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The Chosen (Ballantine Reader's Circle)

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Chaim Potok

Few stories offer more warmth, wisdom, or generosity than this tale of two boys, their fathers, their friendship, and the chaotic times in which they live. Though on the surface it explores religious faith--the intellectually committed as well as the … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Chaim Potok
Publisher: Ballantine Books
1 review about The Chosen (Ballantine Reader's Circle)

Between Friendship And Faith

  • Nov 7, 2009
Reading the reviews here of "The Chosen" might make one think it is a novel about Judaism, which is only partially true. The real story is one of friendship, that between the Hasidic prodigy Danny and his pal, Reuven Malter. According to Wikipedia, Chaim Potok discovered his love for the novel when he read "Brideshead Revisted". You definitely can feel the resonances of that book when reading "The Chosen".

Instead of 1920s Oxford, the setting is 1940s Brooklyn, specifically the Williamsburg section, then a haven of brownstones and ailanthus trees that look pretty in the sunlight but produce pungent, jabbing leaves. Reuven first encounters Danny as an opposing player at an ill-tempered baseball game. Danny's line drive puts Reuven in the hospital, but when Danny visits him there, the two teens find a lot to admire in one another and become firm friends.

One of those books I first encountered in the corridors of high school, and pretty much avoided on that basis, "The Chosen" is a moving book that requires a certain commitment from the reader going in. Like Waugh in "Brideshead", Potok is a deliberate writer, and his narrative, while not long, is slow-paced. He buries you in the world of strict Judiasm, though he is careful to provide a road map, explaining various terms and practices.

As meaningful as the relationship between Danny and Reuven becomes, neither is the novel's most absorbing character. That would be Reb Saunders, Danny's strict father, who views Reuven with a fascinating blend of empathy and hostility.

"The world kills us!" Reb Saunders tells his congregation. "The world flays our skin from our bodies and throws us to the flames. The world laughs at Torah! And if it does not kill us, it tempts us! It misleads us!"

Being that this is the 1940s, Reb Saunders' words have more than metaphoric meaning. So you understand a little when he seems to resist Danny's impulse to befriend Reuven, and wonder a bit at how, after Danny makes clear his chosen path is not what his father wants, Reb Saunders switches tactics and employs Reuven as a bridge to reach his son.

One fascinating subplot of the novel involves the birth of Israel. Published in the war-torn year of 1967, "The Chosen" presents the question of Israel's necessity in the wake of the Holocaust. For Reuven, such a state is a matter of survival. For Reb Saunders, Israel is a threat to the more religious side of the Jewish experience, which leaves the question of survival up to God.

Unlike "Brideshead Revisited", humor is almost completely absent from "The Chosen", and the focus of the book after a while becomes very tight on four principal characters (including Reuven's sickly father). But what Potok does is more impressive than what he doesn't do. "The Chosen" dares to make its characters' intellectual journeys the stuff of real drama, while at the same time arguing passionately for the value of true heart and soul in a world that places a higher premium on brainpower. It's an inspiring read.

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