Review by Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr
In 1983, my seventh-grade religious school class was assigned a book that would forever change my life: Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. The setting of the story so resembled the Brooklyn my grandparents recalled with romantic hindsight that it seemed as if the characters could have been their neighbors. As a rabbi’s child, I was captivated by the rabbinic father/son relationships and compared them to my own relationship with my rabbinic father. This was also the book that taught me about symbolism: That happened on page 164 with Potok’s description of a fly trapped in a spider’s web. And though I loved this book upon first read, I recognized even then that there was so much more to it.
Rereading The Chosen more than three decades later, I am struck by nuances I missed as a young reader. Set against the backdrop of World War II and its immediate aftermath, the book engages throughout with the theme of American identity. With the nation at war, men of recruitment age were regarded with suspicion if they were not in uniform. Baseball emerges as the quintessential proof of one’s patriotism; even the Jewish schools promoted baseball as a patriotic activity, and it is through baseball that the main characters are introduced.
Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders, the 15-year-old protagonists, grow up in the same neighborhood. But the Jewish circles within which they travel could not be more disparate. Reuven comes from a Modern Orthodox community that appreciates much that modernity has to offer. Danny, on the other hand, exists in the insular world of a Hasidic dynasty; in fact, he is expected to assume its leadership upon his father’s death. The boys’ friendship bonds only as the result of an unexpected accident during a ball game between their two yeshivot.
The German surrender and subsequent liberation of the camps serve as the turning point for both boys’ fathers. Reb Saunders reacts viscerally to the annihilation of Europe’s Jewry, seeming to bend under the weight of survivor guilt. David Malter, on the other hand, regards the catastrophic events in Europe as the necessary catalyst for the emergence of an independent Jewish state in the land of Eretz Yisrael. A pro-Zionist speech by Reuven’s father causes the staunchly anti-Zionist Reb Saunders to excommunicate both Reuven and his father, with devastating consequences for the boys’ friendship.
Chaim Potok carefully takes the reader into the worlds of Hasidism and Modern Orthodoxy. Presuming no prior knowledge from his reader, Potok delineates the traditional approach to Talmudic discourse as well as nuances of the pro-and-anti-Zionist camps in the wake of the 1947 vote on the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine and the eventual declaration of Israel’s independence.
That The Chosen was published in 1967 by a mainstream publishing house (Simon & Schuster), was a finalist for the National Book Award, and spent 39 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list signifies its accessibility to the greater American readership. Father-son relationships, ethnic and cultural identity, and the emergence of one’s sense of self supersede any particular religion. It is for these reasons that The Chosenretains its relevance these many years after its publication.
Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and a Contributing Writer at Kveller.com. The co-editor of a forthcoming title on the impact of forty years of women in the rabbinate, she blogs at This Messy Life.