The Chosen | Critical Review by Edmund Fuller

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Chosen.
This section contains 1,018 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Edmund Fuller

SOURCE: "The Chosen, Rare, Reverent Novel," in The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 1967, p. 18.

In the following review, Fuller offers high praise for The Chosen.

We are happy to report on a novel of exceptional beauty and freshness. For many readers its combination of theme place and time will be astonishing; elements that seem old, remote, exotic, are shown to be contemporary, close to familiar scenes and rich in meaning for other sorts of lives.

The book is The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. At a time when hedonism, vulgarity, brutality, cynicism and corruption are commonplace themes, those of this book are reverence, responsibility, holiness, learning, tradition and the pain of defending these things against the world.

The place is the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The time runs from the closing years of the second World War to about 1950. The action is altogether inside a Jewish community that has distinct divisions within itself.

The story begins amusingly on a baseball field with a group of boys about 15 years old. One team is from a school of Orthodox Jews, the other from a school of Hasidic Jews, whose beliefs arc so intense and whose ways so rigorous that they regard the merely Orthodox with scorn.

Reuven Malter, who is the narrator, is the son of a respected Orthodox scholar and teacher of the Talmud, the body of Jewish religious law and tradition. Danny Saunders is the son of Reb Saunders, a tzaddik, a holy man, austere and learned, who is the chief rabbi of the local Hasids. Their teams compete with unusual ferocity, like a holy war. Danny hits a ball so hard that it strikes Reuven, the pitcher, in the eye. He is taken to the hospital for eye surgery. From this hostile first encounter, a devoted friendship evolves between Reuven and Danny.

These boys are still part of a closed community—almost closed. Its divisions are from within more than without. They are not yet touched by modes of rebellion so conspicuous today (of course neither were youth in general so affected until some years later). But change, and in a sense, rebellion, are present.

The rule of Reb Saunders, the tzaddik, over the Hasids is virtually absolute, though benevolent. His person is so venerated that the faithful try to touch him as he passes. By tradition, the role of tzaddik is dynastic. Already Danny is the recognized young tzaddik whose whole training is for the succession to this shepherdhood.

Danny, a brilliant scholar, does not simply read books; with his photographic mind he memorizes them. Inevitably in the public library he explores beyond the range of the approved studies of his training. In this, Reuven's father observes that Danny is like the great Spanish Jew of the 12th century, Maimonides, rabbi and physician, who burst the bounds of the pietism of his early training and enlarged the application of Jewish philosophy and theology in his time.

Danny does not want to succeed his father. Reuven, son of the Orthodox teacher, whose father would like him to be a mathematician, wishes to become a rabbi. The development of these extraordinary boys, the relationships that each has with the father of the other, are drawn with tenderness and tension, humor and reverence. Reuven finds disconcertingly that he is a mediator through whom the austere rabbi can communicate with Danny, otherwise sealed from his father by a puzzling silence on the elder's part.

Do not mistake this for a book of interest to Jews only. Its themes are profound and universal, its appeal is to any thoughtful reader, as the musical folk play, Fiddler on the Roof, utterly Jewish, has charmed the world. Christendom knows such enclosed groups, clinging to traditions of dress and appearance (the Amish, for instance).

Bitter sectarianism among the devout is also a Christian experience. The struggle to hold fast that which is good is known everywhere. The book touches other universals, too, as a drama of fathers and sons, with the sons' necessary assertion of independence, even in bonds of love.

Chaim Potok (the jacket reveals a strong, fine face) handles superbly the delicate balance of elements, keeping this enclave related to the outer world, from the baseball game to international events, including the establishment of Israel, which occasions some surprising and fascinating reactions. He writes with wisdom, compassion, humor and again, reverence.

Hear Reuven's father, after two heart attacks: "A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here."

The portrayal of Reb Saunders is a triumph. In Talmudic exposition before the congregation he deliberately introduces mistakes to test Danny—and Reuven on one occasion. We feel the weight of his personality and his quality of holiness, but also a chilling remoteness, as in the seemingly cruel silence he has always maintained with his son except in Talmudic study. We are led to understand the reason even for this, at last, by the wise interpretation of Reuven's father.

When the Hasid realizes that Danny will go from the religious seminary into the world to study psychology at Columbia, he weeps, but blesses him: "All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik." His ultimate question: "You will remain an observer of the Commandments?" receives Danny's solemn assurance. This is not a change of faith, but of vocation.

This is a rare book of a sort all too easily buried from sight under slam-bang promotions of books in the hour's vogue. Anyone who finds it is finding a jewel. We are much moved by The Chosen. It will stay on our bookshelves and be read again.

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This section contains 1,018 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Edmund Fuller
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