The ChosenChaim Potok
For Further Study
While Chaim Potok's central characters in The Chosen struggle between the spiritual obligations of Orthodox Judaism and secular American life, they also reflect universal conflicts between fathers and sons. The novel, Potok's first, was published in 1967 and enjoyed a wide readership, as well as critical acclaim. Potok received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award and a nomination for the National Book Award for The Chosen. The novel focuses on its two main characters, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, and covers their high school and college years, the period in their lives when they struggle for self-realization. Both are sons of religious fathers, but while Reuven's is orthodox and secularized, Danny's father is the head of an ultraorthodox and mystical sect of Jews called Hasids. Rabbi Isaac Saunders, Danny's father, fully expects Danny to inherit his role as the spiritual leader of his congregation, but Danny is more interested in modern psychology. Reuven's father, David Malter, is a Hebrew scholar. The story begins with a baseball game between Reuven's and Danny's school teams. They both attend rival yeshivas, Jewish religious schools. Reuven and his classmates wear ordinary clothes and are coached by a gym teacher who is an avid baseball fan. Danny's team is coached by a religious Hasid who wears the black garments, skull cap, and earlocks traditional to his sect. Danny's team is not expected to win, but they have the reputation of being fierce. They do win the game and in the process, Danny breaks Reuven's glasses and sends him to the hospital with glass in his eye. After an initial meeting in the hospital when Danny tries to apologize for the injury, the two boys become friends. The novel explores the relationship each boy has with his own father and the relationship each develops with the other boy's father.
Two life experiences have been major influences on the work of Chaim Potok. They are the world of Orthodox Judaism in which he was raised and the larger world he experienced when he served as an army chaplain during the Korean War. His war experience made him realize that growing up in a strict Jewish community had limited his aspirations to become a writer. Artistic endeavors were not considered the proper pursuit for Jewish boys. Instead, they were expected to study the Talmud, the combined body of writings on Jewish traditions.
Potok was born on February 17,1929, and was raised in the Bronx, New York. His parents, Benjamin Max and Mollie, had fled persecution in their native Poland. As a young boy, Potok studied in a parochial Jewish school, called a yeshiva. While his early training was in the Hasidic tradition (a sect originating in eighteenth-century Poland that emerged as a reaction to growing Jewish formalism), he later became a conservative rabbi.
The young Potok had a keen interest in artistic pursuits, an interest that was piqued after his parochial school hired an instructor one summer to teach the class painting. Potok's father and teachers discouraged the boy from pursuing such interests because Hasids see the arts as frivolous and even rebellious towards God. Nevertheless, Potok's parents indulged him enough to allow their son to write short stories. Potok also liked to read books that were outside those assigned to him in class. Two of the most influential of these were James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Joyce's book appealed to Potok for its portrayal of the iconoclast, the person willing to go against social norms, and how this rebellious person sees the hypocrisy of those around him. But it was Waugh's novel that convinced Potok to become a writer himself, for he admired Waugh's ability to create whole worlds on paper, and he was fascinated by her portrayal of an upper-class British society that was so outside his personal experience.
Deciding that he was interested in religious and secular societies, Potok learned about both. He studied English literature at Yeshiva University, graduating summa cum laude in 1950, and then he attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, being ordained and receiving an M.H.L. in 1954. Completing his formal education in 1965, Potok earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. During all these studies, he married Adena Sara Mosevitzky in 1958, and the family now includes two daughters, Rena and Naama. As for work, Potok found several positions at seminaries and did writing and editing for various Jewish publications.
Potok's desire to become a writer was also intensified after his Korean experience (he was a chaplain in the army from 1956-57). For the first time, he was thrust into a world where the values of Judaism had little meaning. The conflict of loyalty to parental values and the desire to study outside the prescribed texts and forms of Hasidic Judaism became the central theme in his first novel, The Chosen, which was published in 1967.
Potok has written eight novels, all of them dealing with the conflicts his characters feel between their family values and the values of the larger society. Although his books are written in the first person, he denies that his novels are auto-biographical. Potok has also written numerous short stories and articles for periodicals and served as an editor for Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Publication Society. His teaching experience includes visiting professorships at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College, the Teachers' Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Also well known for his nonfiction work Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews, Potok has published many books that have been widely reviewed. He generally receives praise for the universal themes he develops, for his ability to bring to life the details of Jewish ghetto life in America, and for the struggles confronting his characters. Potok has, however, been criticized for contrived endings to his stories and what some reviewers consider a pretentious style.
The Chosen explores the friendship between Jewish Reuven Malter and Hasidic (Jewish Orthodox) Danny Saunders. In Brooklyn during World War II, Danny hits Reuven in the face with a baseball, giving him a concussion. Reuven undergoes an operation to remove a piece of glass from his eye. In the hospital, he meets former boxer Tony Savo and Billy Merrit, a young boy blinded in a car accident. Danny visits Reuven and confides that his father expects him to become a rabbi, though he wants to be a psychologist. He also explains that his father disapproves of apikorsim (Jews who are not extremely orthodox) such as Reuven. Reuven's father, David Malter, urges Reuven to become friends with Danny because the Talmud (the book of Jewish holy law) says the two things one should acquire in life are a teacher and a close friend. When Danny calls again, the boys talk about religion and reading. Danny regularly visits the library to read books recommended to him by an old man who turns out to be Reuven's father. Danny explains that his father is a tzaddik (a Jewish spiritual leader), and that after his father dies he will be obliged to become tzaddik, too, for "if the son doesn't take the father's place, the dynasty falls apart." Danny comments on the irony of being forced to become a rabbi while Reuven freely chooses the same fate. Reuven's eye is healing, and his father arrives at the hospital that afternoon to take him home in time for Shabbat (sabbath).
When Reuven returns home, everything seems sharper and clearer to him, as if he were seeing the world around him for the first time. Rav Malter narrates a brief history of Hasidism so Reuven can understand Danny's background. Reb Saunders, Danny's father, is a great Talmudist and a great tzaddik, with a reputation for brilliance and compassion. Danny reminds Reuven's father of a brilliant scholar who rebelled against the traditions of Hasidism. Danny's grandfather was a well-known Hasidic rabbi in Russia. Danny's father inherited the position of tzaddik, and led his Jewish community from Russia to America after World War I. Reuven meets Reb Saunders at his synagogue, and after he notes a mistake in Reb Saunders' gematriya (the Jewish theory that each letter of the Hebrew alphabet corresponds with a number), Reb Saunders gives his approval to the boys' friendship. Danny and Reuven both plan to attend the Samson Raphael Hirsch Seminary before becoming ordained rabbis.
Reuven meets Danny at the library after school. After becoming disturbed by reading negative views about Hasidism, Danny begins studying Sigmund Freud's books. Rav Malter worries about Reb Saunders' reaction to Danny's reading but realizes that Reb Saunders cannot stop it. Reuven visits Danny on Shabbat afternoon, and they review the Talmud with Reb Saunders. When Danny leaves the room, Reb Saunders demands that Reuven tell him about Danny's reading. He then asks Reuven to promise that he and his father will be a good influence on Danny. Danny mentions that he and his father "don't talk anymore, except when we study Talmud.… My father believes in silence. When I was ten or eleven years old, I complained to him about something, and he told me to close my mouth and look into my soul. He told me to stop running to him every time I had a problem."
Reuven's eye heals, and he studies for his final exams. When he calls the Merrit household, he learns that Billy Merrit's operation was unsuccessful, and he is severely depressed by the news. Danny and Reuven spend the summer talking, studying Talmud, and following the war news. Danny becomes increasingly disturbed by his study of Freud. When school begins, they meet only on Shabbat afternoons. In April, President Roosevelt dies and the country mourns. When the war in Europe ends in May, everyone is horrified by news of the German concentration camps. While Reb Saunders believes they were the will of God, Rav Malter refuses to accept this viewpoint. Rav Malter suffers a heart attack, and until he recovers Reuven lives with Danny's family. Reb Saunders speaks to Danny only during their arguments over Talmud.
Reuven's father insists that Palestine must become the Jewish homeland, an idea with which Reb Saunders violently disagrees. Danny comments that his father is suffering for the six million Jews who died. Though he doesn't understand the silence, Danny admires, respects, and trusts his father. However, he feels trapped by the expectation he must become tzaddik so as not to break the dynasty. The war ends in August, and in September Danny and Reuven enter Hirsch College. Both are older and slightly more mature. Reuven has started shaving, and Danny is wearing eyeglasses.
Danny becomes upset when he discovers he must study experimental psychology rather than psychoanalysis in college. After talking with his psychology professor, he learns Professor Appleman objects more to Freud's methodology than his conclusions. Rav Malter becomes increasingly involved with Zionist activities. Zionism is prevalent at the college, and tensions build between the Hasidim (followers of Hasidism) and the Revisionists (who support the Irgun, or Palestinian terrorists). Reuven joins a religious Zionist youth group. Danny joins none of the groups but sympathizes with the Zionists.
After Rav Malter's speech at a Zionist rally, Reb Saunders excommunicates the Malters from the Saunders family. Reuven's school work deteriorates because of his anger towards Reb Saunders.
For the rest of that semester, Danny and I ate in the same lunchroom, attended the same classes, studied in the same school synagogue, and often rode in the same trolley car—and never said a single word to each other. Our eyes met frequently, but our lips exchanged nothing. I lost all direct contact with him. It was an agony to sit in the same class with him, to pass him in the hallway, to see him in a trolley, to come in and out of the school building with him— and not to say a word. I grew to hate Reb Saunders with a venomous passion that frightened me at times, and I consoled myself with wild fantasies of what I would do to him if he ever fell into my hands.
The United Nations votes to create a Jewish state. As violence between Arabs and Jews escalates in Israel, the anti-Zionist tensions in school cease. Reuven's father suffers a second heart attack. Reuven studies Talmud using the scientific method and explains a particularly difficult passage in class. Later, he explains his theory to Talmud teacher Rav Gershenson, who reveres his explanation but asks Reuven never to use this heretical method during class.
Rav Malter recovers, and Reuven and Danny, forbidden to talk to one another, communicate with their eyes, nods, and hand gestures. The college students become reconciled to Israel after a graduate is killed in the fighting around Jerusalem. A year later, Reb Saunders allows the boys to resume their friendship. Danny and Reuven dominate their Talmud class. Danny tells Reuven he plans to obtain a doctorate in clinical psychology and will tell his father on the day he receives his smicha (rabbinic ordination).
The last year of college begins. Danny realizes that "you can listen to silence and learn from it … sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it." When Danny's brother Levi becomes ill, Danny panics. Reuven believes Danny's fears relate to his worries about destroying the dynasty if he doesn't become tzaddik. But Levi recovers. Danny applies to Harvard, Berkeley, and Columbia for graduate study. Reb Saunders repeatedly asks Reuven to visit, and Rav Malter insists that he go.
Reuven visits Danny's home on the first day of Passover (the Festival of Freedom). Reb Saunders has aged. When Reuven announces his plan to become a rabbi, Reb Saunders says he knows of Danny's plans and explains his long silence. He considered Danny's brilliance a curse because it overwhelmed his soul and eliminated the compassion he would need as tzaddik. He comments, "I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.… In the silence between us, he began to hear the world crying." He accepts Danny's decision to become a psychologist because Danny now has the soul of a tzaddik. He then speaks Danny's name, and adds: "Today my Daniel is free." The tzaddikate is inherited by Levi. Reuven and Danny graduate summa cum laude from college. Danny and his father now speak to each other. When Rav Malter asks him whether he will raise his son in silence, Danny answers yes—if he cannot find another way.
See Mr. David Malter
Professor Nathan Appleman
Danny Saunder's experimental psychology professor at Hirsch College is Professor Nathan Appleman. Danny is in conflict with the professor and the content of the class because it is too mathematical and at odds with Freudian psychology. His friend Reuven defends the professor and the methods of experimental psychology.
One of the players on Reuven Malter's baseball team is Davey Cantor. Davey provides Reuven with information about the fierceness of the Hasidic team they are playing. Davey calls the other team "murderers."
Mrs. Carpenter is the nurse who is in charge of Reuven, Tony Savo, and Billy Merritt while they are in the hospital.
Mr. Galanter is the coach of Reuven Malter's high school baseball team. He is a dedicated instructor who teaches in public school and coaches Reuven's yeshiva team on the side.
Danny Saunders' and Reuven Malter's Talmud teacher at Hirsch College is Rav Gershenson. He is considered a fine scholar and a warm person. Reuven considers him an exciting teacher. Danny often has long discussions with the professor in class which Reuven resents. Later Reuven learns that Rav Gershenson has great respect for Mr. Malter's scholarship. Rav Gershenson cannot openly condone Mr. Malter's methods in class because they question the accuracy of Orthodox interpretations of the Talmud.
Sidney Goldberg is the shortstop on Reuven Malter's baseball team. The interplay between Reuven and Sidney during the game between the rival yeshivas heightens the tension of the game.
Dr. Grossman is the physician who attends David Malter, Reuven's father. Mr. Malter suffers a heart attack brought on by his overwork in the Zionist movement, which was pressing for a Jewish homeland after World War II. Mr. Malter ignores Dr. Grossman's warning to get more rest.
See Tony Savo
See Reuven Malter
David Malter, a respected scholar of the Talmud, is Reuven Malter's father. Mr. Malter's relationship with his son is one of respect, warmth, and kindness. In the story, the relationship between the Malter father and son contrasts with Danny Saunders and his affectionless relationship with his father. By accident, Mr. Malter meets Danny one day in the library and begins to tutor him in secular subjects. Reuven only learns later about this relationship. As the story of the friendship between Reuven and Danny progresses from their high school to their college days, the specter of history affects the life of David Malter. He is a staunch Zionist. After World War II, when the survivors of the Holocaust struggle to establish a homeland in Palestine, Mr. Malter works avidly for this cause to the detriment of his health. He has a heart attack from which he does, however, recover.
- The Chosen was adapted for film by Edwin Gordon and featured Rod Steiger as Reb Saunders, Maximilian Schell as David Malter, Robby Benson as Danny Saunders, Barry Miller as Reuven Malter, and Ron Rifkin as the baseball coach. It was directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan and produced by Contemporary in 1982; available from FoxVideo.
- The book was also produced on sound cassettes, with Eli Wallach reading the text; produced by Warner Audio, 1985.
- A short-lived musical adaptation of The Chosen opened on Broadway in January, 1988, with music by Philip Springer and lyrics by Mitchell Bernard.
Reuven is the son of an Orthodox Jewish Talmud scholar. His relationship with his father is one of mutual respect and open affection. They communicate about world problems, as well as personal ones. Reuven is exposed to Talmudic studies by his father, but he is also encouraged to study secular subjects. He is taught by his father not to take things for granted, but to analyze them with a critical eye. Although he is exposed to logic, mathematics, and philosophy, by the end of the book Reuven decides he wants to become a rabbi. Reuven is the narrator of The Chosen, therefore the reader sees the story through his eyes.
Reuven is the pitcher of his yeshiva at the baseball game where his eye is injured by Danny Saunders. This event begins a relationship that takes the two boys through their high school years into college, where they study the same subjects. Each boy decides on a direction that is in contrast to his upbringing. While the reader expects Danny to rebel against the strictness of what he has been taught, the expectation that Reuven will follow in his father's footsteps is ever present. The period in which Reuven matures to young adulthood is a turbulent one. World War II, the Holocaust, and the struggle for a Jewish homeland in Palestine serves as the background for many conversations on the social and political issues connected to the period. As the narrator of the book, Reuven uses the other characters to explain details about various Orthodox sects and how they view important issues like the Jewish state of Israel.
See Reuven Malter
The Malters' Russian housekeeper is named Manya. David Malter is a widower and Manya takes the role of a substitute mother, cooking and cleaning for father and son. Manya expresses a great deal of affection for Reuven and his father, caring for them both with a display of strong emotion when Reuven is injured and when his father has a heart attack.
Billy Merrit is the blind boy Reuven meets at the hospital when he is taken there to have glass removed from his eye. Billy is waiting to have an operation in the hope that his eyesight will be restored after a car accident blinded him. After a visit to his doctor, Reuven calls Billy's family to find out how the operation turned out and is disappointed to learn that it was not successful.
Jack Rose is a boyhood friend of David Malter's from Russia. Mr. Rose is now a wealthy furrier who gives large donations to Mr. Malter's Zionist causes. Reuven and his father express a fundamental difference in viewpoint in their discussion of Mr. Rose. Reuven disapproves of Rose's motives for donating money, as well his joining a synagogue for the sake of his grandchildren and not out of any religious conviction. Reuven's father defends his old friend's actions and the importance of retaining friends even when you disagree with them.
Danny is the son of a Hasidic rabbi. According to tradition, as the oldest son he is expected to take his father's place as the spiritual leader of his congregation. Danny is also a brilliant student of the Talmud, exhibiting a photographic memory for details. But Danny is passionately interested in secular subjects, too, particularly Freudian psychology. His relationship with his father revolves around the study of the Talmud. Outside of discourses on this subject, his father maintains silence with Danny. In his yearning to learn more about secular subjects, Danny goes to the library, where he meets Reuven's father, David Malter. Unknown to his father or to Reuven, who later becomes his friend, Danny is guided in his secular studies by Mr. Malter.
In the opening pages of The Chosen, Danny and Reuven are playing baseball on opposing teams. After Danny causes an eye injury that sends Reuven to the hospital, he goes to see him to apologize. He is first rebuffed by Reuven, but after Reuven's father scolds him for his behavior, Reuven allows Danny to apologize and their friendship begins. It is through this friendship that both boys become transformed during their high school and college years. As the story opens, Reuven expects to become a professor of mathematics and Danny wants to take his father's place as "tzaddik" (righteous one). By the time the book ends, it is clear that Reuven will become a rabbi and that Danny will become a psychoanalyst. Danny and Reuven are contrasted as two young men seeking different professional careers. Their relationship with their fathers is a key element of the story, as well. While both reject what is initially expected of them in the area of a career, it is clear that the author uses these two young men to explore the universal theme of parental rejection. While both move in opposite directions than expected, each finds a way to retain a relationship with his respective father.
Danny's younger brother is Levi Saunders. When Reuven encounters him at Danny's home he appears to be unhappy. He often cries unexpectedly and leaves the room, behavior that frightens and bewilders Reuven. Levi becomes ill the day after his bar mitzvah (a coming of age ritual) and is hospitalized. Levi's illness makes Danny's decision to pursue psychology even more difficult and adds to his guilt about disappointing his father. Reb Saunders does accept Danny's decision to go into psychology, and Levi, frail though he is, will inherit his father's role as spiritual leader.
The personality of Reb Saunders infuses The Chosen with tension. As the spiritual leader of a Hasidic group, he follows strict observances and demands the same from Danny. While Danny's gift of intelligence and a photographic memory satisfy his father during their study of the Talmud, the silence of their relationship baffles Danny. Reb Saunders believes that the silence between them will strengthen Danny spiritually. He knows his son will suffer and he believes that through suffering he will be able to accept his role as "tzaddik." This role would involve acting as an intermediary between the rabbi's followers and God.
Danny brings Reuven Malter to his home to meet his father. Reuven is accepted and frequently attends services with Danny, but he develops a resentment towards Reb Saunders and his harsh, inflexible methods. Reb Saunders likes to test the boys by deliberately making mistakes in the text. When Danny or Reuven catches his error, he is pleased. The warm, open relationship Reuven has with his father sharply contrasts with the wall of silence that Reb Saunders has imposed on Danny. When Reuven complains about Reb Saunders to his own father, David Malter defends the rabbi. Mr. Malter explains to Reuven that devout Hasidim kept Judaism alive for hundreds of years in eastern Europe during centuries of persecution. Reb Saunders does ultimately accept Danny's decision to study psychology, just as Mr. Malter accepts Reuven's decision to become a rabbi.
Tony Savo is an ex-boxer who has lost an eye. He shares a room with Reuven when he is hospitalized to have the glass removed from his eye. Tony is a cheerful character who tries to keep everyone's spirits up, especially the children in the hospital.
Schwartzie is the pitcher on Reuven's team during the baseball game between the competing yeshivas. Schwartzie complains to Reuven about the way Danny bats the ball.
Dr. Snydman is the attending doctor when Reuven goes to the hospital to have the glass taken from his eye.
The themes of The Chosen unfold through the friendship of Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter. They first meet in the contest of a baseball game between their rival yeshivas (Jewish religious schools). Reuven is hit in the eye by a baseball that Danny has hit, breaking his glasses and cutting his eye. At the hospital he at first refuses to let Danny apologize, but after his father rebukes him, he relents. Much to his surprise, he finds Danny a compelling personality. Reuven is attracted to his intellectual brilliance and is also fascinated by the differences in their personal and religious upbringing. Potok uses this friendship as the basis for exploring conflict between fathers and sons, a theme which transcends the particular setting of a Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where both boys live. The differences in their religious upbringing is explored in great detail as the two develop their friendship and get to know one another's fathers. Their friendship is tested by Reuven's antagonism toward Reb Saunders and the way he relates to Danny. It is put to a critical test when Danny is forbidden to talk to Reuven. Reb Saunders disagrees with Mr. Malter's outspoken views on the establishment of a Zionist state in Palestine after World War II. It was the belief of Hasidic Jews at the time that it was wrong to establish a Jewish state. They must wait for the Messiah before the Jews can have a homeland. The friendship between the two young men at the end of the novel has ripened with their maturity. They see the irony of the fact that Reuven was expected to have an intellectual career as a professor and Danny was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead Reuven will become a rabbi and Danny a psychologist. There is the sense in their friendship that by viewing one another's lives, they were better able to formulate their own futures. Each has been enriched by his ability to explore their thoughts and feelings together, and each has been enriched from experiences with the other's father.
Coming of Age
Closely related to the theme of friendship is "coming of age." The novel opens when the two principal characters, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, are fifteen-year-old high school students. Grappling with their respective ambitions, which conflict with their father's plans, they do not realize their goals until the end of the book when they complete college. In the process of determining their careers they must exam their father's lives. Danny has to take the difficult step of disappointing his father by not following in his footsteps as a religious leader. His decision seems frightening because of the fanaticism of his father's beliefs, but the book ends happily when Reb Saunders resigns himself to his son's decision. He recognizes that Danny has been helped by Mr. Malter and that he has helped Reuven choose his career. As Chaim Potok presents this perennial conflict, his message seems to be that fathers, as well as sons, share in the coming-of-age experience. When it happens, fathers need to make the adjustment of letting their sons find their own paths in life.
Throughout the novel, the reader wonders how far Danny will break from his father's strict observance of Judaism. While he eventually must reject many of the outward appearances of a Hasidic Jew, he remains committed to Judaism. As a young boy, he grew earlocks (uncut sideburns) and wore the traditional black clothing of his sect. As a young man, he grew a beard that was never to be cut. When he is about to enter Columbia University as a psychology student, we see Danny for the first time clean-shaven and with trimmed sideburns. He must change his outward appearance to assume his professional role, but it is apparent that inside Danny is still a devoted Jew and has respect for his father. When Reuven asks him how he will raise his son, Danny says the same way his father did, unless he can find another way. This suggests that the impact of his upbringing has been powerful and he must carry it with him even as he changes on the surface. Although Reuven is taking up a religious career, it is evident that he will continue to follow his father's approach to life. The reader expects him to be compassionate and to remain unafraid of examining ideas closely.
The political background of The Chosen is important to Chaim Potok's writing. World War II is a topic of discussion in the early section of the novel. The escape from Nazi persecution and the Holocaust are also important subjects. Later events, like the struggle for a Jewish homeland after the war, becomes a major subject that Reuven discusses with his father. David Malter becomes an ardent spokesperson for the Zionist cause in Palestine. His views are abhorred by Danny Saunders' father, and this causes a break in the friendship of the two young men. Throughout the book many discussions between the characters revolve around important events that helped to shape Jewish beliefs and migrations to avoid persecution. The struggles of the new state of Israel colors much of the background material in the last section of the book.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the reasons Orthodox Jews settled in Hebron and how their settlement there has made it difficult for Israel to withdraw from Hebron and return the city to Palestinian control.
- Compare two different religious groups and discuss where they agree and where they diverge on important spiritual issues and ritual observances.
- Describe several relationships between fathers and sons or mothers and daughters among your friends.
Point of View
Reuven Malter is the narrator of The Chosen, which is written in the first person (the narrator refers to himself as "I"). Potok makes it possible for readers unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism to identify with the conflicts in the story by having it told from Reuven's perspective. Since he is a secularized Jew, his outer appearance is the same as any young man's in American society. The opening scene of the baseball game also adds to the everyday American atmosphere. It is against Reuven's character that much of the conflict resounds. His antagonism toward Reb Saunders casts the latter in a negative light. The reader hopes then that the rabbi's son Danny will rebel and find a life of his own. On the other hand, Mr. Malter is portrayed sympathetically, especially in his warm relationship with Reuven. When his father's outspoken views on Zionism get Reuven in trouble at school, he is subjected to taunting. Because the Malters are both sympathetic characters and Reuven is the narrator, the reader is inclined to side with them whenever a conflict occurs in the novel. In this way, Potok has structured his novel to present his own point of view on controversial political and religious issues.
The Chosen is set in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn during World War II and the period shortly after when Jews were struggling to establish a homeland in Palestine (Israel). The neighborhood is an Orthodox Jewish one in which a number of different sects reside side-by-side. Even though Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter lived for the first fifteen years of their lives only five blocks from one another, they did not meet until their rival yeshivas competed in a baseball game. The opening scene of the baseball game sets the mood for the whole novel. It is the conflicting demands between religion and secular interests that provide the dramatic tension of the story. At no time in the novel do any of the characters leave Brooklyn while they are engaged with one another. Mr. Malter does make a speech at Madison Square Garden, but it is only talked about in the book. Besides the scenes at the ball field, most events take place at Danny or Reuven's house, in the library, or in class. Several scenes are also set in the hospital after Reuven is hurt and David Malter has a heart attack. In this way, Potok has been able to devote a good portion of the novel to educating the reader about Jewish history and religion. Since the different views of Mr. Malter and Reb Saunders about Judaism are at the heart of the conflicts in the novel, keeping the characters indoors is an appropriate setting for their conversations.
The fierceness with which Danny's team plays baseball is a mirror image of the way Reb Saunders practices his religion. He cannot tolerate other views. The baseball game becomes a symbol of the battle ahead between the two fathers and their sons and between the two world views of David Malter and Reb Saunders. It is also a symbol of the conflict within Jewish culture.
Another important image is the eye. Reuven's eye is cut when the baseball smashes his eyeglasses. The little boy in the hospital does not regain his eyesight and Tony Savo has lost one eye. The image of blindness suggests that Reb Saunders is blind to any ideas that he does not embrace. Danny and Reuven suffer from a symbolic blindness of youth, until they come of age and realize the paths they must take to reach their goals.
There are two silences in the book. Reb Saunders has a silent relationship with Danny, only speaking to him during their studies of the Talmud. When Mr. Malter makes his Madison Square Garden speech, Danny is forbidden to speak to Reuven. They maintain a silence between them for two years. The silences symbolize the inability of the sects within Orthodox Judaism to communicate with one another.
The war of liberation in Israel becomes a symbol for Danny's liberation from his obligation to follow in his father's footsteps. There is some symbolism in Danny's brother Levi inheriting his father's role as tzaddik. Levi is sickly, which suggests that the leadership of Hasidism is weakened when the tradition of inheritance is abandoned. The title of the book also has symbolic meaning. The Jewish people are referred to as "the chosen people." Danny was chosen by birth to become a spiritual leader, but he chooses another course. Reuven was not chosen for the role he will assume as a rabbi. Instead, he chooses that role.
The book ends with a hidden symbol. The final chapter is number eighteen. In Hebrew, this number means life, chai. It is a positive symbol with which Potok leaves his characters and readers. Earlier in the novel, Reb Saunders used gematriya, a numerology system that assigns each letter of the alphabet to a number. Since eighteen is life, Reb Saunders contends that nine, which is the difference between "this world" and "the world to come," is half of life and that people are only half alive in this world.
Persecution by the Nazis in Germany before World War II led to the dispersal of European Jews to the United States, Palestine, and other countries. When the full extent of the annihilation of Jews in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany was revealed (six million had been exterminated), a resurgence of interest in establishing a Jewish homeland was ignited. During the 1930s, Jews in Germany began to lose their civil rights and eventually they lost their property and were relocated to the work and death camps that the Nazis established in parts of eastern Europe. Those Jews who left Germany before World War II were the first wave during the middle of the twentieth century to settle outside Europe. After the war, some 200,000 concentration camp survivors came to America. Many of them were Orthodox Jews, and they tended to settle into the type of neighborhood described by Chaim Potok in The Chosen. By the 1950s, the children and grandchildren of earlier Jewish immigrants from Eastern European countries tended to be assimilated into the larger American culture. Many were Reformed or Conservative Jews and had attended public schools. The influx of a new population of Jews who were religious ignited a new interest in Judaism. In Potok's story, David Malter becomes the spokesperson for ardent followers of Judaism. After the Holocaust, there was a widespread feeling within the Jewish community in America that the fervor of religious Jews like the Hasids had helped Judaism survive centuries of persecution. The feeling was that Jews would only be safe from persecution when they had their own country. This became the impetus for the widespread support among both religious and secularized Jews for the establishment of the State of Israel.
While Zionism is regarded as a nineteenth-century movement for Jews to return to their original homeland in the Middle East, efforts to return to Zion date back to the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora in the sixth century B.C. During the Diaspora, when the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem, a leader (a false messiah) would appear, claim to be the messiah, and promise to return the Jewish people to Zion. Notable among them was Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), also known as Sabbatai Zebi, who led a large band of European Jews to Constantinople, but, after he was imprisoned, he converted to Islam to save himself from execution. In the sixteenth century, Jewish Italian family asked the Turks, who controlled the region then, to allow them to establish a Jewish settlement in Galilee. It was not until the late nineteenth century, though, that European Jews had enough freedom of movement and financial resources to begin settling in Palestine. In 1897 the Herzl World Zionist Congress established a worldwide movement. In 1917 the British government established a homeland in Palestine with the Balfour Declaration. It was supported in 1922 by the League of Nations. In 1948 the State of Israel was established after Palestine was partitioned. Support for a Jewish state has not been universal among Jews. The Hasids and other fundamentalist Jewish groups felt strongly that Jews had to wait for the Messiah before returning to Israel. Many Jews who had assimilated, particularly in the United States, felt that an Israeli state in the Middle East would not be viable, that the antagonism of the Arabs would lead to another Jewish annihilation. In the latter part of The Chosen, the Jewish state is being established. Reb Saunders represents the Hasidic view that Jews must wait for the Messiah before returning to the homeland. Mr. Malter represents the Zionist view that a homeland was necessary for the survival of the Jewish people.
Compare & Contrast
1940s: Anti-Semitism was widespread in the Western world in spite of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.
1960s: The consciousness-raising of Americans during the Civil Rights movement helped fuel positive feelings among all ethnic groups, including Jews.
Today: Discrimination toward minorities no longer has official sanction in the United States and other countries, but ethnic conflicts still persist in parts of the world. Hate groups in the United States continue to express racial and anti-Semitic views.
1940s: The State of Israel was still a dream although many settlers had come during the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution.
1960s: Israel was holding its own against attacks by its Arab neighbors. The Middle East became a battleground for the Cold War, with the West siding with Israel and the Soviet Union with the Arabs.
Today: Israel has signed peace agreements with several of its Arab neighbors and has begun the process of turning control of Palestine back to the Palestinians.
1940s: Jewish education was conducted primarily after the regular secular schooling of American Jewish children.
1960s: Jewish day schools began to spring up in areas where there were sizable Jewish populations. They offered elementary and high school religious and secular education to both girls and boys.
Today: Jewish education in the United States has been expanded to include courses for adults, similar to continuing education courses that are given in community colleges.
1940s: Many countries and many parts of the world were engaged in World War II. The United States was unified in its willingness to participate in combat.
1960s: The United States was the only Western country to fight in the Vietnam War. The country was divided over our participation in a war that was perceived as not being winnable or honorable.
Today: Along with other members of the United Nations, the United States has supplied peacekeeping forces in areas like Bosnia, where ethnic conflict raged for several years.
Hasidism began in the late eighteenth century in a region along the Russian and Polish border. Its leader was Israel Ben Eliezer. The traditional Orthodox approach to the study of the Talmud was based on the oral laws that Moses had been given by God on Mount Sinai and their interpretations over the centuries. Ben Eliezer emphasized spirituality and its fervent expression. His praying was characterized by ecstasy and trances, while traditional prayer was restrained. His followers continued his forms of worship and the movement spread throughout Eastern Europe. The leader of each group was considered a "righteous one" (tzaddik). The tzaddik acted as an intermediary between his followers and God, not unlike the relationship between a Catholic priest and his parishioners. Throughout their history, the Hasids dressed in plain dark clothing. The men were forbidden to shave their beards or their sidelocks and they wore fur-trimmed hats. They have been compared to the Amish of Pennsylvania in their dress. While the Hasids represent a small proportion of the Jewish population in the world today, they are credited with stemming the tide of assimilation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Chaim Potok's first novel The Chosen, written when he was nearly forty, was warmly received by the public. The hardcover edition sold several hundred thousand copies and several million were sold in paperback. Reviews of the book were generally favorable, though there was some mild criticism. Critics found Potok's storytelling skills compelling and praised him for his ability to present complex ideas to his readers. His presentation of Jewish history and theological ideas within his stories is a particular area for which Potok is often commended. His ability to present the religious conflicts within Judaism to both Jewish and non-Jewish readers has earned him high praise. The book "broadens the reader's understanding of the wide spectrum of Judaism," commented Beverly J. Matiko in Masterplots. "It is invaluable in providing all readers, particularly young ones, with [the] social, political, and religious history" of Orthodox Jews during World War II. Potok receive the Atheneum Award for The Promise, a sequel to The Chosen, published several years later. He was awarded the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for The Chosen, which also was nominated for a National Book Award.
Regarding the author's narrative style, Dan Barnett in a Critical Survey of Long Fiction observed that "his sentences are simple and reportorial.… The stories develop chronologically." Barnett compares Potok's writing to Ernest Hemingway's, and other reviewers have mentioned the influence of Evelyn Waugh on his work. Lillian Kremer, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, compared Potok's The Book of Lights to Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Like Waugh, Potok explores religious commitment in his characters within the framework of secularized society. Waugh's book is about a dysfunctional English Catholic family. Potok was inspired by it to become a writer. Kremer also compared Potok's style to John Dos Passos' journalistic approach when he writes about the Holocaust. The impact of newspaper pictures after World War II depicted the atrocities of the Nazi death camps. This became the inspiration for Potok's use of newspaper-type headlines in his novel In the Beginning, which was published in 1975. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer found the "narrative … [in The Promise] rigorously and beautifully straightforward." The author's handling of issues facing Jewish women in his 1985 novel Davita 's Harp was well received. Lisa Schwarzbaum, writing in the Detroit News credited Potok with sensitivity. The book, she said, "is a warm, decent, generous and patient exploration of important issues.…" This is a noteworthy achievement when seen in comparison to The Chosen. None of the women in Potok's first novel is portrayed with any depth or has a significant role. Women are seen only in the role of shadowy wife, nurse, teasing sister, or compassionate housekeeper.
The major areas of negative criticism for all of Potok's writing are that it is too sentimental, lacks drama, and that the outcomes of his stories are somewhat contrived. Sam Bluefarb, writing in the College Language Association Journal, remarked that Reb Saunders' "resignation to Danny's break with Hassidism … [is] too mechanical … with Danny … going off to become a clinical or behavioral psychologist." Bluefarb found the dialogue in this climax of the book weak, but he considered it a "minor flaw in a larger pattern: that of tolerance against intolerance, empty ritual against the vital deed, rote learning against eager wonder." While reviewer Philip Toynbee in the New Republic applauded the "perennial theme" of the conflict between sons and fathers, he found the characters too intellectual. He also criticized Potok for sentimentality. "He can be dreadfully wet at times." In writing his review, Toynbee compared Potok's book to a contemporary book written by Herbert Gold called Fathers. He found Gold's characters "larger than life" and more memorable. He did, nonetheless, acknowledge that he would "not quickly forget the strange Hasidic community which Mr. Potok has painted with so much impressionistic skill."
The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family was published by Mr. Potok in 1996. It tells the true story of Russian Jews who became refusniks during Soviet repression in the decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union. As with The Chosen, this book also recounts a rift between a father and son. Felicity Barringer, writing in the New York Times Book Review criticized the book for an "ungainly mixture of the personal and the political … [that is] short on insight in the minds and hearts of the father and son.…" The book, she claimed, has too many voices for coherence, but she still found the story fascinating and the struggle of its characters heroic. David Shribman maintained in his Wall Street Journal review of The Gates of November that Potok "brings a sharp ear, a sharp eye and a soft heart" to the chronicle. In comparison with other Jewish American writers, Chaim Potok is unique in his warm affirmation of the Jewish experience in America and in his deep sympathy for those who struggle to retain spirituality in a secular world. While Potok is the author of nearly a dozen fiction and nonfiction books, The Chosen remains his most popular work.
Ann Hibert Alton
In the following essay, Alton, an honorary research associate at the University of Sydney, provides an overview discussion of Potok's novel.
Chaim Potok's The Chosen focuses on the contrasts between extreme ends of Orthodox Judaism. Despite criticisms that Potok is overly optimistic— Reuven regains his sight, Danny renounces the tzaddikate without being ostracized by his father, Danny and Reuven resolve many of the conflicts they feel between the secular world and Orthodox Judaism—Potok's novel provides us with valuable insights into American Orthodox Jewish life during and after World War II. The novel explores in detail the lives and traditions of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, and creates an apparently realistic portrait of both cultures. The Chosen attempts to explore the place of Judaism in a secular society, provides insights into tensions between faith and scholarship, and suggests Judaism's need to create a new philosophy for the modern world.
The setting is Brooklyn in the 1940s. Reuven's detailed descriptions of his and Danny's homes and Reb Saunders' synagogue appear as set-pieces in the novel. This focuses our attention on plot and theme. This self-contained Jewish world, completely separate from the secular world, suggests the conflict between Hasidic existence and secular life—a theme which is repeated throughout the novel.
Reuven Malter's first-person narrative encourages our strong identification with him. Like him, we are bewildered by Reb Saunders' silence, and are furious when Reb Saunders excommunicates him. The dialogue is direct, uncomplicated, and convincing, though relatively flat. The strong focus on plot and theme results in little richness of tone: as Sheldon Grebstein comments, the novel's "overall color is gray."
An understanding of Judaism is crucial to interpreting The Chosen, which focuses on the opposite poles of Orthodoxy and Hasidism. Hasidism originated in eastern Europe in the 18th century, and its followers immediately came into conflict with the Mitnagdim (opponents), or established religious authorities. The Mitnagdim focused on scholarship and formal prayer, while the Hasidim (pious ones) believed that studying Talmud (the book of Jewish law and ritual) was not as important as making every aspect of their lives holy. By the 20th century Hasidism's focus had changed substantially to value studying Talmud and eliminating anything from the secular world. Hasidism's leaders were called tzaddikim (righteous ones), and were regarded as superhuman links between God and the community. The Hasidim believed that the only correct form of worship was to approach God through their tzaddik, rather than individually as Orthodox Jews did. Non-Hasidic Jews were considered apikorsim (Jews who denied the basic tenets of their faith), and were shunned. This conflict appears during the baseball game between Reuven's Orthodox team and Danny's Hasidic team, which takes on overtones of a holy war.
Two significant historical contexts are World War II and the Zionist movement. Reuven mentions the D-Day invasion in France, the Battle of the Bulge, the death of President Roosevelt, the Germans' surrender in May 1945, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war serves as a reminder of the secular world. No one is immune to its effects, as we see in the different reactions of the Hasidic and Orthodox communities to news of the German concentration camps. Reb Saunders believes these camps were God's will, and speaks of Europe's Jewish communities having disappeared "into heaps of bones and ashes." In contrast, Rav Malter believes that Jews can wait no longer for God or the Messiah, insisting: " 'If we do not rebuild Jewry in America, we will die as a people." He becomes an outspoken supporter of the Zionists, who believe that the American Jews must make Palestine into a Jewish homeland. The Zionists' opponents, of which Reb Saunders is one, believe this would corrupt the Holy Land. Eventually, the United Nations votes to create the Jewish state of Israel. After escalating violence between Arabs and Jews, the Zionist and Hasidic communities feel more unity. These historical contexts suggest the tension between the different sects of Judaism, and more specifically between the Malters' Orthodoxy and Reb Saunders' extreme Hasidism.
The central imagery of The Chosen appears in metaphors of vision. Reuven's eye trouble leads him into another world, one which forces him to leave the pieces of his old identity behind "alongside the shattered lens of my glasses." His new identity incorporates his friendship with Danny along with a much wider view of the world. Danny begins wearing glasses just before he enters Hirsch College. His eye problems suggest his limitations: although he is intellectually curious, he lacks compassion, and doesn't see the wider view of the world that Reuven sees. Once Danny learns empathy, "there was a light in his eyes that was almost blinding."
What Do I Read Next?
- The Promise (1969) is Potok's sequel to The Chosen. In this book, Reuven prepares to become a rabbi but runs into an obstacle in the form of apostate scholar Abraham Gordon; at the same time, Danny, now a psychologist, treats Gordon's disturbed son.
- Fathers (1966) by Herbert Gold also concerns the relationship between a son and a father. Gold presents an irreligious father who is a shopkeeper and a son who feels he can cross the abyss between them in spite of their generational differences.
- Call It Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth. Considered an American classic, this novel depicts the relationship between a young boy and the father who terrifies him. While Gold depicts an affectionate father, the father in Roth's novel has an openly hostile relationship with his son. The story is set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early years of the twentieth century.
- Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev, the nineteenth-century Russian novelist. The novel depicts the struggle of two generations. The protagonist, Bazarov, is a nihilist and wants to destroy the old order (honor, patriotism, love, beauty) represented by the fathers (Kirsanov) and to establish a new order based on rational science.
The novel's main relationships are between narrator Reuven Malter, Danny Saunders, Reuven's father Rabbi David Malter, and Danny's father Reb Saunders. Reuven—whose name in Hebrew means "behold a son"—loves mathematics, but wants to become a rabbi like his father. He is a good scholar, with an open mind, and a compassionate young man. Danny—Hebrew for "God is my judge"—is heir to the tzaddikate, but wants to become a psychologist. Despite his brilliant mind, he lacks compassion, which we see in his feelings of murderous rage during the baseball game, and in his cool appreciation of Hemingway's artistry in describing ants being roasted alive on a burning log. Danny is terribly torn between the demands of his intellect and the traditions of the tzaddikate dynasty. He dreads the thought of becoming tzaddik, for he fears losing his contact with the secular world. Despite this, he already thinks of himself as tzaddik, and feels pride in the respect he's given as heir.
Like Reuven and Danny, their fathers represent opposite philosophical and religious poles. Rabbi Malter, Reuven's father, is tremendously understanding: despite his broad knowledge of Talmud, he is open to ideas from the secular world. His passionate support of the Zionist movement arises from his desire for a meaningful life. Reb Saunders, Danny's father, is tzaddik to his community. He is both a great Talmudist (scholar of Talmud) and a great tzaddik with a reputation for both brilliance and compassion. However, he is also a tyrant, absolute ruler of his household and his community. He cannot accept any idea coming from the "contaminated" or secular world; in his eyes, the Zionist movement is sacrilege and a violation of the Torah. Danny pities his father because he's intellectually trapped in his Hasidic traditions and therefore has an extremely narrow view of the world.
Minor characters include Tony Savo and Billy Merrit, whom Reuven meets while in hospital. These two characters suggest the importance of faith in a world which is often incomprehensible. Professor Appleman, Chair of the Psychology department at Hirsch College, reconciles Danny to studying experimental psychology. Rav Gershenson, the Talmud instructor, cannot allow secular methods of analysis in his class despite his sympathy for them. Danny's brother Levi—whose name in Hebrew means "joined in harmony"—is a "delicate miniature" of his father, and eventually inherits the position of tzaddik. Female characters are virtually non-existent. Only Manya, the Malters' Russian housemaid who "babbles" in Ukrainian, has a name. Reuven's mother is dead, Danny's mother is alive but practically invisible, and Danny's sister disappears into an arranged Hasidic marriage. This lack of women significantly weakens the novel's realism and leads to a lack of balance.
The theme of father-son relationships is central to the novel's underlying conflicts. Reuven's strong relationship with his father is open and affectionate: they can—and do—talk about anything. Rav Malter teaches Reuven compassion, forgiveness, and tolerance. He encourages Reuven to become friends with Danny, and tries to teach Reuven about Danny's Hasidic heritage so that Reuven will understand Danny. Even when Reb Saunders excommunicates Reuven, Rav Malter forbids Reuven to slander him, insisting that it was just this sort of fanaticism which kept the Jews alive through two thousand years of exile. In the end, it is largely because of Rav Malter's attitudes that Reuven chooses to preserve his culture and religion by becoming a rabbi. In contrast, Danny has extremely mixed feelings about his father. Although he fears his father's temper and dreads his continued silence, he believes that his father is " 'a great man.' " However, he dreads being trapped the way his father is: " 'I want to be able to breathe, to think what I want to think, to say the things I want to say.' " When Danny realizes he cannot become tzaddik, he becomes terrified about telling his father, because "if the son doesn't take the father's place, the dynasty falls apart." However, Reb Saunders realizes Danny's intentions and acknowledges him as a man. His acceptance of Danny's decision is influenced by three factors. First, he has come to respect his son's soul as well as his mnind, and knows Danny intends to continue to observe Jewish law. Second, he feels Danny now has the soul of a tzaddik, and that" 'All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik.' " Finally, he realizes the dynasty will not be destroyed: since "the tzaddikate was inherited, and the charisma went automatically from father to son—all sons," Levi will become tzaddik in Danny's place. Despite this happy resolution, Reb Saunders' insistence on the strict traditions of Hasidism at the expense of the secular world have the effect of driving Danny away from his tzaddikate heritage and into his study of psychoanalysis.
Another theme arises from the Talmud's direction that the two things one should do are to choose a friend and to acquire a teacher. After their initial antagonism towards each other, Reuven and Danny find many common aspects of their lives. Despite their different heritages and opinions, they become fast friends. Certainly they illustrate Reuven's father's comment that "'Honest differences of opinion should never be permitted to destroy a friendship.' " Their friendship survives various crises, including a year of enforced silence, as well as major differences of opinion about the value of experimental psychology, mathematics, Freudian thought, and even Reb Saunders.
Both boys have teachers in their fathers. Reb Saunders chooses the traditional method of teaching Danny through public quizzes on his Talmud sermons. Later, both Danny and Reuven review Talmud with Reb Saunders, and through vehement arguments they learn the meanings of various passages. However, Reb Saunders isn't an ideal teacher because his exclusively Hasidic viewpoint completely excludes secular considerations. In contrast, Rav Malter teaches Reuven the heretical "scientific method" for studying Talmud, which includes the use of sources outside Orthodox Jewish tradition. When Reuven successfully uses this method to analyze a difficult passage, Rav Gershenson reveres the explanation but forbids him to use this method in class. Reuven then realizes his father is regarded as an heretic because of his methods and opinions. He also realizes that one can hold heretical notions, as perhaps Rav Gershenson does, and still be a rabbi.
Both boys are serious about their studies, and Danny is committed to extensive reading of secular works. In addition to knowing Ivanhoe, Danny reads Darwin, Huxley, and Hemingway before becoming intrigued with the writings of Freud. It is during his study of Freud that Danny begins to question many of the aspects of Hasidism. He realizes that he can approach Freud in the same way as he approaches Talmud, suggesting his temporary conversion to Freud as a religion. Just as he became upset by various interpretations of Hasidism, Danny becomes increasingly upset by Freud. However, he can't stop reading Freud because of his uncanny insights into nature of man. Here we come to one of the most significant aspects of the book: the tension between faith and scholarship. Danny cannot stop thinking about Freud and his analysis of the psyche of man, and the more he thinks about it the less he believes he can conform completely to Hasidism.
Finally, the theme of silence dominates The Chosen. Danny and his father don't talk, except when they study Talmud. This silence is Reb Saunders' attempt to teach Danny compassion. As a child, Danny recounted a story about terrible suffering to his father to demonstrate his excellent memory, displaying no compassion for the story's victims. Reb Saunders concluded that despite Danny's brilliance he lacked a soul. By enforcing silence between them, he believed that Danny would learn to know pain and suffering. Since a tzaddik must suffer his people's pain, Reb Saunders justifies his actions: " 'I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life.' " In the end, this silence is the price he's willing to pay for Danny's soul.
Two central metaphors suggest The Chosen's meaning. The first is the fly that Reuven gently frees from the spider's web. The fly represents Danny, who is caught in the almost invisible web of history, the rigidity of Hasidic tradition, and his father's silence. Reuven is the outsider from the secular world who sees Danny's predicament, and whose gentle influence frees Danny from his oppressive trap without destroying either the tzaddikate dynasty or Danny's relationship with his father. The second metaphor is the novel's title: The Chosen. Its most obvious meaning suggests the Hasidim themselves, who believe they are God's chosen ones. However, the chosen also refers to the vocations chosen by Danny and Reuven: psychoanalysis and the rabbinate respectively. Finally, Danny himself is the chosen, in the sense that his father chooses to raise him in silence so that he develops the soul of a tzaddik. This fate is the final choice—one which Danny was powerless to make, but for which he suffers the consequences—becoming tzaddik not for his Hasidic community, but instead for the world.
Source: Ann Hibert Alton, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Evans, a professor of English at Bemidji State University, discusses the friendship between Danny and Reuven and its importance within the context of the novel in the following essay.
When Chaim Potok published his first novel, The Chosen, in 1967, it hardly seemed destined for widespread popularity. After all, the novel contains no sex or obscenity, only a trace of violence, and its two principal characters are Jewish school boys who excel academically and enjoy engaging in theological debates with their fathers. Even so, The Chosen, continues to attract a large and diverse body of readers in the United States and abroad. Surely one reason for its popularity is that it presents a compelling story of friendship, a subject of universal appeal.
The novel's plot line at its most basic resembles the folktale type of "The Two Brothers," a recurring type of narrative recognized and named by the great nineteenth-century philologist Jacob Grimm. It is the pattern underlying the biblical narrative of David and Jonathan found in I Samuel in the Bible, which is alluded to in the novel. The typical plot of a friendship narrative usually contains the following elements: two young men become friends and grow as close as brothers, and after some kind of crisis in which one perhaps rescues the other, both become better and wiser. All of these elements are present in The Chosen, but Potok complicates the basic pattern by weaving into it the roles of two supporting characters, the boys' fathers. The fathers have been the principal teachers of their sons and continue to exert a strong influence throughout the novel. Hence, the fathers affect the course of the friendship and, at one point, nearly destroy it.
The Chosen, set in Brooklyn during World War II and the years immediately following, is narrated in the first person by Reuven Malter, one of the main characters. The other, Danny Saunders, is named in the opening sentence where it is also made clear that the ensuing story will be their story: "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." The reason becomes clear as the story begins to unfold. Although Reuven and Danny have much in common, even age, since they were born only two days apart in the same hospital, they live in very different worlds shaped by the religious beliefs of their fathers, who represent polar extremes of Orthodox Judaism.
David Malter, Reuven's father, is a teacher in a yeshiva (a Jewish high school); he is also a writer of controversial religious articles in which he takes a rational and scientific approach to sacred texts. He is widowed, and Reuven is his only child, so Malter enjoys an especially close and warm relationship with his son. Malter often expresses pride in Reuven's achievements and openly shows his affection. Ever the teacher, Malter encourages his son's intellectual curiosity and wants him to be fully cognizant of the world. For example, when Reuven is in the hospital and unable to read, Malter brings him a radio so that he can listen to news reports about the war. Danny, on the other hand, has been brought up to shun the world in the strict and conservative environment of Hasidism. Potok clearly does not expect readers to be familiar with this conservative type of Judaism, for within the dialogue of the novel he uses characters, especially Danny and David Malter, to explain it.
Danny's father is Reb Saunders, a "tzaddik" within his Hasidic sect. This means, as Danny explains, that Saunders is regarded as "a kind of messenger of God, a bridge between his followers and God." As the elder son, Danny is expected to follow in his father's footsteps and inherit his position. The elder Saunders has attempted to prepare Danny for this "chosen" role by training him in a very harsh way, imposing upon him the discipline of silence. Late in the novel, Saunders explains why he has done this. He realized when Danny was only four that he was a gifted child with a photographic memory, and Saunders became afraid that Danny would grow into a cold intellectual instead of a sympathetic and compassionate leader. Thus Saunders turned to the old European method of teaching by silence. Accordingly, he refuses to speak directly to Danny, except when they are engaged in religious debate. Saunders understands that his silence causes his son pain, but he believes the pain will save his son's soul and also will prepare Danny for his role of tzaddik.
The boys first meet when they participate in a baseball game between their respective yeshivas. When Reuven attempts to initiate conversation with Danny, he is asked if he is the son of the writer David Malter. Learning that he is, Danny insults him: "I told my team we're going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon." (Apikorsim is an insulting Hebrew word meaning "sinners"). Reuven retaliates, telling Danny to go rub his "tzitzit" for luck, referring to the fringes of Danny's religious garment. Then, at a climactic moment, Danny compresses his hostile feelings into a powerful swing of the bat and hits the ball directly at Reuven who stubbornly refuses to jump out of the way. The ball pounds into Reuven's glasses, causing the left lens to shatter and cut his eye.
Danny comes to the hospital to apologize to Reuven, who is not sure if his eye will heal. Reuven rudely refuses to accept the apology, but Danny tries again. This time the boys develop an admiration for each other and the seeds of friendship are planted. So it is at the hospital, a place associated with healing, that the two are healed of their hostile feelings toward each another. In addition, this hospital is where both were born. How appropriate that their friendship also comes to life here. The hospital is also the place where the boys begin to mature. Although his vision is impaired, Reuven begins to "see" while in the hospital. He becomes acquainted with fellow patients, people who are not Jewish, and he learns that he shares common interests with them. He also learns about the suffering of others. The man in the bed next to his, a professional fighter, loses an eye he injured in a fight. Billy, the boy in the bed on the other side of Reuven, is blind and is in the hospital awaiting surgery to cure his blindness. But, as Reuven will later learn, Billy's surgery is not successful. Reuven begins to "see" when he lies in the darkness of his hospital room, closes his unbandaged eye, and tries to imagine what the world is like for Billy. When he returns home five days after the accident, his familiar world looks different: "I felt I had crossed into another world, that little pieces of my old self had been left behind on the black asphalt floor of the school yard alongside the shattered lens of my glasses." To a lesser degree, Danny also begins to see more clearly when he visits Reuven in the hospital. There he discovers that David Malter is none other than the kind man who had become his mentor at the public library. Danny also comes to recognize his own dark side, for he confesses to Reuven that at the baseball game he had felt the urge to kill.
From its beginning, the friendship of the boys is affected by their fathers. David Malter, in fact, acts as catalyst, for he encourages his son to become Danny's friend. He reminds Reuven that the Talmud teaches "that a person should do two things for himself." One of these is "to acquire a teacher," and, of course, both Reuven and Danny have found teachers in their fathers. The other is to choose a friend. Malter also explains the nature of true friendship to his son: "A Greek philosopher said that two people who are true friends are like two bodies with one soul." Malter's words prove prophetic.
As the novel progresses, Reuven and Danny become good friends. Reuven wins the approval of Reb Saunders, who demands that he come with Danny to Friday services and then subjects the visiting boy to a grueling debate over a religious lesson. During the boys' last year of high school, Reuven's father suffers a heart attack. While Malter is in the hospital, Reuven is invited to live in the Saunders' home, and so the boys have the opportunity to live as brothers. They share a room and also begin to share their deepest secrets, including Danny's confession that he wants to become a psychoanalyst and reject his "chosen" role. Both boys graduate at the top of their respective classes and then attend the same rabbinical college. During their first year at college, they continue to live as brothers and are very happy.
But the joy of their friendship will be tested by conflict and crisis, and, not surprisingly, the crisis is brought about by their fathers. After the war, David Malter adopts a strong Zionist position and becomes a leader in the local movement. Reb Saunders continues to hold to his conservative beliefs that a new Israel can be founded only by the Messiah, and thus he rejects Zionism. Eventually, Saunders forbids Danny to associate with Reuven, who has adopted his father's cause. Danny, although now a grown man, follows the tradition he has been reared in and obeys his father. However, his physical appearance indicates that he mourns the loss of the friendship. Reuven, as narrator, describes his suffering, particularly his feelings of loneliness and alienation when his father is hospitalized with a second heart attack. For nearly two years the young men do not speak to each other, even though they continue to attend the same college. Their suffering proves that the friendship is not dead, and on one occasion Reuven is comforted momentarily by the touch of Danny's hand. Reb Saunders lifts his ban on the friendship after Israel becomes a nation. Both Danny and Reuven are happy to be friends again and discuss the pain they had experienced. Nevertheless, the separation has helped them mature. By the end of the novel it is evident that the friendship has been essential in helping them become the compassionate men that they now are. Because of their friendship, both Reuven and Danny have come to a better understanding of themselves and of others. They have become independent of their fathers and are able to make sound life choices for themselves.
Source: Deanna Evans, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, Bluefarb examines the main conflicts in The Chosen: those caused by religious beliefs, by differences in generations, and by the split between the head and the heart.
The conflict in Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen functions at several levels. These are: the generational conflict; the temperamental; the conflict between head and heart; the opposition between a petrified fanaticism and a humane tolerance; and, finally, the split between two visions of God and man's relationship to Him. Of all of these, however, it is the opposition between the head and the heart which predominates.
The locale of the story is the Crown Heights section of Williamsburg in Brooklyn from the Depression years to the founding of the State of Israel. Although much of the story's direction is determined by the conflict between Hassidic and Misnagdic traditions in Judaism (as respectively represented by the Saunders and Malter families), it is the conflict between two generations and the Hawthornesque split between the obsessions of the head and the impulses of the heart that carry the major thrust of The Chosen.
The Hassidic view originated as a revolt against the arid intellectual concerns of 18th century scholastic (i.e., Misnagdic) Judaism with its tortuous explications in Talmudic pilpul and its aristocratic disdain for the poor and illiterate Jew. This resulted in the Hassidic heresy (according to the Vilna Gaon) toward the stress on joy and the intuitions. Yet in its turn (especially as portrayed in The Chosen) Hassidism itself evolved into the very thing it had attacked. The distance between the Ba'al Shem Tov (or the Besht, as he was affectionately called by his followers) and his latterday followers is relatively short, as history goes: a mere two hundred years or so; but the distance between the gentle piety of the founder of Hassidism and the fanaticism of his later followers qualitatively spans a greater distance than time alone can account for. Indeed, Reb Saunders, the Hassidic leader in The Chosen, has really reverted to the earlier arid scholasticism which Hassidism in its own beginnings had set itself up in opposition to.
However, in The Chosen, the quarrel between the Hassidim and the Misnagdim (these days, roughly those practicing Jews who are not Hassidim) though decreasing in intensity and bitterness after the slaughter of six million in the Nazi Holocaust, still makes up a substantial aspect of this novel. It is to this group—the Misnagdim (or, to acknowledge Potok's Sephardic, dialectual usage, Mitnagdim)—to which Reuven Malter, the young protagonist, belongs. We must of course remember that many Hassidim consider most Jews beyond their own circle apikorsim (heretics). While it is true that the Misnagdim in The Chosen did not actively oppose the Hassidim, the baseball game between the Misnagdic and the Hassidic schools on which the novel opens, not only triggers the conflict but determines the direction the novel will take. In a sense, The Chosen is a kind of exercise in the "Hegelian" dialectic which the Hassidim and the Misnagdim have engaged in for the last two and a half centuries; however, in doing so, they have articulated their respective visions toward life and God, and, in a sense, have managed to exert some beneficial influence on each other.
One of the central problems in The Chosen is communication—or lack of it. Part of this is deliberate and "chosen." Reb Saunders, in his oddly "Talmudic" way, believes that he can best teach his son the language and wisdom of the heart by forbidding or discouraging, what he considers "frivolous" discourse—what most of us might think of as the minimal conversational civilities. Thus Reb Saunders denies Danny what Mr. Malter the yeshiva teacher freely gives to his son Reuven: warmth, communication, and understanding. On those rare occasions when Reb Saunders permits himself to address Danny, these exchanges take place during the periodic quizzes on Talmud which the rebbe subjects Danny to—or when he blows up in exasperation at his son's passivity in the face of his own religious (near violent) commitments.
On the other hand, the relationship between Reuven and his father is a tender one, made all the more trusting by the easy and affectionate exchange of confidences that go on between them. They, at least, can do what Danny and his father seem unable to do: communicate. In the instance of Reb Saunders it is an admixture of pride and fanatic pietism that prevents any intimacy between himself and his son (rationalized by the elder Saunders' commitment to the Talmudic A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two). In Danny's case it is simply fear of his father that prevents any viable relationship between the two. Conceivably, Mr. Malter, the yeshiva teacher, and Reb Saunders, the Hassidic Talmudist, are of a common generation, if not of a common age; yet it is Reb Saunders' rigidity, and his stiff-necked pride, that give the illusion that he is much older than Mr. Malter—even as Hassidism itself appears to be rooted in an older tradition than its Misnagdic counterpart.
The difference between Mr. Malter and Reb Saunders expresses itself most forcefully in their respective visions toward the Holocaust: Reb Saunders can do little more than shed (very real) tears for the martyred Jews of Europe. " 'How the world drinks our blood.… [But] It is the will of God. We must accept the will of God.' "… Reuven's more Westernized father, on the other hand, attempts to counter the existential nullity of the "world" by becoming ever more active in a resuscitated Zionist movement. Reb Saunders, to the contrary, in conformance with orthodox Hassidism, is bound by the Messianic belief—that only with the coming of the Messiah will Jews achieve the millennial dream, the ingathering of the exiles, the return to Eretz Yisroel.
What we find in The Chosen is a kind of doppelgänger effect—minus the doppelgänger itself. For Reuven and Danny are symbolically two halves of a single (perhaps ideal? Jewish?) personality, each half searching for its complement, which we already know can never be found in an imperfect world (Siz afalsher velt!—It's a hypocritical world! says a Yiddish Koheleth.). In short, no perfection is to be attained, except in unity. But that is precisely the problem of the characters in The Chosen: theirs is a search for that elusive (or illusory) goal. For neither of these two boys growing into manhood can really be said to exist at their fullest potential unless they retain some sort of relationship with each other, which on one occasion is suspended when Reb Saunders forbids Danny any association with Reuven for an interval of about a year, making the two boys doubly miserable.
Reuven, whose father allows his son forays into symbolic logic, the mathematics of Bertrand Russell, ends up a rabbi! Danny, who throughout the novel is coerced into following Hassidic tradition, and is expected to succeed Reb to the leadership of the sect on his father's death, ultimately breaks away. Danny, for want of a better word— the word has been overly used and abused, though it applies here—has been alienated—from his father, from Hassidism, and finally from the Hassidic community itself. In a sense Danny is recapitulating (suffering through) the transitions and adjustments so traumatically demanded by the exodus from the Old World to the New, adjustments required of his father and his followers, "pilgrims" who came to America from the East European shtetle one step ahead of Hitler's kill-squads.
The American Diaspora has also given Danny, Freud and Behaviorist psychology (though initially he has mixed feelings about the latter); but after reading Graetz's History of the Jews, he has found that "Freud had clearly upset him in a fundamental way—had thrown him off-balance".
More significant than the conflict of belief in The Chosen is the conflict between the generations—each of which is so often collateral with the other. The novel itself could as easily, if not originally, have been called Fathers and Sons. For it is as much about the old split between the fathers and their offsprings as it is about the conflicts between religious views and personalities. The sons have been molded by the fathers, though in the case of Danny that influence is a negative one. For Reb Saunders is a fanatic, or at least has those propensities; he represents the archetypal, God-intoxicated Hassid. And it is he who has caused Danny to grow into a tense, coldly introverted personality. Reuven's father, on the other hand, is the tolerant (albeit religious) humanist, opposed both in mind and in heart to the cold scholasticism of the Saunderses.
In the growing estrangement between Danny and his father, the conflict of generations and of visions toward life surfaces. And it is America that is catalyst: the old East European ambiance is gone (unless one accepts Williamsburg as a pale substitute milieu for the vanished shtetle); and in the second instance the old ghetto traditions have become influenced, perhaps eroded—the old acculturation assimilation story—by the pressures of urbanism and secular intellectualism.
The relationship between Reuven Malter and his father is rooted organically, not in principle— self or externally imposed—but in tolerance and mutual respect. Mr. Malter is a yeshiva teacher, yet he can comfortably discuss the secular philosophers with Reuven as Danny's father, the Hassidic Reb Saunders, never can with him. Mr. Malter tells Reuven, " 'the point about mathematizing hypotheses was made by Kant. It is one of the programs of the Vienna Circle logical positivists.' " Yet with all his easy familiarity with philosophical schools and systems, his acumen in grasping them, Reuven's father allows his son to seek truth in his own way (possibly because of his own exposure to the rationalist winds of Western philosophy). Where Danny is coerced into the study of a specific mode of religious thought, Reuven is allowed by his father to roam free through the country of ideas. This seemingly minor approach to pedagogical technique—both fathers are teachers in their own ways—will determine the direction each of the boys will later take as young men.
Reuven's father hopes his son will become a rabbi—but would not coerce him into it. The elder Saunders not only expects Danny to take his place in the rabbinic dynasty when his own time comes (as Hassidic custom requires), but can hardly imagine an alternative. On the other hand fanaticism and intolerance go to form the iron bond that binds Danny to his father. What is important here, though, is that Danny becomes an object, manipulated by his father, rather than a person one relates to. This determines Danny's ultimate hostility toward Hassidism itself, so that when he rebels, he not only rebels against a religious movement but against his father, who is its representative. The worship of God gives way, in the first flush of enthusiasm, to his admiration, if not worship, of a substitute god, Sigmund Freud.
As the novel progresses, Danny the intellectual wizard, Wunderkind, finds himself increasingly boxed in by the restrictive ghetto mentality of the Hassidim. He sees that his father " 'Intellectually … was born trapped. I don't ever want to be trapped the way he's trapped.' "
Ultimately, though, The Chosen is a paradigm of two visions that have not only sundered Judaism but have affected other areas of life—the split between head and heart. The Saunderses seem to have an excess of head in their (paradoxical streak of zealousness and emotional) makeup; but the Malters have heart and head: they are in balance. For Reuven is not only an outstanding student of Talmud but be "has a head" for mathematics and symbolic logic. Like his father, he also has a spark of tolerance which illuminates his own knowledge of human essences as opposed to ritualistic forms.
Reuven's studies are "brain" disciplines— logic, mathematics, philosophy—yet it is he who finally turns out to have more "heart" than the brilliant son of a Hassid. Danny, on the other hand, having been raised in the tradition of the Ba'al Shem, should have been a "heart-and-joy specialist." Yet it is he who is all brain. And this produces a keen irony, since Hassidism, a movement that was originally a revolt against arid scholasticism became (as portrayed in The Chosen) transformed into its opposite. Piety, joy, even learning (a latecomer to Hassidism) becomes pietism, role learning, memorization.
In this split between head and heart, Danny Saunders shows a brilliant flare for Talmudic explication. Yet Reb Saunders, addressing Reuven Malter in Danny's presence, complains," 'the Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. And He cursed me with all the problems of raising him. Ah, what it is to have a brilliant son! … [But] There was no soul in my … Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul.' " Too late: Danny has already "chosen" his own path, and Reb Saunders—plausibly or not—realizes at last that it is impossible to turn back now and give his son the love (or heart) he might once have given him, an act which may well have tempered Danny's mind.
Reuven is not exactly a graubbe yung, a moron, himself. For in one of the terminal scenes, he proves himself a master of many Talmudic brain twisters—and this, ironically, even when he cannot answer one difficult proposition which the teacher himself is unable to resolve! There is enough sanity in Reuven, though—presumably the heritage his father has passed on to him—to bring him to the realization that words themselves have little meaning unless they are rooted in life. If necessary, Reuven will show that he is capable of proving a formidable rival to Danny's father in his ability to untie knotty Talmudic propositions. Yet he also knows that this hardly makes a Jew, much less a compassionate human being. For brilliance, whether in Talmud or in other mental acrobatics, may as often blind the brilliant with their own brilliance as enlighten. The major irony, then, is that Hassidism—the brand portrayed in Potok's novel—though presumably a religious movement of the heart, has become transformed into its opposite.
I should like to say a few words about the symbolic symmetry of The Chosen. Potok seems to have extended himself beyond plausibility here. For the conclusion of this otherwise fine and sensitive work is marred by contrivance. Perhaps this can be ascribed to a symmetry which, while possible in life, somehow doesn't ring true when placed in fictional context. In this symmetry Danny escapes the confines of the Hassidic sect while Reuven stays within the wider boundaries of a more tolerant form of Judaism. Further, in this kind of resolution, Potok unintentionally (and unfortunately) reveals his intentions long before the novel ends. It takes no great effort, to guess, even early in the novel, that Danny will rebel, while Reuven, the "nice Jewish boy," will become a rabbi.
Reb Saunders' "conversion"—his resignation to Danny's break with Hassidism—doesn't convince. The novel is too mechanical in this sense— with Danny, who was to have inherited his father's leadership going off to become a clinical or behavioral psychologist, while Reuven turns to the rabbinate.
The climax of the novel is illustrated by the following exchange the two young men engage in: Danny tells Reuven: "'I can't get over your becoming a rabbi.' " Whereupon Reuven answers: " 'I can't get over your becoming a psychologist.' " Even the dialogue is weak here, betraying the Procrustean ending; it is virtually the antithesis to the brilliant verbal fencing—stychomythia—that the great dramatists from Shakespeare to Shaw were such virtuosos at. In this instance, the dialogue verges on the cliché.
Thus, as Reuven moves closer to Misnagdic— non-Hassidic—Judaism, so Danny moves away from its Hassidic counterpart, giving the novel this mechanical symmetry. The saving feature in spite of the contrived ending is that the choices of the two young men are as much determined by motive and character (or lack of it) as by superimposed plot strictures.
The almost explicit theme of The Chosen, then, is that the more repression one is forced to knuckle under to (no matter the noble intentions), the greater will be the rebellion against the source of that repression; it's the old postulate of an opposite and equal reaction for every action. In other words, the contrivance of the rebellious son against the father and the father's resignation to the son's rebellion—" 'You will remain an observer of the Commandments?' " he pathetically asks Danny— are developments which make it all the more difficult to believe in Reb Saunders as a strong, if stubborn, man.
Still—and this I mean to stress—the "contrivance of symmetry" with which the novel ends is a minor flaw in a larger pattern: that of tolerance against intolerance, empty ritual against the vital deed, rote learning against eager wonder. In any effective fiction it is the process rather than the outcome that is more important. This is especially true in The Chosen. For in this novel Chaim Potok gives us as keen an insight into the split between head and heart, tolerance and fanaticism, the strictures of tradition against the impulses of rachmonis (pity) as has appeared in the Jewish-American novel in a long time.
Source: Sam Bluefarb, "The Head, the Heart, and the Conflict of Generations in Chaim Potok's The Chosen," in CLA Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 4, June 1971, pp. 402-9.
"Back to the Fold," review in the Times Literary Supplement, March 5, 1970, p. 241.
Dan Barnet, essay in Critical Survey of Long Fiction, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1991, pp. 2659-67.
Felicity Barringer, review in the New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1996, p. 33.
Sam Bluefarb, "The Head, the Heart, and the Conflict of Generations in Chaim Potok's The Chosen," in College Language Association Journal, June, 1971, pp. 402-409.
S. Lillian Kremer, "Chaim Potok," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152: American Novelists since World War II, Fourth Series, Gale Research, 1984, pp. 232-43.
Beverly J. Matiko, an analysis and critical evaluation of The Chosen in Masterplots, New York: Harper, 1969, pp. 1121-24.
Lisa Schwarzbaum, review in the Detroit News, March 17, 1985, p. 5.
David M. Shribman, review in the Wall Street Journal, December 12, 1996, p. A1O.
Philip Toynbee, review in the New Republic, June 17, 1967, pp. 21-22.
Edward A. Abramson, Chaim Potok, Twayne, 1994.
A book-length study presenting biographical information about the author and an overview of all of his writings to date. Chapter 2 provides a valuable commentary of The Chosen.
Arthur A. Cohen, "Why I Choose to be a Jew," in Breakthrough A Treasury of Contemporary American-Jewish Literature, edited by Irving Malin and Irwin Stark, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964, pp. 367-76.
Cohen explains that, until recently, Jews could not choose not to remain a Jew, and then he discusses his own religious choices.
Michael Gilmore, "A Fading Promise," in Midstream, January, 1970, pp. 76-79.
Gilmore disagrees with the view of the Jewish community found in Potok's novels.
Sheldon Grebstein, "The Phenomenon of the Really Jewish Best Seller: Potok's The Chosen" in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Spring, 1975, pp. 23-31.
A helpful analysis of the novel, which includes a discussion Potok's style and of the American Dream.
Granville Hicks, "Good Fathers and Good Sons," in Saturday Review, April 29, 1967, pp. 25-56.
In this early review Hicks tries to understand how Potok's "good boys"—and their fathers—are interesting as well as meaningful to a multitude of readers.
Baruch Hochman, review of The Chosen, in Commentary, September, 1967, p. 108.
In this early review, Hochman praises the psychological tension Potok creates as he explores the conflict of generations, but he criticizes the novel's conclusion as belonging to a fairy tale.
Irving Howe, "Introduction to Yiddish Literature," in Break-through A Treasury of Contemporary American-Jewish Literature, edited by Irving Malin and Irwin Stark, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964, pp. 278-300.
Howe's difficult essay analyzes the linguistic, historical, religious, cultural, and literary backdrops against which Yiddish literature is created.
Faye Leeper, "What Is in the Name?" in English Journal, Vol. 59, no. 1, January, 1970, pp. 63-64.
Leeper argues that the novel is engrossing for high school students who understand Jewish religious practices. She cites the multiple meanings of the novel's title as evidence.
Curt Leviant, "The Hasid as American Hero," in Midstream, November, 1967, pp. 76-80.
An analysis which criticizes the writing style in The Chosen.
Daphne Merkin, "Why Potok is Popular," in Commentary, February, 1976, pp. 73-75.
Merkin criticizes Potok's style as "amateurish," his characters as "paper thin," and his moral scheme as "black and white." She suggests that his popularity coincides with a "rediscovery of ethnic consciousness" on the part of his public.
Hugh Nissenson, "The Spark and the Shell," in New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1967, pp. 4-5, 34.
In this early review of the novel, Nissenson critiques Potok's prose, but praises the novel's structure and themes. He particularly admires Potok's treatment of Rabbi Saunders' silence, which is dramatically portrayed against a backdrop of God's silence.
Sanford Pinsker, "The Crucifixion of Chaim Potok/The Excommunication of Asher Lev: Art and the Hasidic World," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, no. 4: The World of Chaim Potok, edited by Daniel Walden, State University of New York Press, 1985, pp. 39-51.
Pinsker explores Potok's treatment of "sensitive" heroes who are trapped between "rival authoritarian figures." Most of the discussion centers around My Name is Asher Lev.
Chaim Potok, "Cultural Confrontation in Urban America: A Writer's Beginnings," in Literature and the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature, edited by M. C. Jay and A. C. Watts, Rutgers University Press, 1981, pp. 161-67.
Potok's description of the expansion of the world of his Brooklyn Jewish childhood.
Chaim Potok, "Reply to a Semi-Sympathetic Critic," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Spring, 1976, pp. 30-34.
The author's response to Sheldon Grebstein's article; Potok defends his language and style in The Chosen and explains how the subject of the novel is "culture war."
Chaim Potok, Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews. Knopf, 1978.
A broad view of the survival of the Jewish people in a variety of "umbrella" civilizations.
Harold Ribalow, "A Conversation with Chaim Potok," in The Tie That Binds: Conversations with Jewish Writers, A.S. Barnes & Co., 1980, pp. 111-37.
Potok, who calls himself a "freak," discusses his efforts to dramatizes clashes that occur between the Jewish tradition and what he calls Western secular humanism.
Karl Shapiro, "The Necessary People," in Book Week, April 23, 1967.
A positive view of The Chosen as an allegory.
Judah Stampfer, "The Tension of Piety" in Judaism, Fall, 1967, pp. 494-98.
Stampfer critiques Potok's portrayal of Hasidim, but praises the book for its detailed documentation of Yeshiva life.
David Stern, review in Commentary, October, 1972, p. 102.
My Name Is Asher Lev, Potok's third novel, is reviewed. Stern analyses the main theme Potok explores in his novels, which is trying to live in both a religious and secular world.
Daniel Walden, ed., Studies in American Jewish Literature, no. 4: The World of Chaim Potok, State University of New York Press, 1985.
A collection of valuable essays about and interviews of Chaim Potok.
Mark Zborowski, Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl, Schocken Books, 1995.
A flawed, over-romanticized but thorough description of the Eastern European Jewish culture which is used as model by contemporary strict Orthodox Jews and some Hasidic sects.