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 both the seduction of comfort (the assimilation offered by some periods of Egypt, Greece and Spain) and the diabolical tortures of almost every other regime from ancient Rome to modern Russia, simply in order to remain Jews. It is, of course, an unanswerable question, but one he leaves unanswered with much scholarship and Jewish Style.
Barbara Amiel, "People from the School of Survival," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1979 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 92, No. 1, January 1, 1979, p. 47.
The 4000 years of Jewish history, life and culture captured between one set of covers would seem to be an impossibility—and is. But [Wanderings] comes as close to achieving the impossible as the present state of the literary and graphic arts can manage. Potok's combined talents as novelist and historian work well here in giving both narrative power and historical perspective to the wanderings of the Chosen people, their identification with the great cultures of the world—and their splendid contributions and enduring spirit.
"Books in Brief: 'Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews'," in The Critic (© The Critic 1979; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Vol. 37, No. 13, January 15, 1979, p. 7.
Michael J. Bandler
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...
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