Revisiting Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”

Revisiting a Jewish classic, as an adult. Read More

By / November 2, 2011

Certain books charge at you with the velocity of a revelation. They make it hard to breathe, as if punched in the stomach. Your mind is overloaded with what feels like endless possibilities of intellectual curiosity, emotional expansiveness, and a general feeling of warmth–maybe even love. Books most often affect us in this way at younger ages, when we’re still piecing the world together.  When we don’t know, fully, about the heterogeneity of experience, its complexity, its possibilities, its beauty, the extent of evil. We rarely know anything about this or what we refer to as self awareness, a sense of perspective on life that comes from universality. However, because adolescence serves as one of the more exploratory/impressionable times in which we feel, immensely, more than in most stages of life, this makes teenagers ripe for books to actually affect their reality.

For me, I can actually think of those books. Perhaps I made a list, but just based on memories, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen: 3.4 million sold world-wide, critically acclaimed, finalist for the National Book award, read still today by many high school students of all ethnic backgrounds shattered parts of the frozen sea inside of me, as Kafka would have it.
For the first time in my life, I felt normalized, not frightened of my religion, of my yarmulke amongst non-Jews, and even amongst my friends. I didn’t necessarily grow in any religious sense, rather I felt a sliver of pride, or at least a sense of calm with my Judaism. If books make you feel less alone in your questions, your struggles, your quirky joys, your pain, your life, then the Chosen was a hug in the form of a book (Much like, at least then, a Modern Orthodox version of Franny and Zooey.) A statement from the universe, that it’s OK 13 year old Joe. You can think and feel this way. You are not as alone as you like to think.
Consequently, I find it troubling to return to review this book at such a drastically different point of life. In the interim, I sort of grew up. I read a lot of books, a lot of the best literature ever; I met new kinds of people.  I quit graduate school.  I fought that necessary fight with my parents and we all came out better for it. I felt love, both the highs and the lows. I felt pain, real sustained pain. I learned about my limits, my complexity, my biases; I journeyed through the mysteries of religion with my whole being. Therefore, I felt frightened to now go back and mess with my history, with my own personal narrative. I don’t want to know that the movies I cherished as a child were populist trash (The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, Little Giants, Home Alone) or things of similar disillusionment.
Like most things in life, the answer is, well it depends. In many ways the book did let me down. It remained a teenage story, both in style, with its simple, repetitive prose, displaying little indication of any artistry, and in the story itself. Even minimalists or those who shun the use of lyricism manage to make their prose compelling past its ability carry along the story. These authors (Famously: Carver, but also Hempel and Grace Paley) take pride in the careful use of rationed words. They create images that do not simply help you envision an object, but open up your eyesight in the way Reuven began to see after his near-blindness. But even that part of the story, for example, I would expect sentences more for beautiful than a simple description of sun on a plant. At a certain point simplicity no longer represents a style, but a weakness.

Similarly, after attending numerous writing courses, I can easily spot that Potok falls into many of the simple traps we learn to avoid: easy clichés instead of actual description, too much telling not enough showing, unnecessary repetition of unique words unless it serves some purpose. We learn that characters are meant to convey singularity, call it flat vs. round, or complicate that dichotomy if you will, but still, a character should feel a little unhinged, unpredictable, like reality itself. We know good characters when we see them despite all the definitions, failed mostly, of what entails a good character.

One of the essential markers of a good character is the desire to see or hear from this character again. Be they good or evil, annoying or not, you feel compelled by their life, their struggles, their presence. Reuven, and especially Danny, I find this time around, lack energy, lack humor, and almost transform at certain points into conduits for ideas instead of characters that embody them. Ironically, or perhaps, purposefully, I find Danny and Reuven considerably emptier as characters, less compelling as people than their respective fathers from whom I craved entrance into the convoluted chambers of their lives.  Even with these fascinating sketches of fathers, they stay just that: sketches, almost archetypes of differing worlds so  that they embody every trait of their respective communities. (Also, I get the lack of women in the book, but also I don’t fully get the lack of women in the book.)

The most obvious example of this borderline laziness is Potok’s use of repetition. Potok, either in the style of Homer in which the same epithet and description follows a character around like a loyal sidekick, which is a generous guess, or out of weakness, relies too often not only on easy, but simple consistent descriptions. Danny’s face is always sculptured, Reuven’s dad always pale and gaunt, Danny’s shoes always clapping with its omnipresent metallic sound, and the biggest and most blatant leitmotif of all: Silence.

In the end, at the big finish, as Reb Saunders speaks through Reuven to his now almost adult son Danny, the reveal feels too much like a reveal, almost parabolic in its tone, perhaps bordering on moralistic. God’s silence, like Reb Saunders, is the silence of a loving father who wants his children to attain souls that feel, immensely, the pain of the world. Not only does it lack heftiness as a theological statement, but it feels forced in the context of the book. Nowhere do we find that Danny betrays autistic characteristics, in fact, he is nothing if not emotional throughout, and the imposed silence and its lofty purpose feels unearned in the book, but oddly appealing as a quasi-mystical idea. Read Reb Saunder’s explanation of his silence. It is perhaps Potok at his most potent. I imagine his speech plastered on some kid’s notebook or inside their locker, though teachers, parents, and all human beings could benefit from a glance at this impassioned plea for empathy.

Though the story does highlight and delve into the tensions of a modern Jewish life, admittedly it feels outdated tame, calm, tempered, almost clichéd. All books struggle with relevance. But certain books, in grounding themselves in real history, in a struggle of ideas as much as a struggle of personalities, risk irrelevance when history changes. The staying power of this book stems not from its religious or cultural urgency, but from its broad message of tolerance.

Reading the Chosen today feels more like a foray into a bygone era of Judaism where Jews fought for and about their Judaism. Where Jewish continuity represented the greatest threat to our people, and where the biggest question in life was, how you will contribute to the Jewish community as opposed to, should I even commit myself in any way to the Jewish community. Here, the fathers know best, even if the son strays, not very far though, while straying from your parents, arguing with them about your drastically different lifestyle represents a rite of passage for our generation. More importantly, we live in a world where no one seems to know any good answers to anything happening in the world, neither father nor their sons.

But none of this view takes away from what Potok gets right, and he nails so much that I can only thank him for his ability to state so plainly what defined me for years. His description of yeshiva and college life lights a tiny fire beneath my heart. Even now, with my small cache of accumulated experience and distance, Potok’s explanation of Talmud as the gauge of intelligence haunts me because of its plain truth. So too with Potok’s description of the teenage and college stage struggle with ideas as opposed to people. That time in your life when a library serves up a feast and you don’t know where to begin. Where ideas enrapture, capture you, leaving you cold, frail, empty and broken, or inspired, fulfilled, dare we say uplifted and moved to think and feel more. He paints with precision that temptation of unceasing devotion, religious devotion, the simplicity and power of it all, the high and rush of creativity, of single minded pursuit of one topic, one idea; The consequent need for approval from all types of elders, but he also misses so much of the contemporary experience. But who could blame him, what with the breakneck changes in the past 50 years towards Israel, towards Judaism.

In that sense, the Chosen changes more into an amazingly straightforward representation of its culture and time. However, it lacks the energy, the insight, the electricity to charge those of our time, I imagine, or those of different age groups. We cannot forget its revelatory status for so many of the previous generation, both adults and teenagers alike. Potok was the first Jewish writer to tackle so many sensitive issues with real aplomb: the Holocaust, Zionism, Modernity etc. But we need to forge a head to create Jewish literature that speaks to the struggles, joys, and inner world of a significantly different generation.

For a different vantage point, check out Shalom Auslander’s introduction to the Chosen for the Penguin Classics Library. Auslander, as is his wont, takes a more personal, irreverent view, but ultimately taps into some of the remaining power of this book.