The Chosen - Chaim Potok

When recommending a personal favorite book to me freshman year, Rebecca Edwards, immediately handed me a copy of My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

A month ago, when I asked what I should read next (not since freshman year-you know what I mean), Bella handed me a copy of The Chosen, arguably the most famous novel by Chaim Potok.

This one revolves around an adolescent Jewish boy, Reuven, who while very religious is still well outside the insular Hasidic movement in which Asher Lev struggled. In this book, that struggle belongs to Danny Saunders, son of a revered Hasidic rebbe, who lives just a few blocks from Reuven and his relatively progressive Talmud-scholar father.

It's all about Core-Core Culture Confrontation, which, as Chaim Potok told an assembled throng of us at Harvard Hillel, is the essence of great literature. (Core-Periphery or Periphery-Periphery Culture Confrontation, on the other hand, yields "monstrosities" of literature, "like Phillip Roth," I remember him saying.) Here the Culture Confrontation is almost entirely within Judaism-within observant Judaism, in fact.

The story begins before the end of WWII, with a long action-baseball scene between Reuven's team and Danny's. (It was a bit too long and detailed for my tastes, but must thrill anyone who grew up in or around Brooklyn.) At first, of course, they hate each other. Then, of course, they become best friends. But in the end, of course again, it's not so simple...

But seriously, the book's not all that predictable. (Skip ahead to the next paragraph if you haven't read the book.) For one thing, I felt myself led to believe that Danny was a sure-fire suicide, when in fact he emerges scathed but whole. Other impressions:

How many other novels have an action-Talmud scene? That's an impressive narrative feat-and, come to think of it, one that one can only really pull off in a novel. As a reader, you get few of the super-technical details of the students' textual explorations, but Potok is still (perhaps therefore) able to convey their rush of conflict and discovery.

Another unusual technique: Entire histories of European Jewry are inserted into the mouth of Reuven's father, who one imagines to be more of a spokesman for Potok than, say, the Rebbe. But somehow this didn't feel too out of place or grandiloquent-perhaps because I'm not Hasidic enough to take offense, perhaps because the storytelling works in the mouth of this character.

Interesting how the whole novel takes place in the near-absence of women, save the Rebbe's invisible wife and Reuven's one-dimensional Ukrainian maid.

Like Ali and Nino, the story moves through great cataclysms-the closing months of the war, the world's discovery of Hitler's genocide, the struggle to found the State of Israel. Unlike Ali and Nino, these character are a continent away from the action, though they still make what sense and impact they can. I was struck and moved by the reaction of Reuven's father to the Holocaust-he throws himself into the Zionist cause, not because he feels it is God's will that one event redeem itself in the other, but because to him, there can be no other reaction. Establishing Israel is the only way that people can salvage any dignity or meaning from the murder of six million Jews. This is not the same as believing that God let (or worse, made) the Holocaust happen precisely to make Israel possible, which to me is among the most sickening Panglossian beliefs believed.

And a final, self-centered impression: Man, these two boys had such different anxieties than I/we do/did! They went to the college they knew was there for them, and they picked their careers from the get-go. Granted, the whole book is about how one of them is fatefully blocked from his desired career, but you know what I'm saying? This is not a book about Option Shock.

Fed to drand's brain | February 20, 2003