Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

 The Chosen by Chaim Potok has been on my TBR pile for a very long time and I am so glad I finally read it. I was going to wait until my son read it and have him write a review but I decided that there’s no harm in both of us writing one since it will be a while before he’ll be able to read it and write his review. And then I’m going to read this wonderful book again. I’m sure there’s a lot I didn’t catch this first time.

For the first fifteen years of our lives, Danny and I lived within five blocks of each other and neither of us knew of the other’s existence.

So states the first paragraph of the book, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. It’s spoken by the protagonist Reuven Malter. It’s through Reuven’s eyes that we experience the story. It’s a pregnant sentence. Are Reuven and Danny going to be fast friends? Life long rivals? Ardent enemies?

At first it seems the last option is going to describe their relationship. Danny Saunders and Reuven meet during a ball game. Each is Jewish, each goes to yeshivas (Hebrew parochial schools) and that’s where the similarities end. While Reuven and his family are Orthodox Jews (for information on Orthodox Jews go here), Danny is Hasidic. (For information on Hasidic Jews go here) The ball game is more than a friendly rivalry. The Hasid are out to prove much more than their superior ball playing skills.

Burn in Hell you apikorsim! The Hasidic team shouts at Rueven and his team mates. Potok never explains what this word actually is but from the context I assume it’s some sort of term for an apostate.

Danny is as determined to prove Hasidic superiority as much as the rest of his team mates and when his turn to bat comes up he purposely slams the ball into the pitcher, Rueven’s, face. Rueven ends up in the hospital for several days.

As unlikely as it would seem, this is the start of a close and –if I may use the word again- ardent friendship. Danny and Reuven become close friends much to the consternation to the Hasidic community. The major reason for this is because Danny’s father, Rabbi Reb Saunders is the founder of their Hasidic community and Danny is expected to follow in his footsteps.

Not being Jewish, I found the contrasts between the two different Jewish sects to be fascinating. Potok includes much history of the origins of the Hasidic groups as well as the Jewish immigrants and how they ended up in America.

The time period is during WWII and Potok also gives us a special insight into how the war was viewed by contemporaries, specifically the Jews living in Brooklyn, and the horror that ensued as Hitler’s “final solution” became public knowledge.

As I read, for the first time in my life it hit me what people’s reaction to it all must have been. For so many years we’ve known what Hitler did, which doesn’t make it any less horrible, but I never considered the shock that people must have experienced as it first came to light. It’s almost too horrific to contemplate. I doubt anyone outside Germany imagined such a thing in their wildest dreams.

The other discovery that surprised me was the possibility that any Jew would be against a Jewish state. According to Potok, the Hasid were fervently against it. Or to be specific they were against a secular Jewish state. They believed (probably still believe) that the true Israel nation will be ushered in by the Messiah.

Who are these people? Who are these people? He shouted in Yiddish, and the words went through me like knives. “Apikorsim! Goyim! Ben Gurion and his goyim will build! When Messiah comes, we will have Ertz Yistoel, a Holy Land, not a land contaminated by Jewish goyim! (pg. 187)

We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves….. Six million of our people have been slaughtered; he (Reuven’s father) went on quietly. It is inconceivable. It will have meaning only if we give it meaning. We cannot wait for God…(pg. 182)

Potok shows the opposing views of Hasid and Orthodox Judaism through the fathers of Danny and Reuven. Both dedicated Jews, both dedicated to studying the Talmud, but both arriving at different conclusions as to the existence and purpose of the Jewish people.

As interesting and informative as that all is, what makes this story poignant and worthy of its place in the annals of good literature, is the human dynamic. Danny and Reuven’s relationship with each other and with their fathers’.

What especially impressed me was the careful responsibility each father took to raise their sons up in they way they believed they should go. Such care, time and energy was given to this-even though each man used strikingly different methods to accomplish their goals. Do fathers like this still exist or are they merely a relic of a bygone era?

One thing that, as a Christian, particularly interested me was how much time was given to studying the Talmud. The Talmud is two thousand years of commentary by various rabbis throughout the ages given to explaining the Torah. It amazed me to see how dedicated the Jewish scholars were to studying the Talmud but no time mentioned of studying the Torah, which is the actual word of God. Why so much time to what men say about what God says rather than reading what God has to say for Himself?

The Chosen is a gripping, powerful novel that had me coming back again and again to see how Danny and Reuven’s lives were going to turn out. The suspense of each chapter propels the reader to its powerful, moving conclusion. I highly recommend this classic to everyone.


Trevor said...

Good review: I reblogged it: Hope your weekend has been good!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Trevor: You the man!! I really appreciate you doing that. I'm going to have to repay the favor. I've had a great weekend. Hope yours is equally good.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic review Sharon, I have to read this book as well, it sounds very interesting and right up my alley. I think the point of view of the father will speak to me as well. I am trying to raise my children to achieve goals I set (not necessarily in a religious way, but more of a way of life way).

Sharon Wilfong said...

Thanks, Zohar. I now want to read all of Chaim Potok's books. I think I'm going to try, "They Call Me Asher" next.
Also, I wish more fathers would comment and let me know they are out there. Teaching in a low-income public school for many years has left me cynical.