The Chosen by Chaim Potok


I had read this book in a different century, but was moved to listen to it again because of a chat with friends about politics in Israel. Recently Netanyahu put together a coalition to regain power by including an ultra orthodox party that is truly radical. The Shas and the Haredi parties demand increased funding for their schools with no oversight that would insure that math, sciences, and English will be taught. Some of these parties demand broad exemption from military or other national service. Though Netanyahu opposed measures such as these twenty years ago, he must make concessions now. These measures could weaken Israel and would diminish its educated modern workforce.

We spoke about the 1967 book The Chosen and the experience described in the book Postville, a book about Brooklyn Hasidic Jews in a small town in Iowa.  I remembered The Chosen fondly, as the story of two boys who after they met when Danny intentionally hit Reuven in the head with a baseball, became good friends. It is the story of the Hasidic Danny’s wish to study psychology rather than become a rabbi, while Reuven, so good at math, wants to become a rabbi. Danny’s father is Rabbi Saunders, devoted to caring for his congregation. He likes Reuven who reveals his intelligence in their study of the Talmud, which are fierce competitions performed before the men of the congregation.

When Danny speaks about the plan for creation of the state of Israel, Rabbi Saunders goes into a tirade about “goy Jews” creating a secular state. As that comes closer into being, their college is sharply divided and violence between the Hasidic students and those who support the creation of Israel occurs. Rabbi Saunders feels so strongly that he forbids Danny from speaking to Reuven, and he has the spies to enforce his rules. After Israel comes into being and people are attacked by the displaced Palestinean population, that opposition ends.

That story now feels different to me:  the hatred of the Hasidic boys on the baseball field towards all those who are not Hasidic, the unpleasant intellectual competitions before the congregation, the intemperate reaction of the Hasidim to the support for a secular Jewish state, and the years-long interruption of the boys’ friendship by the father. All these are not overcome by the softening at the end of Rabbi Saunders. In this listening I also noticed that women are barely present, but when Reuven notices Danny’s attractive sister, he is quickly told she was promised to someone from childhood.

Chaim Potok, The Chosen, Ballantine Books, 304 pages, originally published 1967 (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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