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This article is taken from Chapter Three: Boys to Men.
“The boy is father to the man.”
"Long ago, in The Chosen," Chaim Potok writes, "I set out to draw a map of the New York world through which I once journeyed. It was to be a map not only of broken streets, menacing alleys, concrete-surfaced backyards, neighborhood schools and stores . . . a map not only of the physical elements of my early life, but of the spiritual ones as well." (Chaim Potok, "The Invisible Map of Meaning: A Writer's Confrontation," Triquarterly, Spring 1992) With his glimpse into the lives of the Hasidic Jews of New York, Chaim Potok transports us to a world completely strange, yet strangely familiar.
The Chosen is the story of two young men growing up in Brooklyn just before the onset of World War II. Through a chance encounter between their baseball teams they form a friendship that changes both their lives. Reuven Malter is the narrator and a traditional orthodox Jew. He is the son of a passionate Zionist and dedicated scholar. Danny Saunders, a Hasidic Jew, is a brilliant boy with a photographic memory, who is being raised by his father under a code of silence. Other than in discussions of the Talmud, Reb Saunders never speaks to his son directly. This is to “teach him the suffering of the world” and prepare him to assume his father’s place as the head of the Hasidic sect. Though the two boys see each other as complete cultural strangers, to the outside world they are simply both Jews. .
As they become acquainted we come to understand, with Reuven, something about Hasidism, the ultra-conservative sect that originated in Poland in response to the persecutions suffered by Jews hundreds of years ago. Each group of Hasidic Jews is led by a Tzaddik, a mystical leader who is rabbi, prophet and even a Messianic figure to his followers. They dwell in a world closed even to other Jews, and as Reuven enters this world through his friendship with Danny, we have the rare opportunity to experience a fascinating culture within a culture. Danny is unwilling to follow in his father’s footsteps and longs to study psychology. We follow the boys through their high school and college years, as they come to terms with their fathers, their faith and their futures.
What Makes it Great
The greatness of this novel, and its enduring appeal, lies in the characters of the two boys at its heart. Both Danny and Reuven are irresistible in their sincerity and intelligence. It’s not easy being Jewish in any age, and Potok gives us a feel for the myriad challenges that they face. Potok’s strength is not in description or plot; it is in character. These boys and their fathers entrance us; we cannot look away. Here is the moment when Reb Saunders explains to Reuven (and by extension to Danny) why he imposed the code of silence that has caused Danny so much pain and sorrow.
"My father himself never talked to me, except when we studied together. He taught me with silence. He taught me to look into myself, to find my own strength, to walk around inside myself in company with my soul. . . . One learns of the pain of others by suffering one's own pain, he would say, by turning inside oneself, by finding one's own soul. And it is important to know of pain, he said. It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe. . . .
"Reuven, I did not want my Daniel to become like my brother, may he rest in peace. Better I should have had no son at all than to have a brilliant son who had no soul. . . . And I had to make certain his soul would be the soul of a tzaddik no matter what he did with his life." (278, 279)
A Man of the World
Chaim Potok, born Herman Harold Potok, was reared in an Orthodox Jewish home by Polish immigrant parents. His parents also gave him his Hebrew name Chaim, meaning “life” or “alive.” Born in 1929 in New York City, he attended religious schools. However, as a young man he became man fascinated by less restrictive Jewish doctrines, earned degrees in English and Hebrew literature, and was eventually ordained a Conservative rabbi. He joined the U.S. Army as a chaplain and served in South Korea from 1955 to 1957, which he described as a transformative experience.
Chaim Potok says that he wrote The Chosen in order to come to terms with his own Jewish upbringing, particularly the fundamentalist viewpoint that taught him to see the Jewish race at the center of world history. Raised in an unquestioning orthodox home, Chaim graduated from his local Yeshiva and was ordained a rabbi. It was at this point that his life changed completely, when he was sent to Korea for two years as a chaplain. Of this experience he says, "When I went to Korea I was a very coherent human being in the sense that I had a model of what I was - I had a map. I knew
Potok's father had taught him that Jews suffered because they were God's chosen, yet over a million Koreans had been senselessly slaughtered during the war. Were they also chosen in some way, or was all the suffering meaningless? As a boy, Potok had been taught to believe that paganism was evil, yet in the faces of devout Buddhists in prayer he recognized the same intensity that he knew in the faces of the faithful Jews in his synagogue. How could God hate these sincere, devout people? Potok began to question his assumption that Judaism was the only truth worth knowing and also his assumption that America was the only great nation. He concludes: "That experience not only relativized my Jewishness, it relativized my American-ness and my western-ness simultaneously. It set everything into specific culture contexts and at the same time taught me that my culture could be viewed from outside its perimeters by another culture, and be seen in an altogether different way. What happened was that I began to see my culture from the outside. When that happens to your head, you are never the same again."
Chaim Potok understands that by helping us see into another culture, we may get a new perspective on our own.