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The Chosen ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (4)

Two boys lives become intertwined when Reuven Malter is struck in the eye and nearly blinded by a line drive off the bat of Danny Saunders, during a fiercely contested baseball game between Malter's Orthodox Jewish high school team and Saunder's Hasidic yeshiva.  The boys, sixteen at the time of the game, live in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the 1940's.  Reuven, whose widowed father is a professor and something of a liberal humanist who uses scientific methods to study the Torah, is bright and gifted in mathematics.  Danny, a true genius with a photographic memory, is the son of Rabbi Isaac Saunders, a tzaddik, whose Hasidic followers view him as a God's messenger, a bridge from them to God.  The post is hereditary and Danny is being rigorously, even brutally, prepared for the day when he will take over.  As Reuven finds out when he gets to sit in on a Hassidic service, Danny's  preparation includes a relentless grilling on the substance of Reb Saunder's sermons, which takes place in front of the entire congregation.  It also includes a traditional silent upbringing--Danny's father hardly ever speaks to him about anything other than Talmud.

The relationship between Danny and Reuven is guarded at first.  The Hasids view the merely Orthodox Jews as goyim or apikorsim, that is practically as heretics.  Danny had only been able to convince his father to sanction a team by promising that the sect would gain status by crushing the apikorsim, hence the ferocity of his play.  But when Danny comes to the hospital to apologize for what he acknowledges was a deliberate attempt to harm him, David Malter urges his son:

    "Reuven listen to me.  The Talmud says that a person should do two things for himself.  One is to
    acquire a teacher.  Do you remember the other."

    "Choose a friend," I said.

    "Yes.  You know what a friend is, Reuven?  A Greek philosopher said that two people who are true
    friends are like two bodies with one soul."

    I nodded.

    "Reuven, if you can, make Danny Saunders your friend."

    "I like him a lot, abba."

    "No.  Listen to me.  I am not talking about only liking him.  i am telling you to make him your
    friend and to let him make you his friend."

They do, of course, become good friends and, as it turns out, Danny is in particular need of a friend.  He is strongly drawn to the study of Freudian psychiatry and does not wish to succeed his father.  It is later revealed that David Malter was aware of this because he had seen Danny often in the local library and, at Danny's request, had recommended books for him to read.

Danny's father eventually admits that he is aware of this too, and he uses Reuven as a vehicle to communicate with and learn more about his own son.  The two boys attend college together, Samson Raphael Hirsch Seminary and College, Danny studying experimental psychology (Freudianism is neither accepted nor taught there) and Reuven studying philosophy.  The natural tensions between the Orthodox and the Hasidim are exacerbated by their differing responses to the Holocaust and the creation of Israel.   Men like Reuven's father become committed Zionists, but Reb Saunders insists that the Holocaust must be the will of God and that only with the coming of the Messiah can Jews reestablish the nation of Israel.  Finally, when David Malter gains some local celebrity for a Zionist speech at Madison Square Garden, Reb Saunders orders Danny not to have any further contact with the Malters.

This sudden separation comes at an especially difficult time; David Malter's health is in decline as a result of overwork and the approach of graduation means that Danny will have to confront his father with his desire to earn a doctorate in psychology rather than accept his hereditary role.  It also causes Reuven to hate Reb Saunders, whose silence towards Danny had always seemed cruel to him.  But as the nation of Israel becomes a fait accompli and in the face of violence by Arabs against the Israelis, the Hasids relax their opposition to the Zionists.  Reuven and Danny are reconciled in time for the surprising final confrontation between the Saunders, at which Reuven is once more the medium for communication between the Reb and his son.

This is a wonderful and warm hearted novel, a coming of age story, an immigrants tale, most of all a novel of ideas.  At one point David Malter tells his son:

    "Human beings do not live forever, Reuven.  We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if
    we measure our lives against eternity.  So it may be asked what value is there to a human life.
    There is so much pain in the world.  What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are
    nothing more than the blink of an eye?"  He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on.  "I
    learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing.  But the eye that blinks,
    that is something.  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."

This search for meaning animates the entire story.  Reb Saunders has found meaning in serving God and his followers, but the others have sought meaning in reason rather than faith.  David Malter finds meaning, and hopes to give the Holocaust itself some meaning, in his political work as a Zionist.  Reuven, with the study of logic, and Danny, with the study of psychology,  both think that they have found the things that will fill their lives with meaning.  But as these four men interact, the sons, whose interests must be seen at least in part as intellectualized reactions against traditional faith, realize just how hard both fathers, but particularly Reb Saunders, have worked to fill their lives and their sons' lives with meaning.  In the final pages Danny's father reveals the reason why he undertook such a demanding means of rearing his son.  First he explains his duty as a father:

    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

But even when Danny was still very young, Reb Saunders realized that in his boy the dazzling intellect was growing into the dominant force:

    ...I cried inside my heart.  I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, 'What have you
    done to me?  A mind like this I need for a son?  A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son,
    compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I
    want from my son, not a mind without a soul!'"

In these beautiful and moving final passages, Reb Saunders eloquently summons the specter that stalks  the modern world: the way in which reason has crowded out faith, the disastrous triumph of mind over soul.  This figure who has seemed so inscrutable, even fanatical, emerges as one of the most human and decent characters in all of literature.  It becomes evident that he is the true center of the novel, just as the philosophy he espouses, the need for the soul to predominate over the mind, must be at the center of our existence.

This is an extraordinary book, one of the truly great American novels.  I can't recommend it highly enough.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Chaim Potok: HomePage
    -Chaim Potok (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "chaim potok"  (b.Feb. 17, 1929, New York, N.Y.)
    -ESSAY: THE BIBLE'S INSPIRED ART (Chaim Potok, NY Times Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of FROM THE FAIR The Autobiography of Sholom Aleichem (Chaim Potok, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PAYMENT IN FULL By Henry Denke (Chaim Potok, NY Times Book Review)
    -Chaim Potok at  Seattle Pacific University
    -WEBIVORE: Potok, Chaim
    -INTERVIEW: Giving Shape To Turmoil:  A Conversation with Chaim Potok (Michael J. Cusick, Mars Hill Review)
    -Chaim Potok: The Artist:  Similar to his fictional character, asher lev, chaim potok has been a lifelong painter. below are replicas of his original paintings.
    -AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Chaim Potok (McDougall Littell)
    -PROFILE: Lifelong habit:  For writer Chaim Potok, the sentences have 'had to get out' for 5 decades (Mary Carole McCauley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE:  The Chosen by Chaim Potok (SparkNote by Ilana Kurshan)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW: The Chosen (Felice Aull, Ph.D., Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEW: of  DAVITA'S HARP By Chaim Potok (Paul Cowan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BOOK OF LIGHTS By Chaim Potok (Johanna Kaplan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE GIFT OF ASHER LEV By Chaim Potok (Nikki Stiller, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE GATES OF NOVEMBER Chronicles of the Slepak Family. By Chaim Potok (Felicity Barringer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok (Nancy Jacobsen, Rocky Mountain News)

    -HASIDISM. (The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition. 2000)
    -Religious Movements Homepage: Hasidism
    -A Life Apart: Hasidism in America (pbs)
    -Hasidism (
    -FAQ on Hasidism
    -The Hasidic Stories Home Page
    -LINKS: Hasidic Web Resources
    -LINKS: Resources for Hasidism

    -Jews for Morality
    -ESSAY: An Orthodox Paradox (David Brooks, Intellectual Capital)
    -ESSAY: Judaism Without Limits (Jack Wertheimer, Commentary)

    -Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
    -The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    -The Simon Wiesenthal Center
    -Literature of the Holocaust (Al Filreis, English 293, U of Penn)

    -BUY IT: The Chosen (1981)
    -INFO: The Chosen (1981)(imdb)
    -Film Notes: The Chosen (U. of Penn)