Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
Chaim Potok’s first novel, The Chosen, received the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award (1967) and was nominated for the National Book Award (1968). On the surface, The Chosen seems to be a sentimental story about two Jewish boys coming of age at the end of World War II and becoming friends despite differences in devotion to their faith. On a deeper level, the novel is about conflict within relationships, between fathers and sons, between friends, and within orthodox Jewish life in the United States. In keeping with Orthodox tradition, the few female characters in the story are separated from the main drama, playing their supportive roles largely in the background as housekeepers, wives, sisters, or nurses.
The reader learns a great deal about Judaism through Reuven’s memoirlike viewpoint, which includes scenes told mostly through indirect dialogue. The story also includes reflection and explanation, as Reuven recalls events as if he is sharing them with a modern listener, or reader. Still, the reader is drawn into Reuven’s emotion as he moves from initially rejecting Danny’s friendship to becoming Danny’s confidant. As he comes to understand Danny, he grows to dislike Danny’s tyrannical father on his friend’s behalf.
This viewpoint serves to illustrate a metaphor of vision throughout the story. The story opens with Reuven nearly losing his sight when a baseball breaks his glasses during a ball game. The relief in the successful operation is pitted against the less fortunate result of eye surgery performed on two fellow patients; the surgery also leads Reuven to see the world in a new light. His world is no longer confined to his Jewish neighborhood. He learns to place his life within the context of world events, notably the end of World War II and what that war means for American Jews.
This larger vision is also expressed in Danny’s personal struggle. Danny is driven to explore the world beyond his Hasidic roots. His brilliant mind is bored in his traditional studies, and he secretly spends free time at the public library, reading everything from the classics to Jewish history and Freudian psychology. As he reads he becomes more discontent with the future chosen for him by Hasidic law. He is to inherit leadership of his people. As he explores the broader world, his eyesight grows worse and he eventually must use eyeglasses during his college studies.
War is another metaphor woven through the story, a metaphor that points to conflict on many levels. The baseball game that brought Reuven and Danny together is an athletic competition between yeshivas. Reuven’s yeshiva is very liberal, and Danny’s Hasidic team turns the competition into a holy war for Hasidic superiority. Unlike many similar books about Jewish life, The Chosen does not create conflict between Jew and gentile but between two orthodox Jewish boys. They live at the extreme ends of their faith, but they both study the Talmud, follow Jewish custom, and struggle with Jewish identity in their stance on Zionism at the end of World War II. After Reuven’s father becomes involved in the Zionist movement and makes a speech supporting the establishment of Israel as the new Jewish state, Reb Saunders forbids Danny or any of the Hasidic Jews to associate with Reuven. Conflict between students in regard to Zionism and Israel also causes problems at Hirsch College.
This rift within the Jewish community is a central point for another issue the novel addresses: silence. Reuven is confused by the strange relationship Danny has with his father, in which the two only speak to one another when they debate the Talmud on Shabbat, or the Sabbath. Danny wishes he could speak with his father but assumes his father’s silence comes from his role as a spiritual leader. Reuven’s father, however, is a scholar who tries to help Reuven understand Hasidic customs. Things get worse between Reuven and Danny when Danny’s father uses Reuven as a means to speak to his own son. Reuven grows to resent this, though his own father encourages him to allow it as a true friend to Danny.
Eventually, Reuven becomes furious with Reb Saunders’s treatment of Danny, as this same silence is forced upon the two friends because their fathers have different opinions about the creation of a Jewish state. Without Reuven, Danny has no one to speak with. Eventually, Danny becomes very ill, and Reuven’s father has a serious heart attack. Just when the boys need each other most, they are forced apart, lonely and miserable. Eventually, violence in the newly created Jewish nation stuns everyone in the community, and Reb Saunders lifts the ban on communication between the boys. Still, Reuven cannot resolve his distaste for how Danny’s father handled the issue. Finally, Reuven’s father, still recovering from his heart attack, convinces Reuven that Reb Saunders is looking to him to help him communicate with his son.
Danny has by now decided to tell his father that he has no intention of taking over the role of tzaddik and that he plans to study psychology instead. He expects his younger brother to become a spiritual leader, though he has not been groomed for the role. In an emotional scene, Reb Saunders explains to Reuven, and thus his son, the reason for the silence. He had feared that Danny’s brilliance would supersede his compassion. He also had wanted to ensure that Danny would understand those he was meant to lead. The silence was intended to create suffering and understanding, ensuring that his son’s soul was worthy of a tzaddik. Though Reuven believes this is cruel treatment, Danny’s respect for his father provides understanding. Reb Saunders has accepted Danny’s choices in life because he realizes that in pursuing psychology Danny will be a tzaddik to the world and not merely his community.
Potok’s novel delivers a broad understanding of Judaism, of what it means to be a Jew in America, and of social, political, and religious history from around the world. In 1969, Potok published The Promise, a sequel to The Chosen, continuing the story of Danny and Reuven.
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