Chertoff was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to the family of long Talmudic heritage - his father was Rabbi Gershon Baruch Chertoff, and his paternal grandfather was Rabbi Paul Chertoff, an Ashkenazi Jew who came to America at the end of XIX from the western territories of the former Russian Empire, from what now is Belarus.
Chertoff's mother was the first flight attendant of the newly-created Israeli El-Al airline.
Michael went to the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, but chose civil life and enrolled into Harvard College, later transferring to London School of Economics and Political Science (UK) and then going to Harvard Law School, which he graduated from with magna cum laude in 1978. As with many beginning lawyers, he had to toil as a court clerk for several years, before being picked by then-U.S. District Attorney Rudolph Giuliani as a prosecutor for his famed anti-Mafia campaign in 1984.
The prominent role Chertoff played in the campaign led to his being appointed the United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey by President George H. W. Bush in 1990.
In this position, he gained fame by putting Jersey City mayor Gerald McCann in federal prison for over two years for fraud, and later was asked to stay by the new Administration of Bill Clinton - a unique event by any measure!
From 2001 to 2003, he headed the criminal division of the Department of Justice, leading the prosecution's case against the infamous suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, as well as the case against accounting firm Arthur Andersen, for destroying documents on the Enron collapse. Again, the success led to his promotion – in 2003 President Bush gave him a seat on the United States Court of Appeals, and just a year later - the position of the Secretary of Homeland Security!
Hurricane Katrina was a very hard test for Chertoff - his Department (and FEMA in particular) was criticized vocally for its lack of preparation for the worst natural disaster in America's modern history. In addition, Chertoff became a target for criticism for his support of the infamous and much-maligned "full-body scanners".
Interestingly, despite the criticism, Chertoff was asked by the Obama administration to stay in his post until January 21, 2009, one day after President Obama's inauguration – "to ensure a smooth transition"!
After leaving government service, Chertoff co-founded the Chertoff Group, a risk-management and security consulting company, employing other former high-flying officials from CIA and the Pentagon.
Covington & Burling (2009). Michael Chertoff
Marek, Angie C."A New Sheriff in Town", U.S. News & World Report, July 10, 2005