by Chaim Potok
(Simon & Schuster, 1967)
Reviewed by Sue Feder
Arguably the first piece of modern popular fiction about the Orthodox community written by someone from within that community, The Chosen quickly garnered massive critical and popular acclaim, and remains in print and respected even thirty-five years after its initial publication.
It is 1944, Crown Heights and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when fifteen-year-old Reuven Malter, son of a modern Orthodox teacher, is nearly killed by a ball batted by fifteen-year-old Danny Saunders, son of a Hasidic leader. Danny is haunted by the fact that for a brief moment he really intended to kill Reuven. In one of the few questionable plot turns, Reuven quickly gets past his anger and the boys become deeply devoted friends. But Danny is also haunted by the specter of an unwanted future as heir to his father’s throne -- a six-generation dynasty as rabbi of his sect. Meanwhile, Reuven, who’s father wants him to become a math teacher, would prefer to be a rabbi.
Potok loves and respects the Orthodox tradition he was born to, but balances this with an equal understanding of assimilation and even, if not secularism, at least the secular world. Beyond the stories of two fathers, two sons, and two ways of Jewish life, beyond the coming of age of the two boys, Potok also captures the intensity with which the homefront followed the war, and the terrible grief that enfolded the nation at the time of President Roosevelt’s death -- for Reuven, at least, this is every bit as much a part of his life as Talmud study. Aware readers will see the great divide amongst Jews over a Jewish state, and more knowledgeable readers will see the beginnings of the ongoing clash between the secular and the religious in America and modern Israel. Most of all, sensitive readers will understand David Malter’s great humanistic statement:
"Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye? ... I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that the blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must life his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning...."