This section contains 8,984 words
(approx. 30 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Edward A. Abramson
SOURCE: "The Chosen," in Chaim Potok, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 7-36.
In the following excerpt, Abramson provides an overview of the major themes, characters, and narrative presentation in The Chosen.
Jewish and Non-jewish Worlds
The Chosen is set largely within a Jewish world, the characters approaching and having to cope with their problems within almost self-contained Jewish communities. The novel opens with a dramatic baseball game between a fanatical Hasidic sect of Ultra-Orthodox Jews and a group of Orthodox Jews who follow the commandments but not the particular idiosyncracies of the Hasids. It is here that we meet Danny Saunders, the son of the leader of the Hasidic sect and heir apparent to his father's post. Because of what we later learn to be pressure from his father not to engage in secular pursuits at all, Danny feels that his team must win, thus proving that they can beat "lesser" Jews at their own game, as it were. He turns the game into a holy war and, in batting a line drive at Reuven, almost blinds him in one eye.
Reuven is the son of the more liberal David Malter, who has been helping choose library books for Danny unbeknown to his father. Danny is a genius and is chafing at the highly restricted Hasidic world that prevents him from expanding his mind with secular reading, particularly psychology. Danny's father, Reb Saunders, has been raising him in silence in order to try to develop his soul since he will be inheriting his father's role as leader of the community. Reb Saunders wants to speak to Danny through Reuven, a process that David Malter understands and encourages. Unfortunately, a hiatus occurs between the two fathers on account of differing views toward the rebuilding of the State of Israel by secular Jews, and Reb Saunders refuses to allow Danny to speak to Reuven.
When Israel is proclaimed a Jewish state and Jewish boys begin dying to defend it, Reb Saunder's resistance begins to break down; he allows his son to speak to Reuven again, and the central plot concern of whether Danny will leave the community to become a psychologist reemerges. Danny does leave the community to study psychology and does not take on his inherited role; this passes to his younger brother. Reuven, perhaps ironically, becomes a rabbi. The story is a highly Jewish one but, as we shall see, the non-Jewish world and Jewish elements from outside the tightly knit communities within which the novel is set impinge upon the central characters with increasing force.
The only non-Jewish characters who appear in the novel are patients or relatives in the Jewish hospital to which Reuven goes for treatment of his injured eye. The most thoroughly presented is Tony Savo, who occupies the bed next to Reuven. Potok presents him as a decent man who has no anti-Jewish prejudice and who illustrates in a minor way the importance of faith. He has been a boxer, and will lose his eye because of punches received in the ring. He sees Reuven eating while wearing a skullcap and comments on the importance of religion. Then he says, "Could've been on top if that guy hadn't clopped me with that right the way he did. Flattened me for a month. Manager lost faith. Lousy manager." A page later he repeats the point about his manager losing faith. While this remark may be interpreted as the manager "losing faith" in Tony Savo, we learn that Tony wanted to be a priest once but chose the ring instead, a "Lousy choice," he now feels. As these points are made against the background of the radio's reports of the fighting toward the end of World War II, one feels the contrast between the violence in Europe and simple faith. It is a somewhat simplistic comparison but does highlight Potok's feeling that violence implies a lack of faith both in mankind and in something greater than man.
Danny arrives and tries to apologize to Reuven, who will not listen to him. Mr. Savo comments:
"He one of these real religious Jews?" Mr. Savo asked.
"I've seen them around. My manager has an uncle like that. Real religious guy. Fanatic. Never had anything to do with my manager though. Small loss. Some lousy manager."
There is a dual implication here in that his manager's loss of faith is seen as being in some way responsible for Tony Savo's plight and the fact that his manager's religious uncle would have nothing to do with him is yet another sign of the manager's faithlessness. However, Danny and the uncle, religious though they are, are "cloppers": "You're a good kid. So I'm telling you, watch out for those fanatics. They're the worst cloppers around." Religion is a good thing, but not the fanatical type of religion followed by the Hasidim; that is destructive. Thus, Potok uses a non-Jew to present the argument at the center of the religious confrontation which pervades the novel. Indeed, much later on when Reuven decides to become a rabbi, he remembers Tony Savo:
"America needs rabbis," my father said.
"Well, it's better than being a boxer," I told him.
My father looked puzzled.
"A bad joke," I said.
The only other non-Jews who appear in the novel are Billy Merrit and, very briefly, his father. Billy's eye operation is unsuccessful, and he remains blind; Mr. Savo has to have one eye removed. Only Reuven completely heals. Indeed, good fortune will follow him throughout the novel, everything he puts his hand to reaching a satisfactory conclusion. It is one of the criticisms which has been leveled at the novel: everything works out well for the protagonists, Potok being at base highly optimistic, at least as far as his main characters are concerned. This issue will be pursued further later in this chapter.
The world outside the Hasidic community has a crucial effect upon Danny Saunders, the central figure in the plot. He tells Reuven that he feels "trapped" by the assumption that he will carry on the generations-old tradition that his family provides the rebbe for the community. He finds study of the Talmud extremely limiting and must sneak off to the public library and seclude himself behind the shelves in order to read books from the secular world. It is noteworthy that "misbehavior" in The Chosen consists of a genius reading the writings of some of the best minds of the last two centuries; one is not dealing here with Danny's reading pornography or popular culture. The nature of his reading highlights the repressiveness of the Hasidic world that his father rules.
Danny points out that once he is rebbe he can read whatever he likes since so far as his people are concerned he can do no wrong. Interestingly, he would then also become a type of psychologist, albeit with an all-pervading religiosity. His people would come to him with their personal problems as well as with those relating directly to religious law. It would, however, be fatuous to see the role of rebbe as simply one of religious psychologist. He would have to be seen to be taking their suffering upon himself; hence Reb Saunder's attempts to develop in him a soul as well as a mind.
In Europe, in another century, the possibilities open to Danny in the secular world would have been far more limited than they are in America. He might have done what Solomon Maimon did in the eighteenth century in Poland; that is, go to Germany and immerse himself in studying the great philosophers and in writing philosophical texts. It is noteworthy here that the subject of Potok's doctoral dissertation was "The Rationalism and Skepticism of Solomon Maimon." Indeed, David Malter cites Maimon as a parallel to Danny. He says: "Reuven, Reb Saunder's son has a mind like Solomon Maimon's, perhaps even a greater mind. And Reb Saunders' son does not live in Poland. America is free. There are no walls here to hold back Jews. Is it so strange, then, that he is breaking his father's rules and reading forbidden books? he cannot help himself."
Danny's attraction to psychology is an attraction to what has become almost a secular religion, with people like Sigmund Freud constituting members of a priestly caste. Not only does Danny discover that he can use the methods of Talmudic study in deciphering Freud's writings, but Reb Saunders finds that he can partially justify his son's choice of vocation in that Danny "will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik." This explains Hugh Nissenson's remark that "Danny's conflict between the secular and the spiritual life has been daringly, and brilliantly resolved." One might also add, given Reb Saunders's perhaps somewhat too easy acceptance of his son's choice, that the conflict has been a bit too comfortably resolved.
Part of the reason for Danny's being drawn to the secular world lies in the comparative weakness of his Hasidic beliefs. Louis Jacobs states that while it is difficult to find a set of Hasidic doctrines that are acceptable to all Hasidic sects, there are "certain basic themes and a certain mood, founded on the pantheistic beliefs that are fairly constant. Among the ideas stressed in every variety of Hasidic thought are: the love and fear of God; devekut, 'cleaving' to God at all times; simhah, 'joy' in God's presence; hitlabavut, 'burning enthusiasm' in God's worship; and shiflut, 'lowliness,' 'humility,' construed as a complete lack of awareness of the self." It is noteworthy that Danny does not illustrate in his life any of these beliefs or actions. Indeed, his concerns are almost entirely with how he can achieve self-fulfillment and pursue the secular studies for which he has a growing passion. One critic has stated that "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 Hasidism, and finally from the Hasidic community itself."
Historical events thrust themselves with great force upon the characters. I have already discussed the reactions of Reb Saunders and David Malter to the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel, events that Potok uses to show basic theological differences between the two men and the two religious groups. Potok also mentions the death of President Roosevelt and devotes most space to the Malters' reaction, with Reuven weeping and his father deeply grieved. They are placed within the context of the typical American reaction to the tragic event, as seen by descriptions of people stunned or crying in the street. Danny feels that the death is a "terrible thing," but we are not given Reb Saunder's reaction. This lack of information heightens the reader's sense of the Hasidic leader's apartness from secular, non-Jewish events. It may show some of Potok's bias in favor of David Malter, who has earlier told Reuven that he "should not forget there is a world outside."
The "world outside" includes those American myths that surround the Jewish communities in the novel, in particular that of the American Dream. Although the Hasidic community tries to insulate itself from American influences, this proves impossible. Danny Saunder's interest in secular subjects and his eventual decision to become a psychologist implies something about the openness of American society to new possibilities; however, the fact that Danny must relinquish his Hasidic identity in order to take advantage of these possibilities also tells us something of the demands that America makes on those who would achieve their dreams there. Sheldon Grebstein observes that despite its strong Jewish content, The Chosen is a highly American novel:
Accordingly, the American cultural myth or fable at the heart of The Chosen is essentially that of both the Horatio Alger stories and The Great Gatsby—the dream of success. In this version the story is played out by an improbable but possible "only in America" cast of Hasidic and orthodox Jews, who demonstrate that people can still make good through hard work, and that severe difficulties can be overcome by pluck, integrity, and dedication. At the story's end the novel's two young heroes are about to realize the reward they have earned: a limitless future. In sum, The Chosen can be interpreted from this standpoint as an assertion of peculiarly American optimism and social idealism. Very simply, it says Yes.
Indeed, The Chosen does say "Yes" for the two adolescent Jewish boys. Reuven is elected president of his class, receives virtually all A grades, and graduates summa cum laude. He also has the choice of becoming either a mathematician or a rabbi. Danny also graduates summa cum laude; is accepted to do graduate work at Harvard, Berkeley, and Columbia; will become a psychologist; and finds that his father accepts his decision not to inherit the tzaddikate but pass it on to his sickly brother instead. This optimism underlies the novel, even at those points where negative elements enter into it. One always has an ultimate belief that the two boys are so basically decent, and are perceived by the author as being so worthy, that in the end their actions will lead to success, and problems which seem very thorny indeed, like Danny's inevitable confrontation with his father over the leadership of the community, will be resolved.
Potok manages to permit the boys to remain strongly Jewish while taking advantage of the opportunities offered by American society. In this he differs from most other Jewish-American authors whose Jewish characters frequently must sacrifice important aspects of their Jewishness in order to take advantage of American opportunity. Indeed, the majority of the characters in twentieth-century Jewish-American writing do not view the relinquishment of their Jewishness as a major sacrifice. Describing a symposium held by the Contemporary Jewish Record (Commentary's predecessor) in 1944 entitled "American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews," David Daiches observes that "Many of the contributors to the symposium seemed to think that their Americanism had subsumed their Judaism. One writer went so far as to equate the 'Declaration of Independence' with certain Jewish prayers, and Lincoln with Hillel."
The enormous effect of the American Dream or, in Danny's case in particular, American opportunity as an inherent aspect of the Dream, is stated in part by Loren Baritz when he writes that the Jew had almost always "managed to resist the particular physical locale of his Galut by remembering his participation both in history and in the Jewish community. But because when we moved to America we responded to a psychological reversal promised by the American Dream—a promise of the end of Galut—we became more susceptible to the incursions of American utopianism, of America's rejection of the past, of age, and of continuity with Europe." While Danny does not take his attraction to American opportunity so far as to reject the past, to reject Judaism, one can see in his rejection of his father's Hasidism an awareness that American society will permit both a secular profession and a Jewish life. However, even America makes demands of those who wish to use its gifts: Danny Saunders cannot retain his Hasidic way of life and his Hasidic appearance and still become a successful psychologist in America. As Baritz also writes: "Because of America's rejection of the past, of the fierce commitment to the notion that this land will start anew, the American Jew is pulled apart. To be a Jew is to remember. An American must forget." Danny must "forget" some of his Hasidic ways.
Reuven Malter has less intense choices to make than Danny since his type of Judaism does not prevent him from entering the secular world while retaining his Jewish identification. Ironically, he decides to become a rabbi and remain totally in a Jewish environment. Reuven, however, is aware of the necessity that some Jews feel to prove their Americanism. As narrator he points out that some of the teachers of non-Jewish subjects ("English teachers") in the Jewish parochial schools felt it necessary to organize competitive baseball leagues "to show the gentile world that yeshiva students were as physically fit, despite their long hours of study, as any other American student." This feeling arises as a result of America's entry into World War II and the desire on the part of most Jews that they should be seen as able to do their part in the war effort. Indeed, because baseball is the quintessential American game, "to the students of most of the parochial schools, an inter-league baseball victory had come to take on only a shade less significance than a top grade in Talmud, for it was an unquestioned mark of one's Americanism, and to be counted a loyal American had become increasingly important to us during these last years of the war." Thus optimism about America does not totally remove the Jews' awareness of their differences from the majority culture or the need to temper the more extreme external manifestations of their faith on the part of those who wish to become more a part of mainstream American society.
Potok has reservations concerning the importance of the American Dream and American optimism in The Chosen. He asserts that "A covering hypothesis regarding the popularity of my work should take into account the many Jewish and non-Jewish readers of Potok … in France, Germany, England, Holland, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and elsewhere, including the Soviet Union. What do all those people know about Horatio Alger,… American optimism and social idealism, and the American reverence for the pioneer?" This comment appears in an essay in which Potok addresses himself to remarks made by Sheldon Grebstein a year earlier. While one can sympathize with Potok's point to a degree, it remains true that with its American setting, the nature of Danny Saunders's belief in what is possible, Reuven Malter's basic faith that his future lies in his own hands, and the ultimate success of these characters and, indeed, of David Malter in achieving his goals, the novel exudes a type of optimism that is strongly associated with America. That this optimism and level of success can exist elsewhere is not in doubt; that it underlies, indeed pervades, The Chosen is what gives the book its American ethos. Non-Americans can appreciate and understand this ethos because of general cultural dissemination of American ideals and, not inconsiderably, because of the attitudes that Potok describes in the novel.
The Value of Education
The Chosen could be viewed as a paean to education. All the central characters are intensely and joyfully engaged in learning, and Potok imbues the quest for knowledge with great excitement. Jews have long placed great value upon learning, with communities in Europe supporting, if at a meager level, Talmud students so that they could pursue their studies. It was felt that a valuable and holy gift for a wealthy man to present to a son-in-law was an extended period of financial support after the marriage so that the young man could engage in study. Supporting a religious scholar was a mitzvab (good deed), as his study of the holy books reflected upon the religiosity of the family.
The positive attitude toward education can be seen in the verve with which the protagonists engage in complex discussions of difficult texts. Reuven describes a discussion between Reb Saunders, Danny, and himself thus: "It was a pitched battle. With no congregants around, and with me an accepted member of the family, Danny and his father fought through their points with loud voices and wild gestures of their hands almost to where I thought they might come to blows." They do not come to blows, however, as Reuven realizes that "Reb Saunders was far happier when he lost to Danny than when he won. His face glowed with fierce pride…. The battle went on for a long time, and I slowly became aware of the fact that both Danny and his father, during a point they might be making or listening to, would cast inquisitive glances at me, as if to ask what I was doing just sitting there while all this excitement was going on: Why in the world wasn't I joining in the battle?" Reuven does join in and finds that he is "enjoying it all immensely…."
One rarely comes across an author who can convincingly present learning as the most exciting aspect of the lives of adolescents. One does wonder at times whether Potok does not overdo this total commitment to books. Where, for instance, is the boys' awareness of sports, popular music, girls. Have they no hobbies? Neither Reuven nor Danny is particularly interested in baseball despite the opening of the novel, and after Danny tells Reuven that his sister had been "promised" at the age of two to the son of one of his father's followers any interest in girls disappears from the story. Reuven attends her wedding, finds her beautiful, but his concern in this novel for female companionship is over. As one might expect, in the film version of the novel a good deal more is made of Reuven's feelings for Danny's sister. She even seems somewhat attracted to him. As in the novel, however, nothing comes of this attraction.
Although Reuven is not Hasidic, Potok seems to have burdened him with many "Hasidic" restrictions: "'Youth' does not have high status in the Hasidic community, since it is regarded as only a preliminary to adulthood…. Boys and girls do not meet ambiguities and uncertainties concerning their expected behavior, since the role of youth is to obey their elders and behave in a way that is appropriate for Hasidic people." Reuven is certainly freer than Danny in his opportunities to interact with the secular world and in the fact that he does not feel "trapped" as does Danny. However, because Potok makes Danny a genius and Reuven a near-genius neither boy can be viewed as a representative adolescent.
Both fathers are committed to intellectual pursuits, and the home life of both boys at times resembles a classroom. Indeed, Potok uses the different methods of teaching employed by the fathers to illustrate different approaches to Judaism that are of great importance in the novel. He writes of "the lecture on Hasidism by David Malter to his fifteen year old son (the scientific Western-oriented method of teaching) and the synagogue-set exhortations of Reb Saunders (the traditional Eastern-European method of teaching)." Reb Saunders also engages in Talmudic discussions with his son which, as we have seen, permit disagreement over possible interpretations. These discussions, however, are carried on in private, but, even privately, Reb Saunders would never permit David Malter's method of textual emendation to be used in his presence. In an interview in which Potok was asked what kind of teacher should "teach truths," he replied: "I would say that the teacher should be somebody like Reuven Malter's father. In many ways he exemplifies the Jewish adventure." Education is an inherent part of that adventure in Potok's work.
David Malter is Potok's ideal teacher because despite his Orthodoxy he does not eschew the twentieth century and what it can offer to his understanding of Judaism. This attitude extends to his method of teaching his son and to his expectations of the breadth of his son's interests. Reuven can discuss any topic with his father, although all those discussed are important and worthy ones. David Malter has a respect for secular knowledge that is lacking in Reb Saunders, and a regard for analysis of all issues. Reb Saunders's narrowness, on the other hand, reflects Hasidic views: "If one is educated in Jewish matters, he will rank high only if his education is used to intensify his Hasidic behavior. Education in itself, without Hasidic observances, has little status value. Occupation, income, and residence, too, carry status value only if they supplement Hasidic behavior."
The result of these differing attitudes toward education is that Danny's attempt to pursue secular studies becomes a source for conflict in the novel whereas Reuven's father is proud of his son's ability in mathematics. Indeed, although David Malter is proud that Reuven has decided to become a rabbi, he tells him that he would have been very pleased if he had decided to become a university professor of mathematics. He knows that Reuven will not give up his Judaism, and he considers a profession in the secular world to be honorable and worthwhile.
Reb Saunders's way of educating his son has apparently failed to give him the "heart" necessary to find the role of tzaddik attractive despite his desire to study psychology and his seeming interest in the more "human" Freudian approach as opposed to the clinical orientation of Dr. Applemen, his psychology professor. One critic observes:
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….
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 Hasid. 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 Hasidism, 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 late-comer to Hasidism) becomes pietism, rote learning, memorization.
The results of their educations may have produced quite different people, but Reuven and Danny do share an important set of ideals. Like their fathers they are committed to learning and to its best attributes: thoughtfulness, a desire for self-improvement, and a respect for those whose knowledge is greater than their own. In addition, the sort of learning upon which they devote most of their time is religious in nature. This has given both of them a belief in the importance of morality and of the spiritual aspect of man. In short, their belief in the importance of learning has made both of them decent, caring people who are oriented toward higher things.
It is interesting to note that The Chosen appears to appeal to adolescent boys and girls when, as has been pointed out, it is not concerned with what might be thought to be the "normal" interests of this age group. An English teacher in a high school in Midland, Texas (not noted for its high Jewish population), has written that "Although there are some difficult aspects in studying this book in high school, after some preliminary research into the practices of the Jewish religion the students on the junior level read the book and rated it highest in interest of all the major works that we studied this year." The other books studied included The Red Badge of Courage, Huckleberry Finn, and The Old Man and the Sea.
One can speculate that the appeal of the novel lies in its tapping of the honorable and more "spiritual" side of the adolescent personality. Both Reuven and Danny exhibit a wide range of very admirable traits, and the issues they confront are clearly of importance and have a moral dimension. Also, there is the appeal of the exotic, the sense that information about a secret world is being imparted. Indeed, education of non-Jews and of Jews who are not Hasids provides one of the important appeals of the novel. There are long historical passages, virtually lectures, which David Malter delivers to his son concerning the history of Hasidism and of the Jews. There are exciting Talmudic discussions that culminate in six pages describing a class recitation in which Reuven tackles a very difficult passage in the Talmud using different critical methods. Potok manages to make this recitation gripping in its presentation (it continues over four days of class time) on account of both the subject matter and the understanding that the teacher, Rav Gershenson, is believed not to like the method of textual emendation that Reuven's father uses in his articles and which, finally, Reuven is forced to use himself. Since this teacher will be instrumental in deciding whether or not Reuven is permitted to enter the rabbinate, there is an added tension.
Danny lectures Reuven on the intricacies of Freudian psychology and finds that it is necessary to learn German in order to read Freud in the original. While it might be very difficult for even bright high school pupils to identify with either boy on an academic level because of his brilliance, it is not unreasonable to think that admiration of them would be a common feeling. In regard to Danny's reading of Freud, Potok does create difficulties for him in that even with a knowledge of German he cannot grasp the nuances of the case descriptions. A neat relationship between the Talmud and Freud seems to point the way forward: "He had been going at it all wrong, he said, his eyes bright with excitement. He had wanted to read Freud. That had been his mistake. Freud had to be studied, not read. He had to be studied like a page of Talmud. And he had to be studied with a commentary."
One critic states that even using this method it is unlikely that Danny could fully understand Freud since "such a boy at his age could not confront the works of Freud in any meaningful way. The problem is not one of intelligence—he might grasp the dictionary meaning of the words—but lack of life experience…." The pupils in Midland, Texas might well have more experience of "life" than does Danny with his cloistered upbringing.
The Chosen is an "education" novel, a bildungsroman. The teenage characters develop in mind and character as time passes, their experiences heightening their understanding of themselves and of their place in the world. This form is a very common one in Jewish-American literature:
The education novel exactly reproduces the central experience of American Jewry: the movement from the enclosed shtetl (Eastern European village) environment, with its highly ordered and pervasive moral system (diffused by peasant lore and a necessarily realistic view of humanity), to the exacting demands of an industrial society…. America, coming with such suddenness to so many, intensified the cleavage between the domestic religious culture of the Jews and their external lives in a country which regarded them as an anomaly. The novel repeats the pattern of this process by describing a youth out-growing the protection of the home and encountering the beckoning life without.
The world of the Hasids described in The Chosen is very similar to that of "the enclosed shtetl" in its imposition upon its members of a rigid moral and behavior code that attempts to ignore that of the majority culture. As we have seen, both Danny and Reuven are greatly influenced by American society, this causing in Danny's case the cleavage of which Sherman writes. The Jewish writer's version of the education or "initiation" novel tends to place more stress upon family relations than does that produced by his non-Jewish counterpart. This, also, can be clearly seen in The Chosen as the relations between the Saunderses and the Matters, and between the respective fathers and sons, occupy the center stage.
Fathers and Sons
Book 1 of The Chosen begins with the following quotation from "Proverbs": "I was a son to my father … / And he taught me and said to me, / 'Let your heart hold fast my words….'" This epigraph sets the tone not only for the first section of the novel but for the novel as a whole in that father-son relationships are central to the development of the plot and to an understanding of the various conflicts that occur. The virtual absence of women heightens the centrality of the male relations but, of course, it eliminates any consideration of the complexities of family life, a theme that is very common and important in Jewish-American writing. This somewhat artificial situation (unlike Reuven, Danny has a mother and a sister, but they are almost invisible) parallels the somewhat artificial adolescences of the two boys. A feminine element in the plot would have provided a more balanced family life to offset the male-dominated, religious and educational intensity of the novel.
The stress upon fathers parallels a similar stress in Judaism, where God is King, Judge, and Father. When "authority is involved, God the King or Judge; when He offers love and mercy, even to the wicked, He is Father. Symbolic Hebrew religion deceives some into thinking Deity is really fatherhood." Thus, the father can be viewed as a fount of wisdom, one who takes upon himself some of the aura of the Godhead. This can be clearly seen in Danny's reaction to Reb Saunders and, in terms of respecting his knowledge, ethics, and religiosity, in Reuven's reaction to his father.
One of the saying of the Baal Shem Tov illustrates the close links between learning, the Godhead, and fatherhood which exists both in Hasidic and non-Hasidic Judaism: "'The Lord does not object even if one misunderstands what a man learns, provided he only strives to understand out of love of learning. It is like a father whose beloved child petitions him in stumbling words, yet he takes delight in hearing him.' There is honor between father and son. The father is the benevolent teacher; the son is the obedient student." As Malin observes here, the father-son relationship is one of honor and respect, in the words of the Baal Shem Tov. Despite any differences that occur between the fathers and sons in The Chosen, a high level of respect remains in force between the father-teacher and his son.
The strength of the two father-son relationships provides a central focus of the novel in that even when rebellion against the father takes place, as it does in Danny's case, the father is not presented in a totally negative light. Potok shows that Reb Saunders's reasons for acting the way he does are not selfish ones but are in the service of higher things: he is seen as a tzaddik who suffers for his flock and for the Jewish people and not merely as a tyrannical father. Danny may resent the pressures put upon him by his father, but he still respects and loves him; Reuven has no reason not to love and respect his father, as he is presented as the most admirable character in the novel.
The ways in which the two boys are raised can be seen as reflecting the fanaticism or tolerance of their fathers. Reb Saunders's raises Danny in silence in order to try to give him a suffering soul that will enable him to feel the pain of his people. Danny's brilliant mind is not sufficient in itself for a tzaddik, and his father is appalled that as a child Danny seems to lack the human compassion to match his intellectual brilliance. While Reb Saunders is undoubtedly a fanatic, he does suffer greatly because of this method of raising his son. As we have seen he is willing to make the sacrifice in order that a higher cause be served: that of creating the right sort of leader for his people. A Time for Silence was the tentative manuscript title of the novel. This shows the importance Potok placed upon silence and its implications for all of the characters, although it has its greatest effect upon Danny and his father.
Reb Saunder's method largely fails in that its primary effect is to drive Danny out of the community and into the secular world. We must wait for The Promise to see the positive effects of this method. While a fascination with secular literature explains much of Danny's lack of interest in Hasidism, it seems probable that the harshness of his father's method of raising him contributes to his distaste for both Hasidism and the role of tzaddik. One critic feels that Reb Saunders manages virtually to nullify Danny's personality in that "Danny becomes an object, manipulated by his father, rather than a person one relates to." Danny's personality is somewhat flat rather than round, his conflict with his father and Hasidism being more interesting than he is. His ultimate choice of Freudian as opposed to clinical psychology is presented more in scientific than in humanistic terms, in spite of his comments concerning the more "human" appeal to him of the Freudian approach. In his rebellion, Danny reacts to the intolerance of his father.
By contrast, Reuven Malter is raised in an atmosphere of tolerance and love that is exhibited daily rather than assumed to exist without outward signs. However, David Malter is not a tzaddik and does not have the responsibilities toward a group of people and the preservation of a dynasty which Reb Saunders does. Because he is not a Hasid, David Malter is not enclosed in a world which makes the sort of extreme demands that Reb Saunders must face daily. Nonetheless, Malter is committed to the preservation of the Jewish people and fights tirelessly for the creation of a Jewish state. His illness and recovery reflect the condition of the Jews as they move from Auschwitz to Israel. He is also an observer of the commandments, which requires a great deal of discipline in his life. His outgoing love for his son and his respect and tolerance for his needs must be seen in relation to his attitude toward Judaism and toward the secular world, attitudes which we have seen to be far different from those of Reb Saunders.
David Malter teaches his son respect for tolerance. He tells him that "Honest differences of opinion should never be permitted to destroy a friendship…." He illustrates this attitude in his reaction to Reb Saunders, who has bitterly attacked him because of his stance concerning the creation of the State of Israel. Reb Saunders is a fanatic, he feels, in his anti-Zionist stance and the extent to which he is willing to heap scorn upon those who disagree with him. Yet, when Reuven finds that his hatred of Danny's father is growing daily, David Malter defends Reb Saunders on account of his faith and the way in which faith such as his has preserved the Jewish people through two thousand years of persecution. He prefers a rational approach: "He disagreed with Reb Saunders, yes, but he would countenance no slander against his name or his position. Ideas should be fought with ideas, my father said, not with blind passion. If Reb Saunders was fighting him with passion, that did not mean that my father had to fight Reb Saunders with passion." The difference between the two fathers cannot be more clearly seen than in this disparate approach toward the treatment of those with whom one disagrees.
One critic views the two approaches in terms of rationality and mysticism: "In the crisis of generations and cultures, the son of the rationalist, who has come to love the tradition because he has been reared in love, chooses to sustain it; the son of the mystic, reared in silence and seeming hatred, turns toward secular science." While the observation is basically sound, one must question whether Reb Saunders is a mystic, since he places so much stress upon intellectual analysis of the Talmud and does not exhibit a particularly Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) leaning toward religious texts or experience. As noted earlier, Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was much concerned with nonintellectual, mystical experiences as a means of understanding God. Reb Saunders, as indeed Hasidism in general, has deviated from this total stress upon "simple," mystical experience and has established practices that the Baal Shem would not have wholeheartedly supported. While most Hasidic groups still place some emphasis upon religious ecstasy achieved through dance and certain repetitive tunes (the Hasidic nign), particularly for the mass of Hasidim, they would nor differ very much in their regard for the types of intellectual analysis of Talmudic texts for the more able among them, as illustrated in the religious discussions between Danny and his father.
In their concern to pass on the Jewish heritage to their sons, both fathers use what could be described as "rational" methods. At the end of the day it is not so much the method used (silence is used by Reb Saunders as a "rational" method to produce a particular result) as the underlying feeling of love each boy either sees or does not in his father which produces the results of which Hochman writes. The son's awareness of his father's love becomes related to the son's feeling for the type of Judaism for which the father stands. To Reuven, Judaism is as much what his father is as it is a tradition and a body of laws and commandments. In choosing to become a rabbi, Reuven reflects both his love of Judaism and the love which his father, as the primary symbol of Judaism in his life, gave to him; in rejecting the tzaddikate, Danny reflects both his distaste of the narrow Hasidic world and the lack of love that his father, as the primary symbol of Hasidism in his life, forced him to endure.
Form and Content
Potok's style in The Chosen has been criticized for the flatness of the dialogue, the subservience of characterization to thematic considerations, and a degree of contrivance to create a symmetrical plot structure in which various plot developments end in a neat balance. Sheldon Grebstein writes: "Its style ranges from undistinguished to banal. Its tone is subdued and utterly humorless. Its pace is moderate. Its overall color is gray. With all these handicaps that The Chosen—this really Jewish book—should have attained best-sellerdom seems more than a phenomenon; it is truly a miracle. But miracle or not, its 38 weeks on the list is an obdurate fact demanding explanation." Before exploring the possible explanations for the novel's popularity, some analysis of these adverse criticisms is necessary.
The dialogue in the novel is uninspiring and very slow-paced; however, the subjects being discussed are often highly intellectual in content. They are historical, religious, moral, or related to the intricacies of personality as exhibited by high-minded and complex individuals. In short, the dialogue is suitable for the subjects and themes that are central to the novel. Where it does fall short is in its lack of differentiation between different characters, there being little subtlety of nuance in the speech patterns of one character as compared to another. Because the tone of the conversations is almost always highly serious, there is a marked lack of the lighter side of the characters' personalities.
This one-sidedness can also be seen in character descriptions. There is a mechanical quality about most of them. To show suppressed emotion, certain characters' eyes frequently become "misty"; others gesticulate wildly when they talk, or "nod vaguely" to show their preoccupation with other matters than the ones being discussed. Moreover, these physical traits are repeated throughout the novel to the point of becoming too predictable.
As Potok himself points out in an article I will discuss shortly, the characters speak Yiddish almost all of the time. Yet, there is no attempt in the novel at mimesis through setting apart the non-English phraseology by syntactical methods or through presenting it in, say, perfect English as does Henry Roth in Call It Sleep, another novel in which many of the characters (the Shearl family and most of their neighbors) speak Yiddish almost all of the time.
One aspect of The Chosen which could have created difficulties through interference with the narrative line is the educative aspect. There are a number of "lecturettes" concerning Hasidic and Jewish history which, like the cetology chapters of Moby-Dick, intrude into the plot. Indeed, one critic has referred to the novel as "documentary fictionalized." She goes on to write that "Claustrophobic reading, and really, description of 'customs and traditions' however well done, are not basically what a novel should concern itself with." Perhaps, but the depiction of "customs and traditions" is both relevant and suitable for The Chosen. Indeed, the intrusions into the novel of this material can be regarded as essential to an appreciation of the plot. Not only is reference made to it during other portions of the text, but Potok uses this educative material in part to explain the various actions and beliefs of the characters. It therefore takes on more importance than mere extraneous material would normally have. While it is not dramatized, neither is it just "dead" exposition.
By no means have all critics found The Chosen wanting in all respects; many have had positive reactions and at least one discovered that having liked the novel "somewhat" in April, liked it "quite a lot" in June. He goes on to say that "The Chosen has stayed in memory and, staying, has grown." Most reviewers have praised the sincerity, warmth, and humanity of the novel and have responded to the decency and believability of characters presented in such a sympathetic manner. As Granville Hicks observes: "it is hard to make good boys interesting; it must have been even harder for Chaim Potok to bring to life a pair of good fathers, good in different ways. But he succeeded, and the result is a fine, moving, gratifying book." Indeed, one of the strongest aspects of the novel is the characters, despite the weakness of the dialogue. They remain interesting as people because of what they represent and the skillful manner in which Potok shows their struggles to reach admirable but difficult goals while remaining ethical individuals. There was a danger that these characters would become allegorical, mere symbols or types, thus losing their individuality and humanness. Potok has avoided this pitfall through the creation of a story so interesting in the moral issues raised, in the conflicts presented, and in the exoticism of its setting and themes that we are caught up in the flow from the narrative which, in turn, lends the characters weight and depth.
Daphne Merkin states that Potok has consciously eschewed the "attempt to write about situations or characters that might stand in for humanity in general, and has concentrated instead on the particular, writing from an insularly Jewish perspective that denies broader implications." Unquestionably, Potok's world in The Chosen is firmly rooted in a particular place and culture, the characters illustrating the beliefs and practices of a distinct minority. One can think of many novels about which the same observations could be made. This does not mean that "broader implications" are denied. Isaac Bashevis Singer speaks of the importance of literature having an "address": "I would say that literature must have an address, that it just cannot be in a vacuum. This is very important. Many modern writers would like to get rid of this and write about humanity—general humanity, just abstract human beings. This cannot be done…. In other words, literature cannot operate in a void above humanity. It is strongly connected with a group, with a clan…."
If within their particular situations the emotions and reactions of the characters are "true to life," they can be said to exhibit realistic human traits, and Potok is certainly writing within a realistic convention. Indeed, as Sheldon Grebstein points out, "Perhaps its greatest achievement stylistically is its verisimilitude, the solidly detailed portrayal of place, time, weather, scene, object, gesture."
The novel is related through the first-person point of view of Reuven Malter, a reliable narrator who, despite his central position in the tale, does not exude infallibility but takes the audience with him in his difficulties in coping with a Hasidic world that is as strange to him as it is to the reader. Reuven mirrors the reader's emotions as he tries to figure out how to cope with Reb Saunders and remain the ethical person whom his father has tried to create. Reuven and David Malter illustrate the plight of any tolerant individual come face to face with intolerance, the doubts and hesitations of the narrator and the advice of his father providing paradigms of a struggle for decency which has universal implications. Reb Saunders illustrates the plight of a man intimately concerned with ethics whose goals, honorable though they may be, cause him to feel justified in using highly dubious means in their attainment. Not an evil man, he exemplifies the complexities involved in moral decisions. His ghettolike world and sense of absolute sureness render him almost impervious to the force of contrary argument. This is his tragedy and that of his son who must attempt self-fulfillment within the narrow world of absolutes that his father hands down or who must leave that world for another.
In an essay entitled "A Reply to a Semi-Sympathetic Critic," Potok attempted to answer the criticisms of his work stated by a number of critics but, in particular, those of Sheldon Grebstein. He states that in a novel he prefers "simplicity to complexity" and compares his problem with dialogue to that faced by Ernest Hemingway. Just as he had to decide how to present the Yiddish which his characters speak almost all of the time, Hemingway had to decide how to communicate in English the Italian and Spanish of, respectively, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, as well as these languages in various short stories. Potok writes that "He solved it in his way (and it has been said of him too that all his characters sound alike), and I solved it in mine. Style is the right word in the right place, as Jonathan Swift pointed out."
While Potok's dialogue is not as evocative as Hemingway's spare, stripped syntax, Hemingway's influence is clear and frequently results in our being aware of wider implications in the understated phraseology that fills The Chosen. Unfortunately, this awareness often fails to occur. When Potok has a character say nothing in response to a statement about which we know he has strong feelings, the effect can be that we fill in the gaps, as Potok probably intends, or that we feel something important has been omitted, the author having taken the easy way out. The problem arises when we do not feel that there is enough information for the gaps to be filled or that the technique is too transparent. Indeed, this problem occurs, at times, in Hemingway's writing as well; however, he manages to make the style work far more frequently than does Potok in this novel.
Potok points out how painstakingly his novels are written, with numerous revisions and rewritings. He says that he uses "a kind of talked style … and one would do well to remember who the 'talkers' are in each of the novels and the extent to which their style of talking varies within the limitations of simplicity I have set for them." He is correct, when he says that one must remember who the "talkers" are. One tends to change the word stresses in one's own mind according to how one understands the personality of the character who is speaking. While he does provide verbal clues to some speech patterns (Reb Saunders and Rav Gershenson, in The Promise both use "Nu," meaning "Well?" or "What?" when they speak), Potok does not make syntactical changes to imitate Yiddish speech patterns as does Bernard Malamud or, as I have mentioned, use flawless English as does Henry Roth. It may well be that reliance upon characterization, without appropriate changes in the diction and syntax of the various speakers, in order to distinguish speech differences is inadequate—too much reliance being placed upon the subjectivity of the reader. Although Potok's style does work to an extent, "simplicity" can be taken too far.
The popularity of The Chosen is due to a number of factors, not least of which is the exoticism of its setting. Both Jews and non-Jews found the descriptions of the Hasidic world in particular to be fascinating. This closed world had not been presented before in such an accessible manner or with such interesting characters as Reb Saunders and Danny. The educative aspect of the novel aided its popularity in that readers were not only being told a story with an interesting plot but were learning something at the same time. I have already discussed the optimism and American social idealism that fills the book and supports the American pre-delection for believing that hard work and decency are rewarded in the end. One must not forget, either, the quality of the presentation of the conflicts in the novel or the appeal of the moral tone with which these conflicts are presented. The Chosen achieved best-sellerdom through a stress upon morality, learning, and sincerity presented by unusual characters who inhabit a strange world and in whom the author obviously believes. Far from being a shortcoming, the lack of violence, sexuality, and deceit in the novel proved to be a strong recommendation.
It is interesting to note what changes to the novel the filmmakers thought necessary in order to widen its appeal even further. In addition to the increased romantic interest between Reuven and Danny's sister referred to earlier, the Hasidim are made less objectionable. The notion of Danny's trying to kill Reuven in a baseball game that the Hasidim have turned into a Holy War is absent from the film. Religiosity is toned down. Although Reuven attends a seminary and says that he wants to become a rabbi, we never see either he or his father praying. Reuven occasionally wears a skullcap; his father never does. The stress is upon the contrast between the Americanized Makers and utterly un-Americanized Saunders and Hasidim.
Reb Saunders is portrayed somewhat harsh, particularly in relation to Zionism, but his sympathetic aspects are stressed in Rod Steiger's performance. As a result of omission of the information that Danny's brother is permitted to take on the tzaddikate, the crisis created by Danny's refusal is not satisfactorily resolved.
The strongest aspect of the film is its atmosphere and verisimilitude. The setting and characters inspire believability (Potok himself appears briefly as a Talmud teacher). It is not as effective as the novel in the creation of the religious conflict but does nonetheless remain remarkably close to the book in its depiction of intra-Jewish and Jewish-American tensions.
This section contains 8,984 words
(approx. 30 pages at 300 words per page)