Places Discussed

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*Brooklyn

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*Brooklyn. Largest of five boroughs of New York City and the setting for the entire novel. The diverse ethnic groups living in Brooklyn’s brownstone row houses include many Jews, such as the novel’s central characters, who live in the borough’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

Malter home

Malter home. Brooklyn home of Reuven Malter, a teenage Orthodox Jew who lives with his widower father, a teacher in a Jewish parochial school and a scholar of Jewish law. The Malters live downstairs in a brownstone house with a tiny yard on Lee Avenue, which is shaded by Sycamore trees; paintings by famous Jewish artists line the walls in their home’s entry hall. Curtained French doors, trimmed with Ionic columns, open into the father’s windowless study, where a yellow desk lamp glows. The senior Malter wears a skullcap and glasses as he sits hunched over a large desk covered by a green blotter and stacks of papers, and writes religious articles. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases line walls of his study, where he and Reuven drink tea and discuss the history of two sects of European Jews. They say prayers and eat the Shabbat meal in the kitchen.

During his recovery from an eye injury in a softball game, Reuven sits on the back porch in a lounge chair and inhales scents of grass and flowers. His room has a bookcase, a narrow bed, a desk covered with papers, and a small radio with a program schedule featuring classical music. Its walls display maps of Europe and pictures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the scientist Albert Einstein. Reuven’s cat likes to sit on the sill of a window facing an alley.

Saunders Home

Saunders Home. Brooklyn home of Reuven’s new friend, Danny Saunders, a member of a Hasidic Jewish family. His father, Isaac Saunders, is a rabbi who leads a small sect of Hasidic Jews. The three-storied brownstone of the Saunderses serves as residence, synagogue, and counseling office, and the family lives on the second floor. Men in black caftans, black hats, and heavy beards often wait outside.

The large downstairs room in which temple services are conducted contains the Ark, the Eternal Light, and two podiums covered with red velvet. Walls are painted white, and black velvet drapes cover the windows. Light bulbs dangle from the ceiling. Chairs with small tables for scriptures are placed in rows with an aisle down the middle.

A conference room and study occupy the third floor. Here, the senior Saunders discusses Talmud passages with Danny and Reuven. Saunders sits in a red leather chair with carved wooden arms, behind a black desk. Hundreds of musty-smelling leather-bound religious books are shelved in tall bookcases and stacked on chairs and the floor. A quote from the poet John Keats, “Beauty Is Truth, Truth Beauty, That Is All Ye Know on Earth, and All Ye Need to Know,” is etched over the door. Murals on walls in the vestibule portray world-famous religious leaders, scientists, and authors. Here, Danny reads forbidden history and philosophy books, especially Sigmund Freud’s theories.

Samson Raphael Hirsch Seminary and College

Samson Raphael Hirsch Seminary and College. Whitestone school located on Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue, where both Reuven and Danny study. Facing the seminary from across the street is a Roman Catholic church with a statue of the crucified Christ on its lawn. Both Hasidic and Orthodox Jews attend Hirsch. After they graduate, Danny sheds his Hasidic identity and enrolls at Columbia University to study clinical psychology, while Reuven continues rabbinical studies at Hirsch.

Historical Context

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The Holocaust
Persecution by the Nazis in Germany before World War II led to the dispersal of European Jews to the United States, Palestine, and other countries. When the full extent of the annihilation of Jews in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany was revealed (six million had been exterminated), a resurgence of interest in establishing a Jewish homeland was ignited. During the 1930s, Jews in Germany began to lose their civil rights and eventually they lost their property and were relocated to the work and death camps that the Nazis established in parts of eastern Europe. Those Jews who left Germany before World War II were the first wave during the middle of the twentieth century to settle outside Europe. After the war, some 200,000 concentration camp survivors came to America. Many of them were Orthodox Jews, and they tended to settle into the type of neighborhood described by Chaim Potok in The Chosen. By the 1950s, the children and grandchildren of earlier Jewish immigrants from Eastern European countries tended to be assimilated into the larger American culture. Many were Reformed or Conservative Jews and had attended public schools. The influx of a new population of Jews who were religious ignited a new interest in Judaism. In Potok's story, David Malter becomes the spokesperson for ardent followers of Judaism. After the Holocaust, there was a widespread feeling within the Jewish community in America that the fervor of religious Jews like the Hasids had helped Judaism survive centuries of persecution. The feeling was that Jews would only be safe from persecution when they had their own country. This became the impetus for the widespread support among both religious and secularized Jews for the establishment of the State of Israel.

Zionism
While Zionism is regarded as a nineteenth-century movement for Jews to return to their original homeland in the Middle East, efforts to return to Zion date back to the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora in the sixth century B.C. During the Diaspora, when the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem, a leader (a false messiah) would appear, claim to be the messiah, and promise to return the Jewish people to Zion. Notable among them was Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), also known as Sabbatai Zebi, who led a large band of European Jews to Constantinople, but, after he was imprisoned, he converted to Islam to save himself from execution. In the sixteenth century, a Jewish Italian family asked the Turks, who controlled the region then, to allow them to establish a Jewish settlement in Galilee. It was not until the late nineteenth century, though, that European Jews had enough freedom of movement and financial resources to begin settling in Palestine. In 1897 the Herzl World Zionist Congress established a worldwide movement. In 1917 the British government established a homeland in Palestine with the Balfour Declaration. It was supported in 1922 by the League of Nations. In 1948 the State of Israel was established after Palestine was partitioned. Support for a Jewish state has not been universal among Jews. The Hasids and other fundamentalist Jewish groups felt strongly that Jews had to wait for the Messiah before returning to Israel. Many Jews who had assimilated, particularly in the United States, felt that an Israeli state in the Middle East would not be viable, that the antagonism of the Arabs would lead to another Jewish annihilation. In the latter part of The Chosen, the Jewish state is being established. Reb Saunders represents the Hasidic view that Jews must wait for the Messiah before returning to the homeland. Mr. Malter represents the Zionist view that a homeland was necessary for the survival of the Jewish people.

Hasidism
Hasidism began in the late eighteenth century in a region along the Russian and Polish border. Its leader was Israel Ben Eliezer. The traditional Orthodox approach to the study of the Talmud was based on the oral laws that Moses had been given by God on Mount Sinai and their interpretations over the centuries. Ben Eliezer emphasized spirituality and its fervent expression. His praying was characterized by ecstasy and trances, while traditional prayer was restrained. His followers continued his forms of worship and the movement spread throughout Eastern Europe. The leader of each group was considered a "righteous one" (tzaddik). The tzaddik acted as an intermediary between his followers and God, not unlike the relationship between a Catholic priest and his parishioners. Throughout their history, the Hasids dressed in plain dark clothing. The men were forbidden to shave their beards or their sidelocks and they wore fur-trimmed hats. They have been compared to the Amish of Pennsylvania in their dress. While the Hasids represent a small proportion of the Jewish population in the world today, they are credited with stemming the tide of assimilation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Literary Techniques

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The technique of The Chosen is that of the traditional realistic novel. The story is narrated in the first person by one of the characters, Reuven Malter. The style is for the most part straightforward and unpretentious. There are, however, a few instances of symbolism: Reuven's injured eye, for example, introducing the theme of sight and blindness, and the fly Reuven sees caught in a spider's web while he is thinking of this "crazy world" of suffering and injustice. Another technique, at times highly effective, is the bringing together of parallel events or situations. The best example is Potok's use of the motif of silence to raise the novel to its climax. Readers already know of Danny's being brought up in silence, but now they see Reuven facing silence too: Danny is forbidden to speak to him; Reuven's father is in the hospital, leaving their apartment in silence; there are stretches of uneasy silence in the Talmud class. The overlaying of these various silences and of Reuven's response to them creates tension that grows until it is released in the novel's climactic chapters. By using this technique, Potok heightens the significance and emotional power of the final events, including the resumption of contact between Reuven and Danny, and Reb Saunders's explanation of why he has raised his son in silence.

Social Concerns

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The Chosen is in part a novel about the Jewish experience in America in the mid-twentieth century. As such, it deals with the problems Jews have faced in trying to preserve their heritage while adjusting to American life — in particular, the problem of how to deal with the danger of assimilation: whether a Jew should open himself to new ideas from outside the Jewish tradition and risk losing his identity as a Jew, or close himself off from the outside and lose what the rest of the world may have to offer. Besides the danger of assimilation, Jewish identity is also threatened by persecution and even physical destruction, which, as the novel quietly notes, have been the lot of Jews for centuries. The "Holocaust" — the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people — takes place during the period covered by the novel. When news of it reaches the characters, they respond in various ways, some by seeking an answer from God, others by participating in Zionist activities. Thus, although the novel is set in America — in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn — one of the events that concerns its characters is the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Besides its specifically Jewish concerns, the novel is also a reflection of events related to World War II. Through the narrator's eyes, readers learn of the War's progress, of D-Day, and finally of the Allied victory. War, the destruction of Jews by the Nazis, and other events in the novel point to another social theme: the seemingly senseless suffering inflicted on human beings in this world, and the forces and circumstances that trap people and make them victims. One symbol of this victimization is the blind boy the narrator meets in the hospital, who has lost his mother and undergoes an unsuccessful operation to restore his sight. The novel's characters are forced to confront and find ways of dealing with such suffering and apparent injustice. One response is compassion: some characters, such as the Hasidic leader Reb Saunders, try to take on themselves the suffering of others; for other characters, the events of the novel are a process of learning compassion.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: Anti-Semitism was widespread in the Western world in spite of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.

1960s: The consciousness-raising of Americans during the Civil Rights movement helped fuel positive feelings among all ethnic groups, including Jews.

Today: Discrimination toward minorities no longer has official sanction in the United States and other countries, but ethnic conflicts still persist in parts of the world. Hate groups in the United States continue to express racial and anti-Semitic views.

1940s: The State of Israel was still a dream although many settlers had come during the 1930s to escape Nazi persecution.

1960s: Israel was holding its own against attacks by its Arab neighbors. The Middle East became a battleground for the Cold War, with the West siding with Israel and the Soviet Union with the Arabs.

Today: Israel has signed peace agreements with several of its Arab neighbors and has begun the process of turning control of Palestine back to the Palestinians.

1940s: Jewish education was conducted primarily after the regular secular schooling of American Jewish children.

1960s: Jewish day schools began to spring up in areas where there were sizable Jewish populations. They offered elementary and high school religious and secular education to both girls and boys.

Today: Jewish education in the United States has been expanded to include courses for adults, similar to continuing education courses that are given in community colleges.

1940s: Many countries and many parts of the world were engaged in World War II. The United States was unified in its willingness to participate in combat

1960s: The United States was the only Western country to fight in the Vietnam War. The country was divided over our participation in a war that was perceived as not being winnable or honorable.

Today: Along with other members of the United Nations, the United States has supplied peace-keeping forces in areas like Bosnia, where ethnic conflict raged for several years.

Literary Precedents

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Among The Chosen's literary precedents is a whole series of novels on the Jewish experience in America. One of the earliest of these, Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky, although very different from The Chosen (which it preceded by fifty years) in its emphasis on the immigrant generation, resembles Potok's novel in its concern with assimilation, the conflict between the new and the old, and such aspects of Jewish life as Talmudic study. Apart from its predecessors in Jewish fiction, The Chosen is influenced by the tradition of the Bildungsroman — the novel of initiation or growing up. Although Potok claims the influence was not conscious, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (.1945) may have influenced his depiction, in The Chosen and in its sequel The Promise, of two young men and their diverse yet connected lives. Potok's style — realistic and straightforward — is influenced by various modern American writers, including Hemingway.

Adaptations

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In 1982 a motion picture version of The Chosen was released, with Rod Steiger as Reb Saunders, Maximilian Schell as David Malter, Barry Miller as Reuven, and Robby Benson as Danny. Potok himself took a minor part in the film. The screenplay was by Edwin Gordon, and the director was Jeremy Paul Kagan. Although, like film adaptations in general, it simplifies Potok's original story, the film is essentially faithful to the novel. Critics found some flaws in the film, but praised its historical authenticity and emotional warmth. It was a popular success and continues as a favorite with many film viewers.

Media Adaptations

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The Chosen was adapted for film by Edwin Gordon and featured Rod Steiger as Reb Saunders, Maximilian Schell as David Malter, Robby Benson as Danny Saunders, Barry Miller as Reuven Malter, and Ron Riflan as the baseball coach. It was directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan and produced by Contemporary in 1982; available from Fox Video.

The book was also produced on sound cassettes, with Eli Wallach reading the text; produced by Warner Audio, 1985.

A short-lived musical adaptation of The Chosen opened on Broadway in January, 1988, with music by Philip Springer and lyrics by Mitchell Bernard.
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Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
"Back to the Fold," review in the Times Literary Supplement, March 5, 1970, p. 241.

Dan Barnet, essay in Critical Survey of Long Fiction, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1991, pp. 2659-67.

Felicity Baranger, review in the New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1996, p. 33.

Sam Bluefarb, "The Head, the Heart, and the Conflict of Generations in Chaim Potok's The Chosen," in College Language Association Journal, June, 1971, pp. 402-409.

S. Lillian Kremer, "Chaim Potok," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152: American Novelists since World War II, Fourth Series, Gale Research, 1984, pp. 232-43.

Beverly J. Matiko, an analysis and critical evaluation of The Chosen in Masterplots, New York Harper, 1969, pp. 1121-24.

Lisa Schwarzbaum, review in the Detroit News, March 17, 1985, p. 5.

For Further Study
Edward A. Abramson, Chaim Potok, Twayne, 1994.
A book-length study presenting biographical information about the author and an overview of all of his writings to date. Chapter 2 provides a valuable commentary of The Chosen.

Arthur A. Cohen, "Why I Choose to be a Jew," in Break-through: A Treasury of Contemporary American-Jewish Literature, edited by Irving Malm and Irwin Stark, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964, pp. 367-76.
Cohen explains that, until recently, Jews could not choose not to remain a Jew, and then he discusses his own religious choices.

Michael Gilmore, "A Fading Promise," in Midstream, January, 1970, pp. 76-79.
Gilmore disagrees with the view of the Jewish community found in Potok's novels.

Sheldon Grebstein, "The Phenomenon of the Really Jewish Best Seller Potok's The Chosen" in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Spring, 1975, pp. 23-31.
A helpful analysis of the novel, which includes a discussion Potok's style and of the American Dream.

Granville Hicks, "Good Fathers and Good Sons," in Saturday Review, April 29, 1967, pp. 25-56.
In this early review, Hicks tries to understand how Potok's "good boys"—and their fathers—are interesting as well as meaningful to a multitude of readers.

Baruch Hochman, review of The Chosen, in Commentary, September, 1967, p. 108.
In this early review, Hochman praises the psychological tension Potok creates as he explores the conflict of generations, but he criticizes the novel's conclusion as belonging to a fairy tale.

Irving Howe, "Introduction to Yiddish Literature," in Break-through: A Treasury of Contemporary American-Jewish Literature, edited by Irving Malm and Irwin Stark, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964, pp. 278-300.
Howe's difficult essay analyzes the linguistic, historical, religious, cultural, and literary backdrops against which Yiddish literature is created.

Faye Leeper, "What Is in the Name'" in English Journal, Vol. 59, No. 1, January, 1970, pp. 63-64.
Leeper argues that the novel is engrossing for high school students who understand Jewish religious practices. She cites the multiple meanings of the novel's title as evidence.

Curt Leviant, "The Hasid as American Hero," in Midstream, November, 1967, pp. 76-80.
An analysis which criticizes the writing style in The Chosen.

Daphne Merkin, "Why Potok is Popular," in Commentary, February, 1976, pp. 73-75.
Merkin criticizes Potok's style as "amateurish," his characters as "paper thin," and his moral scheme as "black and white." She suggests that his popularity coincides with a "rediscovery of ethnic consciousness" on the part of his public.

Hugh Nissenson, "The Spark and the Shell," in New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1967, pp. 4-5, 34.
In this early review of the novel, Nissenson critiques Potok's prose, but praises the novel's structure and themes. He particularly admires Potok's treatment of Rabbi Saunders' silence, which is dramatically portrayed against a backdrop of God's silence.

Sanford Pinsker, "The Crucifixion of Chaim Potok/The Excommunication of Asher Lev: Art and the Hasidic World," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, No. 4 The World of Chaim Potok, edited by Darnel Walden, State University of New York Press, 1985, pp. 39-51.
Pinsker explores Potok's treatment of "sensitive" heroes who are trapped between "rival authoritarian figures." Most of the discussion centers around My Name is Asher Lev.

Chaim Potok, "Cultural Confrontation in Urban America: A Writer's Beginnings," in Literature and the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature, edited by M. C .Jay and A. C. Watts, Rutgers University Press, 1981, pp. 161-67.
Potok's description of the expansion of the world of his Brooklyn Jewish childhood.

Chaim Potok, "Reply to a Semi-Sympathetic Critic," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Spring, 1976, pp. 30-34.
The author's response to Sheldon Grebstein's article; Potok defends his language and style in The Chosen and explains how the subject of the novel is "culture war.''

Chaim Potok, Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews. Knopf, 1978.
A broad view of the survival of the Jewish people in a variety of "umbrella" civilizations.

Harold Ribalow, "A Conversation with Chaim Potok," in The Tie That Binds: Conversations with Jewish Writers, A S. Barnes & Co., 1980, pp. 111-37.
Potok, who calls himself a "freak," discusses his efforts to dramatizes clashes that occur between the Jewish tradition and what he calls Western secular humanism.

Karl Shapiro, "The Necessary People," in Book Week, April 23, 1967.
A positive view of The Chosen as an allegory.

Judah Stampfer, "The Tension of Piety" in Judaism, Fall, 1967, pp. 494-98.
Stampfer critiques Potok's portrayal of Hasidim, but praises the book for its detailed documentation of Yeshiva life.

David Stern, review in Commentary, October, 1972, p. 102.
My Name Is Asher Lev, Potok's third novel, is reviewed. Stern analyses the main theme Potok explores in his novels, which is trying to live in both a religious and secular world.

Daniel Walden, ed., Studies in American Jewish Literature, No. 4: The World of Chaim Potok, State University of New York Press, 1985.
A collection of valuable essays about and interviews of Chaim Potok.

Mark Zborowski, Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl, Schocken Books, 1995.
A flawed, over-romanticized, but thorough description of the Eastern European Jewish culture which is used as model by contemporary strict Orthodox Jews and some Hasidic sects.

Bibliography

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Abramson, Edward A. Chaim Potok. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Chapter 2, about The Chosen, discusses the Hasidim and the Orthodox Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, the value of education, fathers and sons, and form and content.

Bluefarb, Sam. “The Head, the Heart and the Conflict of Generations in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.” College Language Association Journal 14 (June, 1971): 402-409. Explores the father-son relationships.

Leeper, Faye. “What Is in the Name?” The English Journal 59 (January, 1970): 63-64. Offers answers to the question, “Who or what is chosen in this novel?”

Sgan, Arnold D. “The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name is Asher Lev.” The English Journal 66 (March, 1977): 63-64. Offers useful plot summaries and themes for each novel; discusses Potok’s place in high school units on “Ethnic Literature” or “The Search for Identity.”

Studies in American Jewish Literature 4 (1985). This issue, entitled “The World of Chaim Potok,” contains various articles, including one by Potok, and an interview with him.

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