Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

He paused for a moment, as if considering his next words carefully, then continued.  "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 suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?"  He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on.  "I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing.  But the eye that blinks, that is something.  A span of a life is nothing.  But the man who lives that span, he is something."

I live not far from an Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.  I'm there a lot, but I'm always passing through--connecting from a below ground train to an above ground one, or on a run--and so it seems both familiar and unfamiliar to me.  Parts of it seem as if they were carted in wholesale from Eastern Europe: signs in Yiddish, men with beards and ear locks, women in demure black from head to toe, with really great hair.  (I learned some time ago that the married women wear wigs.)  I always get the sense--perhaps justified, probably not--that my presence there is not particularly welcome.  But despite that, or perhaps because of it, I have always been fascinated with the Hasidic community that lives there, so close but seemingly unknowable.

But how to investigate a society that is, or seems, so insular?  I turned to Chaim Potok's The Chosen, which is what came up first when I googled "Hasidic Jewish novel."

At first, I thought that The Chosen was a young adult novel.  Its style is simple and restrained, and not particularly thoughtful, and it starts out with a baseball game.  Both teams are from Jewish schools in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but one is Hasidic and one is not.  The star of the Hasidic team, Danny Saunders, whispers to his opponent, the narrator Reuven Malter: "[W]e're going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon."  Apikorsim is a word that means, more or less, Jews who are Jews in name only.  And for a moment, it seems as if he's going to make good on his threat, propelling a ball into Reuven's eye with such force that a piece of glass becomes embedded in his eye, nearly blinding him.

And in typical young adult fashion, this leads to a visit in hospital from a contrite Danny, and a lifelong friendship.  But from there it becomes more sophisticated, if never more sophisticatedly written, using Danny and Reuven's relationship to explore the tension between different conceptions of God, and the relationship between Jews and the wider world.  Danny is a tortured figure, a young genius who yearns to study Freud but is pegged as the tzaddik, the "chosen one" who will follow in the footsteps of his notorious father, Reb (Rabbi) Saunders.  Reuven, on the other hand, wants to be a rabbi, though his father wants him to be a mathematician.

Though Danny's agony is the stuff of great fiction, Potok doesn't seem to know what to do with it.  There are moments of powerful resonance.  One comes to mind, when Danny is forbidden from speaking to Reuven because their fathers are on opposite sides on the question of a Jewish Homeland, and for a moment in the hallway of their school their hands meet in an unspoken gesture of friendship.  But Potok is more interested in devoting long pages to discourses on Jewish history and Fruedian psychology.  Taking the form of discussions between the two ultra-bright boys, they manage not to feel false or flat, but neither do they make gripping narrative, and they made me wish for another baseball game.  And yet, I cannot say that I did not get what I wanted: a detailed exploration into the lives of Hasidic Jews.

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