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[665] The Chosen – Chaim Potok

1chosen

” I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. “

Set in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn just after World War II, The Chosen tells the story of a brilliant young man struggling to reconcile his obligation to become a rabbi with his desire for a more secular life. Danny Saunders is on the brink to manhood. His father, a revered Hasidic rabbi, has raised him in silence to save his soul. He sees that Danny’s mind is so keen that his soul would be lost if there’s not some awful tragedy to break his soul into a living space. So Reb Saunders raises him in such a way to prepare him for rabbihood, never speaking to him until Danny learns to listen to the silence, to hear that silence in the cry of millions of his people as they were slaughtered, starved, and beaten by Hitler’s army.

A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, Reuven. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.

Danny both adores and fears his father. As the elder son, he is to succeed his father to become a rabbi. At a young age, he feels both sustained and, increasingly, suffocated by his traditional community. He attends yeshiva where Jewish studies preponderate over the English subjects. Though he never considers abandoning Judaism, he agonizes over whether he dares seek lives in the larger world. This conflict plays out in the friendship of two boys, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders. Unlike the Saunders, the Malters are observant Jews, what is known as Modern Orthodox today, but their life is a world apart. They are both 15, live within five blocks of each other but neither of them knows of the other’s existence, until a baseball game in which Danny incurred a seious injury to Reuven’s eye. A tender and supportive friendship ensues.

As you grow older you will discover that the most important things that will happen to you will often come as a result of silly things, as you call them –“ordinary things” is a better expression. That is the way the world is.

The Chosen is a compelling book full of warmth and pathos of the dealings between fathers and sons. It’s a rare book that sheds insight into the variety and profundity of Jewish traditions. The discussion of Jewish laws and ethics may be overwhelming at times and thus sets the pace of the book. Danny and Reuven have overcome the difference in their religious factions and remain friends. They have become an alliance , a mutual support for each other during the adolescence years in which the secular world intrudes from time to time. Owing to the period, the book shows how daily life centers, just as it had for Jewish boys in the Old World, on local yeshiva, or parochial school, where in addition to state-mandated secular subjects, the primary focus was on the study of Jewish sacred texts.

291 pp. Ballatine Books. Mass Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

4 Responses

  1. I enjoyed this book very much, as well as all Potok’s novels, except maybe his very last one, published shortly before his death. it was the usual Potok’s style of writing

    • I, too, enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s a different kind of a coming-of-age story. It is back-warming. Although I’m not familiar with the different factions in Jewish religion, I find the discussion of the laws and ethics very enlightening.

  2. Loved, loved, loved this book!

    • It’s a very different kind of coming-of-age story, filled with nuances of personal struggle and religious creed. It’s an endearing book.

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