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Watching ‘The Chosen’ with My Children

A new theatrical adaptation of Chaim Potok’s classic novel admires the past without being nostalgic and takes Jews and Judaism seriously

Mark Oppenheimer
November 30, 2017
Courtesy Long Wharf Theatre
Production still from 'The Chosen'Courtesy Long Wharf Theatre
Courtesy Long Wharf Theatre
Production still from 'The Chosen'Courtesy Long Wharf Theatre

The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel about a friendship between two Jewish boys in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during World War II, is the Jewish To Kill a Mockingbird: a compulsively readable morality tale, in which the youthful characters have more depth and subtlety than the adults, a pleasure for a bright tween and still a pleasure for his mother or father. Unlike Harper Lee, Potok went on to write better books, especially The Promise, his sequel to The Chosen, and My Name Is Asher Lev. But he never wrote anything with the sweet simplicity of The Chosen (and certainly nothing else that is ever likely to be made into an Off-Broadway musical—in 1988, since you asked, and starring Rob Morrow). The Chosen is also, as it happens, the first book that my father ever recommended, instead of read, to me. He pulled it off his bookshelf one day and said, “You’ll like this.” And I did.

So when I heard that the redoubtable Long Wharf Theatre, in my hometown of New Haven, was staging the better-regarded, non-musical adaptation of The Chosen, I had little choice but to take my children (the two older ones, anyway, the ones with sufficient sitzfleish). Having just got back from opening night, I am here to say: By all means see the play—but only as a prelude to reading, or re-reading, the book.

Here’s why you should see the play: because, in telling the central story of the unlikely friendship between modern-Orthodox Reuven and his Hasidic amigo Danny Saunders, it also manages to convey, rather elegantly, post-war, pre-state-of-Israel debates between Zionists and anti-Zionists; because it takes seriously the matter of affection between fathers and sons—indeed, there are no women in this play, which means any love will be found among men, overtly between Reuven and his freethinking father, a lover of Herzl and Talmud both, silently between Danny and his father, a Hasidic rav who never speaks to him; because it honors deep friendship between young men, Platonic in the original sense; because it doesn’t blush at the idea that a young genius could ditch mathematics and Bertrand Russell for Talmud, finding in the latter the intricate complexity of the former. This is a play of ideas, one that had my daughters, ages 11 and nine, discussing it avidly in the car ride home.

But here’s what a dramatization of The Chosen may not be able to capture, no matter how well executed: the years that it takes to develop such a friendship, how it’s different at 19 from what it was at age 15; the really fine points of Russell, or Talmud, or Hasidic anti-Zionism, given so much breathing room in the pages of the novel; the particular rhythms of outer-borough, working-class Jewish speech at midcentury, which rise like fragrant steam from the novel but are probably beyond most millennial actors of today (and indeed totally defeated Robby Benson, as Danny, as well as the rest of the cast, in the 1981 film version).

Say this for the play: unlike the musical and the film, it never goes in for neo-Fiddler schmaltz. No horas or Hasidic folk dances here. No shtetl kitsch. It remembers what baseball meant to Americanizing Jewish youth—Reuven first meets Danny when his modern-Orthodox team faces the Hasidic squad on the diamond. It admires the past without being nostalgic. It’s a small effort, a little telescope view into the ineffably charming novel, and it takes Judaism, and Jews, seriously.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.