An Appreciation of Chaim Potok’s THE CHOSEN by Daniel Walden
, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature, has taught “Jewish Literature,” “Literature and the Holocaust,” and “Women Writing the Holocaust” for many years at Penn State University. Author of On Being Jewish (1974), Walden has also published
Twentieth Century American Jewish Fiction Writer (1984) and
Conversations with Chaim Potok (2001), and is the longtime editor of “Studies in American Jewish Literature.”
Chaim Potok rose to literary prominence when his first novel, The Chosen
(1967), became a bestseller, with many weeks on the New York Times
bestseller list. In The Chosen
as well as in later novels The Promise
(1969), The Book of Lights
(1981), and Davita’s Harp
(1985), he explored the tensions and conflicts within small Orthodox Jewish communities. Potok argued that though his novels mostly dealt with the Jewish sections of New York City, the major themes and conflicts of his work were universal. His novels resonate with a large and diverse audience in much the same way that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County centered in Oxford, Mississippi, and yet captured the imagination of readers all over the world. Potok’s refusal to ignore modern thought, Jeffrey Tigay wrote, coupled with his love of Judaism and the Jewish people, led to his own crisis of faith, which he resolved by embracing both modernity and observant Judaism.
Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1929, and raised in a Hasidic Jewish community, Chaim Potok grew up in a world of rigorous Talmudic scholarship and adherence to Jewish values, beliefs, and rituals. He was also exposed to the ideas of Western art, literature, and philosophy at an early age, although he met with hostility as he pursued these. Subsequently, his broadening vision and the challenges he met helped move him from Orthodox to Conservative Judaism. The result was that he had to construct a new existence. Whether writing novels or history, as in Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews
(1978), or recounting his experiences as a chaplain in the Korean War in The Book of Lights
–“I went into that world one individual and came out another individual altogether”–he continued to write about the tensions between faith and culture; between the individual’s beliefs and the cultural systems, beliefs, and ideas that permeate the artist’s existence.
Potok rejected all attempts to divide the universe into separate domains of religion and science. In his judgment it was necessary to forge a religious life out of what he referred to as “provisional absolutes”; that is to say that he could alter his basic religious assumptions should critical thinking make this necessary. In his eyes, “A theology that is not linked directly to a pattern of behavior is a blowing of wind and macabre game with words. And a pattern of behavior that is not linked to a system of thought is an instance of religious robbery.”The Chosen
was the first American novel to make the energetic, insular world of the Hasidim visible to a mass audience. Set in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the story concerns two boys who begin as enemies and wind up as friends. Fifteen-year-old Reuven Malter and his father are Orthodox, or observant, Jews. Reuven’s widowed father, David, is a gentle soul who rationally approaches the sacred texts and argues passionately for the establishment of the State of Israel.
Danny Saunders, the oldest son of the revered Reb Saunders–the Hasidic leader of a dynastic community–is obliged by history and tradition to succeed his father as a tzaddik (a teacher or spiritual adviser) but is instead drawn to secular knowledge of the kind that Reuven has been exposed to. Danny’s secret reading of Freud in the public library has inspired him to become a psychologist, although he cannot bring himself to tell his father, with whom he has a strained relationship. The Rebbe, fearing that his brilliant son would not grow to be a compassionate leader, decided early on to bring up Danny in silence, communicating to him solely through others or during Talmudic debates in the synagogue. This withholding of communication, he reasons, will teach his son denial and sensitize him to suffering. The end result, however, is that it leads Danny to explore his own nature and to try to understand why he is so drawn to the hyperrational world represented by Reuven and his father.
David Malter, while understanding that the fanaticism of men like Reb Saunders had kept the Jews alive for more than two millennia, is nonetheless contemptuous of the way Reb Saunders has raised Danny in silence. “ ‘Hasidim,’ David muttered. ‘Why must they feel the burden of the world is only on their shoulders?’ ” As a non-Hasidic, albeit Orthodox, Jew, David Malter feels that the centrality of the Rebbe in Hasidism, which borders on idolatry, is not necessary and has no place in Judaism.
This conflict is portrayed in and central to The Chosen
. To Danny, his father is seen as “a kind of messenger of God, a bridge between his followers and God”; to Reuven, such reverence is incomprehensible. “It almost sounds like Catholicism,” he says. Reuven knows that in Jewish law a rabbi is not necessary for religious services to be held; any Jew may convene a minyan (ten Jewish The Chosen
males) for a service. As an old proverb puts it, “Nine rabbis do not make a minyan, but ten cobblers do.”
Potok himself was brought up in what he referred to as a “fundamentalist atmosphere, which by definition is both joyous and oppressive simultaneously.” At the age of fourteen he read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited
and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
. These novels, written by brilliant Catholic writers dissenting within their own tradition, impelled Potok to a future in which he continually explored the struggle between faith and secularity. Like those that inspired its author, The Chosen
is a novel that came from a person on the inside of the Jewish tradition–a believer, not a skeptic.
The dramatic beginning of the novel focuses on combat, in a baseball game between the Orthodox boys and the Hasidic boys. Danny, angry at Reuven, deliberately strikes him in the face with the ball, breaking the pitcher’s glasses. The next day, very contrite, Danny visits Reuven and they become fast friends. When the Rebbe learns about the boys’ friendship, he at first forbids their meeting, eventually relenting. But even in that act, he shows not only the heartlessness of the aging leader but also the fanatical devotion to his “truth.”
If The Chosen
is read only as a conflict between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim (the Orthodox who dissent), the reader misses the point. What is essential is the conflict between blind fanaticism and piousness. In that sense the novel is a true reflection of each group. That Potok may have used poetic license may also be true; after all, the world to which Danny is drawn outside the Hasidic community bears some responsibility. Feeling trapped by his position as heir to the Rebbe, Danny must go beyond his limiting study of the Talmud, must sample the best minds and literature of the past centuries. Not surprisingly he is attracted to psychology, which represents almost a secular religion to him, and in the end, the Rebbe agrees that Danny will be a tzaddik for the world. “ ‘And the world needs a tzaddik.’ ” At the same time, Reuven, by virtue of the gentle approach of his own father, gravitates toward a religious future: He will become a rabbi.
At the end, one has to agree that The Chosen
–about two kinds of Jews, about the divisions between Orthodoxy and Hasidism–is also a very American novel. As Sheldon Grebstein put it, the dream of success is played out here in an improbable but possible “only in America” cast of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, who demonstrate that people can still make good through hard work, pluck, integrity, and dedication.
Chaim Potok has written in The Chosen
a truly American, multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic masterpiece. Robert Gottlieb, Potok’s editor for more than thirty years, called the book “available”; that is, attractive to and understandable by one and all. Year after year, people of all faiths and backgrounds came to this book. As one Latina woman put it, “I identified completely with Danny and Reuven, feeling their pain as if it were my own.” Potok was a major voice in American literature, and The Chosen
was the first American Jewish novel to open up the Jewish experience to a mass audience.
Potok was a world-class writer and scholar. Though critics often underrated him, it is my judgment that in the long run he will emerge as one of the major American Jewish writers of the twentieth century. With a plain, straightforward style that he worked hard to cultivate, it was not easy to compete with such stylists as Bellow, Malamud, and Roth. Still, it is easy to see that Potok’s contributions to literature are many and profound: He introduced the Western world to modern Orthodox Jewish communities and made that world seem as familiar and accessible to non-Jews as it was to Jews.
Potok’s novels are set against the moral, intellectual, spiritual, and artistic currents of the twentieth century. He commented on, fought with, or dealt with the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, Picasso and Guernica, modern Biblical scholarship, and even Jewish mysticism. His characters think about modernity and wrestle with the core-to-core cultural confrontations that they run into when modernity clashes with faith. Potok’s works will fit more and more into that spectrum that spans American civilization but also all that is universal. He was able to communicate with millions and millions of readers because he wrote from the inside, as a believer. It seems to me that what he did, certainly unique in the world of literature, will resonate increasingly in the years to come precisely because the world is increasingly willing to acknowledge that we are multiethnic and multireligious peoples.
Chaim Potok touched a chord in The Chosen
that was felt by many, many people. He will always be enshrined in our memory books for his deeply probing and carefully and wonderfully written evocations of the world that he knew.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. One of the central metaphors of The Chosen is combat. How does this metaphor advance the themes of the book?
2. Chaim Potok spoke often of his interest in a core-to-core culture confrontation in his books. What does this mean in The Chosen? What are the essential differences between the Hasidic and the Orthodox Jews?
3. Reb Saunders uses silence as a way of instructing and changing Danny. Why? What causes him to finally communicate with his son?
4. When Danny begins to read widely, what writer/thinker/innovator and what methodology lead him to the path he finally chooses?
5. Reb Saunders’s Hasidic sect is hostile at first to the establishment of the State of Israel. What causes Reb to change his mind?
6. David Malter and Reb Saunders have different opinions about the war in Europe and the fact that 6 million Jews died in death camps. Can you explain how and why they differ?
7. Some people are puzzled by the title. What do you think The Chosen means?