WANDERINGS by Chaim  Potok


Chaim Potok's History of the Jews
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A failed tour de force: picturesque but amateurish history by a professional novelist. Potok did a great deal of research and a fair amount of traveling for what was obviously a labor of love, but the end result is misproportioned and unreliable. He spends too much time on biblical, and early post-biblical, Israel, and crams everything from the Enlightenment to the present into the final tenth of the book. He recreates the atmosphere of life in Sumer, ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome with lavish scene-painting, but says next to nothing about the ghetto in medieval Europe, the shtetl, or even the Holocaust. He writes at length of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, but never mentions Felix Mendelssohn (because he converted to Christianity?), Martin Buber, Marc Chagall, Isaac Babel, S. Y. Agnon, etc. He quotes lumpy translations of Solomon ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi, but passes over all of modern Hebrew (and Jewish) poetry. He dismisses Karl Marx with a cryptic reference that makes one wonder if he realizes Marx was a Jew. And then-inevitable hazard for any work pieced together from secondary sources--Potok often gets his facts wrong. He confuses Ethbaal (father of Jezebel) with Eshbaal, or Ishbosheth (son of Solomon). He claims that the "original creativity" of Hellenism died around 200 B.C. (Plutarch? Plotinus?) He translates the Latin term plus (dutiful, godly) as "likable." He generalizes recklessly. The Olympian gods are all "cool, rational, remote." "Hanging was a German contribution to human civilization." With its several hundred paintings, drawings, and photographs, Potok's book appears designed as a gift item, for Hanukkah, say. But with the many good scholarly and popular treatments of Jewish history on the market, there's no real need for this one.
Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1978
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1978


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