Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Chosen

"I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it."

This is a story of relationships.  The relationship between a father and his son.  The relationship between two good friends.  The relationship between a person and his faith.  The relationship between an immigrant and his new country.  In his most well-known and highly praised novel, Jewish-American author Chaim Potok explores all of these relationships, and in the process teaches us how personal pain and struggle makes us more compassionate.

The Plot:

Reuven Malter is a young orthodox Jew growing up in Brooklyn in 1944.  He is very bright and his professor father hopes for him to also have an academic career.  One day, his school softball team faces a rival school of Hasidic Jews.  The game is intense and Reuven is hit in the eye with a ball hit by Danny Saunders.  Though Reuven is initially reluctant to forgive Danny, his father encourages him and the boys soon become friends.  Though raised in a strict Hasidic upbringing, Danny is extremely intelligent (to the point of genius) and he often sneaks away to the library to read secular works like Freud.  Reuven and his father help foster Danny's enthusiasm and make recommendations as to which books to read. 

One day, Reuven is invited to Danny's house for Shabat and to meet Danny's family.  Though only a few blocks from Reuven's home, Danny might as well live in another world.  At once intrigued and mystified by the Hasidic way of life, Reuven is especially in awe of Danny's father, Rabbi Saunders.  It is obvious that Reb Saunders is an extremely intelligent man, but that intelligence is kept strictly within the bounds of his faith.  More than anything, Reuven can't understand why Reb Saunders never speaks to his son except to discuss the Talmud.  Though Danny's friendship with non-Hasidic Reuven is tolerated by Reb Saunders, outside influences soon come in and threaten to tear these two friends apart forever.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):

I was drawn to this book because I had seen the 1981 film adaptation and was very moved by it.  I found the book to be just as interesting (if more in-depth) and even with my Protestant background, I found that I could relate to certain aspects of the story.

Certainly one of the more intriguing aspects was Reb Saunders' decision for Danny to be "raised in silence".  Danny was very intelligent even from a young child, but he also had no compassion for others who could not mentally keep up with him.  Reb Saunders perceived this and fell before God wondering what he could do with a son who had a great mind, but no soul.  He chooses to put Danny through the painful process of growing up cut off from almost all communication with his father.  This not only makes Danny more introspective, but also teaches him to show compassion for others in pain.  Danny is able to explain to Reuven (who finds the whole process disgusting) that he is actually able to use silence as a form of communication.  It is revealed in the end that Reb Saunders is satisfied to let Danny leave the Hasidic community and go to Columbia University because it is clear that Danny now has a heart for others and will be able to share the roots of his faith with the world outside.  The struggles of young people trying to fulfill their parents' wishes and yet to become their own person is wonderfully portrayed here and I found it to be deeply touching.

Though the overall themes of the book are universal, the nuts and bolts were certainly different from anything I have experienced.  Though I had a basic understanding of the Judaic religion, and even the differences between certain branches, I was not prepared for the depth and complexity presented here.  Much time is taken in discussions of the Talmud, comparisons of commentaries, the history of the Haisdim, and the Judaic rituals.  At times it was almost dizzying.  Then there was the history of Zionism after the second World War which I had never really learned about. It was certainly an intense introduction to turmoil and struggle within the Jewish community after their almost total annihilation during World War II.

I really enjoyed this book overall and there are too many interesting points and themes to discuss here.  I will say that this a pretty slow plot with little direct action.  If you're someone who needs the plot to move at a fairly good clip, then this book probably is not for you.  But if you enjoy books that spend time musing on friendship, culture, and theology then I really recommend that you give The Chosen a try.  I am sure that more of Mr. Potok's works will be finding their way onto my reading list.

The Movie:

The 1981 adaptation of this story is very good and streamlines the plot very well.  Like the book, it is somewhat slow but I still enjoyed it.  I especially found the climatic scene between Reb Saunders  and Danny to be very moving and shed more than one tear watching it.  It stars Robby Benson as Danny, Rod Stieger as Reb Saunders, and Barry Miller as Reuven.             

1 comment:

Anne Mateer said...

This is one of my favorite books! Never seen the movie, but we got to see a stage adaption in Washington D.C. last year that was fabulous.