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Reuven Malter is what we would call today a Modern Orthodox Jew. He studies in a day school where both secular and Judaic studies are taught. He is known by his Jewish name, wears tzitzit, although tucked in, and is in touch with what is happening around the world. He listens to the radio, sees his father involved in the Zionist movement, and reads general interest books. Danny Saunders, on the other hand, is a Chassidic Jew, raised in a very close-knit community. He wears the typical white shirt, black coat, tzitzit hanging on the outside, payot (side curls) moving in rhythm with him. Danny is not exposed to secular studies or literature, having limited exposure to the outside world. He is expected to occupy his father's seat as the leader of his community when Reb Saunders retires.
Reuven and Danny are very different, have very different backgrounds, and would never meet, if it weren't for the fact that when their two schools play a baseball game against each other, Danny purposely hit Reuven with a ball, sending him to the hospital for almost a week. This changes their lives forever. The unlikely friendship that develops between these two boys is a spring board for the author to discuss many different, universal, themes throughout the book.
The Chosen leads us through the high school and college years of Reuven and Danny. As they search inside and outside of themselves for the life journey they will embark on, we see them grow before our eyes both as human beings and as characters. We follow their struggles, feel their growing pains and see them become young adults with a purpose in life. The Promise, the sequel to The Chosen written by Chaim Potok in 1969, shares the boy's story after college.
This was the first fiction book written for a general audience which discussed Orthodox Judaism in America, and it was nominated for the National Book Award in 1968. Although many more novels revolving around the Orthodox world have been published since then, one of the beauties of this book is the fact that Potok is very careful in his portrayal of the two families and their religious differences. He criticizes, through his characters, that which he thinks is wrong, but maintains, throughout the book, a strong measure of respect for ideas he does not share.
The Chosen, which on the surface seems to be about two Jewish teenage boys, is much more than that: it is about many different relationships: between fathers and sons; friends; Jews and G-d, American Jews and European Jews; religion and Zionism; chassidism and those who oppose it; words and silence. It is neither a book specifically for teenagers, nor a book exclusively for Jews. Its themes are universal although someone with previous knowledge of the Jewish religion and rituals will better understand some of the nuances of the book.
To a certain extent, both Danny and Reuven are drawn from Potok's own life experiences. As Potok once said in an interview, "I think most serious writers, certainly in the modern period, use their own lives or the lives of people close to them... as raw material for their creativity." Being brought up in the chassidic world, but having had a keen interest for secular literature, Potok had to deal with the two main conflicts that are raised in this book: how does one balance being loyal to the values and culture within which one was raised (in this case, Orthodox Judaism) with the values of the modern Western world? And, how does one balance the love and respect for his parents, while choosing to follow dreams that conflict with the parents' dreams for their child?
Written against the backdrop of 1940 America, the non-fiction facts included in the book allow readers to familiarize themselves with what was going on in the world in those years, and with how the different Jewish groups dealt with that reality. It brings quite an accurate, albeit superficial, overview of the end of World War II, and of the political process that led to the creation of the State of Israel. These historical facts lead Potok to explain, through his characters, the theological lenses through which these events were understood. Both David Malter and Reb Saunders are trying to make sense of the loss of over 6,000,000 Jewish lives. Their search for answers is not an easy task. How does one explain the Great Depression, the War, the realities of the concentration camps? Both fathers struggle to find meaning: Reb Saunders leaves it to G-d's will while Malter says it will only have meaning if we give it meaning. This same outlook on life is seen in how both fathers choose to deal with the days leading up to the creation of the State of Israel.
On a more personal level, The Chosen looks at different relationships between fathers and sons. While David Malter sits down to talk to his son as much as possible, guiding him through life, Reb Saunders does not speak to his son unless they are learning together. During the book one wonders - is there a reason for the silence? Why is there no show of affection in public or in private? Why is this father so laconic? While most of us would look disdainfully upon Reb Saunders' parenting skills, at the end of the book we are exposed to what was behind the silence. Ultimately, Reb Saunders' goal is to help his son become a caring, compassionate, adult. In order for Danny to be the leader of his people, "a bridge between his followers and G-d", as he says, he needs to become a true tzaddik - a righteous amongst the righteous. And this, according to Reb Saunders, is achieved through a life of silence.
The Chosen is a very well-written book, which can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It offers a balanced, non-judgmental vision of Orthodox Jews and Judaism to the American public. At the same time, it is also a story about following personal dreams which sometimes go against ones' parents' hopes or culture.
The struggle Danny Saunders goes through, although quite specific to his situation, points to what teenagers of all faiths and cultures go through. How can one be loyal to his family, to their values and dreams, but at the same time find out who he is, what his personal dreams are, what journey to take? Danny feels trapped, as so many teenagers feel. Can we imagine Danny's internal struggle? Can we understand Danny's father's pain when realizing that the dreams he had for his son are not the dreams his son has for himself? Of course we can - each of us has at one point been in one or both these positions.
In a Jewish sense, Potok uses an interesting metaphor to show the reader that no matter how different we might dress, no matter what rituals and traditions we may or may not follow, what we may or may not believe in, we are not altogether that different. When Reuven visits Danny in the Saunders' apartment, he realizes that it is exactly the same as his own, with the rooms set out the same way, to the extent that even their fathers' desks were in the same exact location. This might have been the author's way of pointing out that ultimately we are all part of the same people, struggling between the secular and the religious life, trying to determine how much we can take in from the outside culture without losing our identity.
This constant search for answers, through our struggles, has been part of the Jewish experience since the days of the Bible. What do we believe in? Where is G-d and what does He want from us? So much of our literature is devoted to making sense of what life and suffering are really about, of how we can make a difference in the world through our actions and our compassion. Reuven and Danny, Reb Saunders and David Malter - their struggles are the struggles of every Jew, regardless of his or her level of observance. No wonder Jews are called B'nai Israel - the Children of Israel - the Children of he who struggled with G-d.
|Buy Now at Amazon.com||Review by Sandra Lilienthal|