heart, and Chaim Potok has told it well. (p. 117)
Jack Riemer, "Emerging Histories, Promising Pasts: 'Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews'," in America (© America Press, 1979; all rights reserved), Vol. 140, No. 6, February 17, 1979, pp. 116-17.