Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Choice

Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel The Chosen, about Jewish teenagers in Brooklyn, is no less inscrutable for adults than it has been for generations of young readers

Print Email
(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)

When I was a younger reader—I’m talking pre-teens through hopeful, unblemished young adulthood—I mostly avoided reading any novels with Jewish characters or themes. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself was the only exception I can recall, and that had more to do more with my stubborn fidelity to all things Judy Blume.

To the best of my understanding, this avoidance had nothing to do with self-hatred. I simply figured, Why read what you know? I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home outside of Boston; I went to shul most Shabbats; I attended Jewish day school; I read the Torah and Haftorah at my Bat Mitzvah; I spoke Hebrew. I knew where my family came from—my mother from Peabody, Mass., and my father from Brooklyn, N.Y. I also knew their respective cheers: “Rickety rackety Tannery Town, who can hold Peabody down? Nobody!” my cheerleader mother would shout. For his part, my father taunted uptown rivals thusly: “Chazak v’Amatz: the Bronx should only plotz!” I liked my father’s stories about life in and around King’s Highway and Coney Island in the 1940s and ’50s, but I had no desire to read someone else’s.

Which brings me to The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel of two teenagers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who first meet as enemies on the baseball diamond but soon become close friends. I avoided it like the plague, because it was about both boys and Orthodox Jews. Danny Saunders, one of the boys, is the scion of a rabbinic dynasty. He’s a genius with a photographic memory and an esteemed father who speaks to him only when they study Talmud together. Yet as he grows older, Danny is increasingly drawn away from Torah, not directly to a life without observance, but to Freud. The other boy, Reuven Malter, also has a rabbi for a father, but the Malters are Modern Orthodox, and Reuven’s father is understanding and kind. The Malters are Zionists—nearly heretical in the eyes of Danny’s Hasidic father—and, far less egregious, they’re misnagdim—rationalists who look askance at the ecstatic inclinations of the Hasidic world.

If that story didn’t dissuade the younger me from reading the book, there was also the 1981 film adaptation to consider. No less a heartthrob than Robby Benson played Danny Saunders, and I was no Benson fan. His selling point—delicacy—had repelled me since Ice Castles. And it was Benson’s face that came into my mind’s eye whenever The Chosen came up.

I could cry to you now—Oh! How wrong I was! How I rue those years in which I denied myself the story of Saunders and Malter—the story of the Jews in America! For now I have read The Chosen. It starts out winningly, with a tense and gripping baseball scene, and while devouring it, I imagined recommending the novel to some nephews, aged 12 and 15, rabid baseball fans and regular shul-goers who scour the sports pages on a daily basis. I imagined marveling over the novel together, as we have over the otherworldly width of Dwight Howard’s shoulders and Johnny Depp’s Caribbean antics.

The hatred Potok builds between the two teams, rooted in their different religious proclivities, is epic. More than sports rivalry, he’s presenting an existential conflict, wrestling with faith, tradition, dogma, and vanquishing heretics. (Or, it just now occurs to me, maybe Potok’s point is that religion is sport, sport is religion, and both have towering stakes—that would be the most heretical thought of all.)

Will Danny and his team kill “the apikorsim,” the heretics? Will Reuven and his team field successfully against the monstrously violent batters with their sidecurls and Yiddish curses? The answers to those questions are irrelevant. What matters is the friendship forged between boys. There are light shadows of Romeo and Juliet—rival clans and a nurse, but while none of the characters die in The Chosen, they do grieve for the 6 million overseas. Potok goes far beyond baseball and friendship. He summarizes the history of modern Jewry. The Chosen is a lesson in the origins of Hasidism, the roots of modern Israel, and the tragedy of the Holocaust. For good measure, it also offers a primer on how students learn Talmud, with brief forays into the history of American Zionist activism after World War II, all of which is anchored in the Orthodox world of mid-century Williamsburg.

The Chosen lumbers and teaches. I’d wager my nephews would find it dull. Passages of conversation are stilted, particularly in scenes between sons and their fathers. In Danny’s case, his father is raising him in silence, an esoteric child-rearing technique adopted, Reuven’s father explains, by some Hasidim. Though the thorniness of Danny’s relationship with his father is extreme, it speaks of realistic tensions. Children grapple with the possibility of disappointing their parents. Parents pin hopes on their children and sometimes fail to mask their disapproval when that child takes another path. Those tensions drove me to the end of The Chosen, though it is unlikely that I would have appreciated them as a younger reader, less equipped to look at the complications of my own relationship with my parents.

I don’t live in the mid-century Williamsburg Potok describes. I live in early next century Clinton Hill, on an avenue dominated by enormous mansions that once housed the likes of Charles Pratt, the 19th-century philanthropist, and by apartment complexes built for naval-yard workers. I know of no shuls in this neighborhood (I have inquired), yet walking down the street recently, I’ve passed groups of Hasidim. Some of them were wearing shtreimels. Others seemed to have their pants tucked into their socks and their tziziot tucked out at their waists. They walked fast, pitching forward. Who are they? They remain as improbable to me in the flesh as in the fictional world Potok conjured.

Print Email
Richard Stark says:

I read “The Chosen” and also “My Name is Asher Lev” when I was in college in my early 20s. I found them interesting, but I think I really didn’t understand the hidden meanings.
Now that I’m retired and >70, after reading this review,I think I’ll read them again.

The Chosen was one of my favorite books in high school, but I haven’t thought of it in at least 10 years. Time to pull it back off the shelf!

Nice nostalgic piece, Sara. “The Chosen” was an early favorite of mine, primarily for the softball scene (sorry, but it was softball not baseball, a seemingly minor yet significant difference, especially since one of the two protagonists was hit in the eye with a ball hit by other one) and the relationship between Saunders and Malter, which continued in subsequent Potok novels.

janicerp@att.net says:

I go back to this book every few years and find something new. I knew my daughter would most likely not read it..so I took her to an incredible performance,true to the book, at a Chicago theatre.She brought a friend, the daughter of a woman who loved the book as much as I do.

Stephan Pickering/Chofetz Chay says:

Shalom & Boker tov, Sara…I share with you a profound admiration of Rav Potok’s ability to conjure the improbabilities of our be-ing. When I first read it in 1967, however, I was angered (still am) by Rav Potok’s distortions: Freud was a misogynist, pseudo-scientific plagiarizer, a fraud. This has been proven time and again by Fred Crews. Rav Potok promulgates the myth that noone knew of the exterminations 1933-1945. This is NOT true. And the Charedi framework of abusing their children (and women) is anti-Torah. STEPHAN PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim ben-Avraham

philip mann says:

what I remember most about the book is the inside quote ,and the source of the title. It was attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe , and went as follows;

` Send us the Messiah, Lord ,for we have no more strength . If not…then we will rebel against Thee ,and we will no longer be Thy chosen people`.

` I`ve searched all over for more on this sentence ,and have only found one reference to it. has it been censored from memory ? The Kotzker burned all his writings before he died. Is this why ?

Any information would be appreciated.

Lisa Liel says:

Reuven Malter isn’t Modern Orthodox. He’s an early Conservative Jew, and the place he teaches at is a thinly veiled Jewish Theological Seminary, where Potok got ordained.

ChanaBatya says:

Interesting take on a book I read years ago and remember with both fondness and confusion. I always thought the “being raised in silence” to be a fantasy creation, like science fiction, because I could not imagine a Jewish father not talking to his child. A Jewish family without talk! What is that??? I agree that dialogue was not Potok’s strength as a writer, as every book he wrote sounded like it was translated from Yiddish. Maybe it was. Still, the Chosen was the first book I read about a Judaism a world away from my own Reform life.

ChanaBatya says:

Lisa Liel, I think that even if Rabbi Malter’s seminary is a “thinly veiled JTS,” the fact that Reuven wore his tzitzis under his clothing, unlike the Chasidim, which he states clearly in the beginning of the book, suggests a greater orthodoxy than most Conservative Jews express. By the way, I had always identified Reb Saunders with the Satmar Chasidim, maybe because the book describes Danny as having sandy hair and gray eyes (I think; I haven’t read it in over 30 years), and the Satmars have a lot of blonds and redheads with blue eyes. I wonder if this is true…Anyway, since the story takes place right after WWII, it is important to note that Conservative Judaism began around 1920. The responsa about driving to shul was written in the 1950′s, but there was Conservative Judaism long before that.

This is so funny because I also recently re-read ‘The Chosen’ and was struck by its poignancy in relation to the issues of acculturation – especially about Reb Saunders’ brother (I hardly thought about him when I first read it) who died in the Holocaust as a secular Jew; the sense of loss and the struggle with suffering in the hospital – the suffering of the boy who is blind and the boxer who is a lost soul; the language of sight often depicted through the metaphors of glasses and the health of our eyes; the real struggle to hear in a universe that can be too silent; and the need for a “father” (a God, a Judaism?) that is merciful and present.

The lack of real women and girl characters in the narrative is a strong and an obvious omission. The strong emphasis on the father points to the patriarchal problem in Judaism which was just starting to shift at the time the book was coming out in the mid to late 60s.

But the unquestioned and unconditional love of two boys for each other that, though not erotic, is still a love – even a physical and spiritual love — that was ahead of its time. This book was very influential in my life and I was amazed at how prescient it was and may still prove to be.

Thanks Sara

“My Name is Asher Lev” takes up some themes of male – female relationships among Chasidim, mother-son etc (among thinly disguised Chabadniks), as do the sequels to the Chosen in the Malter/Saunders series. Worth exploring.

Sara, you say, “I know of no shuls in this neighborhood (I have inquired), yet walking down the street recently, I’ve passed groups of Hasidim. Some of them were wearing shtreimels. Others seemed to have their pants tucked into their socks and their tziziot tucked out at their waists. They walked fast, pitching forward. Who are they? They remain as improbable to me in the flesh as in the fictional world Potok conjured.”

Shtreimels are usually only worn on Shabbos or Yom Tov, so they were probably within walking distance of a shul, though it may be “hidden” in a house or storefront. Next time, if it is Shabbos, greet them with a “gut Shabbos” and you might get an answer.

Below the knee pants tucked into calf high white socks worn under a bekisha (long jacket) is a style of some Chasideshe groups.

This article is a great example of the Hunter Thompson modern journalistic device of weaving the purported subject of the article through the personal experiences of the writer. “The Chosen” is less important than the writier’s reaction to the book. Do readers really want to know about Sara Ivry’s nephews’ hypothetical response to the book? I certainly didn’t read the article to learn about her opinions about Hasidim and their fashions either. A more global approach to discussing the novel would be so much better.

PS- The rabid denunciation of Freud by the self-capitalized STEPHAN PICKERING is completely one-sided and wrong. Sadly, Potok’s 1967 book didn’t have the insights of Fred Crews’ “opinions” because the first Crews’ article questioning Freud was published in 1975. “Analysis Terminable,” which was Crews’ complete break with Freud was first published in 1980. Freud may have been a misogynist, but branding him a plagiarizer and a fraud are complete overstatements. He did build on other people’s ideas, but his work moved well past them. Freud’s psychoanalysis has been shown to have little efficacy in helping patients. The work of Freud as a philosopher is his gift to humanity.

daniel walden says:

I enjoyed Sarah Ivry’s piece because it reminded us that Chaim Potok was the first American Jewish author to write so movingly from inside the tradition.Remember that The Chosen was a best seller for months and is still widely read. But I found that she was wrong on two counts, at least. Potok deliberately sought to have Danny and Reuven speak he language of Brooklyn Jewish boys of the 1930s, not elite American English speech.
She said that the book would not be of interest to today’s young people. I’m sorry but she’s wrong. I’ve taught the book three or four times, recently,to undergraduates, and it was immensely enjoyed and appreciated by almost all.
They felt the book spoke to them, to today’s problems, they understood Potok’s attempt to picture in words the “core-to-core cultural confrontation” that he evoked in the struggles between the very Orthodox Danny, his father and the Ladover Hasidim), and the observant Conservadox, Reuven,and his father. In my view Potok is still a major author who deserves reading today and tomorrow.

i teach in brooklyn and have read this book with eighth graders a number of times. once, our culminating activity was a (teacher-devised, student-driven) walking tour of hasidic williamsburg, which still retains much of the old-world feel portrayed in the book. as we read the book, we had incredible conversations about religious observance/faith, father/son relationships, and the intricacies of friendship. while the settings may seem unfamiliar to modern kids, the themes are very accessible and still quite relevant.

Bill Pearlman says:

I didn’t think the movie was that terrible.

Has Sara Ivry actually read the Chosen?It is one of the most important books in modern Jewish fiction. It brings many into the claustrophobic Hasidic world for the first time while remaining a story about youth asnd friendship. Potok also wrote My Name is Asher Lev which is ther best novel of the conflict between Orthodoxy and Modernism. Is there a better Jewish author for youngsters to read? And we may not approve or like the Ultra Orthodox but they are an important part of the Jewish world and anything that helps us understand them is valuable.

Sarah V. says:

In 1977, I wrote my high school senior English paper on all of Potok’s novels. (We had to pick an author and cover all of their novels for the paper, and I had to pick an author who had not written a lot of novels.) As a whole, the novels well-explored themes in Judaism, including My Name is Asher Lev – better, I dare say, for me than the equally famous As a Driven Leaf, which did not speak to me for some reason. I also remember ending my paper by commenting that the very articulate, sensitive characters might not be seen as realistic, but that it was way more interesting to read about perceptive, sensitive people than the opposite.

Debra Michels says:

Dear Sara,
Hi – I read your article with interest and some amusement – thank you for writing and publishing online!

I was struck by your ending, saying that Hasidim are “improbable” to you – I think you mean you don’t understand them –

I don’t know how well I understand them either, but I have delved into some wonderful books called Hasidic Tales, by Martin Buber, and through them developed greater understanding and empathy for the Hasidic world. Buber starts with the very first more or less modern Hasidic leader (the Baal Shem Tov, born in 1700) and details his mysticism and that of the rabbis of following generations, who were inspired by him. Buber shows the diversity among Hasidim and their devotion and insights into the human condition in a very readable way – each “tale” is just a few paragraphs long –

Anyway – you might enjoy reading some of Buber –

Happy New (secular) Year to you –
Debbie Michels in Los Angeles, California

Lori ZImmerman says:

I read “The Chosen,” Potok’s other novels and his wonderful Jewish history book. His point was that regardless of how insular we may be, there is still an interaction with the surrounding cultures.

JCarpenter says:

While teaching in a private h.s. with mostly Christian students, I incorporated The Chosen in the lit curriculum. The extreme differences within a tradition, the generational struggle, and the struggle between one’s calling v. family/heritage expectations all resonated greatly and deeply w. the students and their own experiences. I also had occasion to meet C. Potok some years ago after a talk he gave at Calvin College in Michigan; no one else showed, so I had a private half-hour session with a favorite author (rabbi? psychiatrist?)”So, you liked my book—tell me about it . . . “

Mindy says:

Hope,

I am about to teach the book to 7th graders in a Conservative Jewish school who definitely are grappling with Jewish questions. I’ve taught this before to 8th graders who really got a lot out of it. But I’m curious about any other projects/ideas you have besides the Williamsburg walking tour. My school is outside of Boston, so that might be a stretch for us. If you want to talk offline, I’d be happy to. Thanks!

Stephan PIckering is a rabid Internet troll, always with the same agenda.  Google him for a lot of copy-and-paste of the same things he has written dozens of times.

Nicky McCatty says:

Sara,

Did you see the version of the movie that came out late ’90s or early aughts? I saw it at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, and I was wondering what you thought of that rendition of the story. (Can’t seem to find it on IMDB, unfortunately.)

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Choice

Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel The Chosen, about Jewish teenagers in Brooklyn, is no less inscrutable for adults than it has been for generations of young readers

More on Tablet:

Hamas Leader Admits Kidnapping Israeli Teens

By Stephanie Butnick — First time the group has claimed responsibility for the catalytic June murders