by Chaim Potok
Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders don’t get off to that great a start. Each plays for his own yeshiva’s baseball team, and a game between them in the summer of 1944 gets out of hand pretty quickly, moving to death threats and physical intimidation. For Reuven, the match ends when Danny smacks a ball directly into his face, shattering his glasses in the process. Danny shows no remorse, and Reuven seems unlikely to forgive.
I didn’t quite comprehend the level of enmity the two boys initially feel towards one another. They’re a couple of Rabbis’ sons from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, both of whom attend yeshivas and seem destined to become Rabbis themselves. But I guess the more similarities people have, the more important the differences become. The gap between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic communities Williamsburg appears insurmountable; the two groups flat-out hate each other.
Though set in the middle of the city, there are really only four characters: Reuven, Danny, and their fathers. Reuven’s father is a Talmudic scholar and budding Zionist leader who clearly values a close relationship with his son. Danny’s father- known as Reb Saunders- is a tyrant. He never speaks with his son except to quiz him on obscure Talmudic commentary, in order to make sure that Danny is ready to become the leader, or tzaddik, of their Hasidic community. But both fathers, despite having significant religious disagreements, come to approve of their sons’ friendship.
If you’re like me and you don’t know what a tzaddik or a yeshiva is, or why Hasidic Judaism is disdained by Reuven’s father, Potok does a great job of explaining it to you without a bunch of boring exposition. Anything in Yiddish or Hebrew is generally defined immediately, and the passage that describes the origins of Hasidism turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the entire book. I’d imagine it’s pretty hard to have to constantly explain these things to people who don’t know (like myself) without sacrificing the narrative, but Potok does that. It’s really amazing how well he does that.
He also takes us through a trying time period without getting bogged down in history. The characters bear witness to the end of World War II, the revelation of the Holocaust, and the violent birth of Israel. These historical events never even threaten to take over the narrative, which stays focused on the relationships between the four main characters. The events matter in the story, sure, but they only matter in that the characters all have different reactions to the way the world is changing.
As I said, the four main characters are all males, a pair of fathers and sons. I decided to buy The Chosen, however, on advice from my mother, who claimed it was one of her favorite books. When checking out, the lady at the bookstore also expressed her love for the book, and Potok’s writing in general. I think it’s interesting to note that though the father-son relationship is the crux of the story, the themes of family and friendship are universal, and anyone of any age or religion or gender should be able to appreciate this novel.
I was pretty much hooked from the first scene, and I carried The Chosen around with me everywhere for the couple days I was reading it. Really glad I bought it, I’d definitely recommend it. Also, considering the coincidence of the subject matter and the time of year, happy late Father’s Day.