Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Book Review: The Chosen by Chaim Potok

The Jewish Talmud exhorts a man to do two things for himself. First, acquire a teacher. The other is to choose a friend.

Danny Saunders got the package deal when he made the acquaintance of Reuven Malter. Theirs is a Jonathan and David friendship, the two-bodies-with-one-soul type of friendship that happens rarely in a lifetime.

As the oldest son of the tzaddik (righteous leader) of a strict, Hasidic Jewish sect, Danny is the chosen. Upon the death of his father, he will be expected to step up as head of the dynasty. Thus his father, the brilliant but eccentric Reb Saunders, focuses his full attention upon the proper upbringing of his son.

But what is a proper upbringing for a genius? Listen to the agonizing dilemma of Danny's father:

"A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. {Snip} Anything can be a shell....anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.

Reuven, the Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. And he cursed me with all the problems of raising him. Ah, what it is to have a brilliant son! Not a smart son, Reuven, but a brilliant son, a Daniel, a boy with a mind like a jewel. Ah, what a curse it is, what an anguish it is to have a Daniel, whose mind is like a pearl, like a sun. Reuven, when my Daniel was four years old, I saw him reading a story from a book. And I was frightened. he did not read the story, he swallowed it, as one swallows food or water. There was no soul in my four-year-old Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul. It was a story in a Yiddish book about a poor Jew and his struggles to get to Eretz Yisroel before he died. Ah, how that man suffered! And my Daniel enjoyed the story, he enjoyed the last terrible page, because when he finished it he realized for the first time what a memory he had. He looked at me proudly and told me back the story from memory, and I cried inside my heart. I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, 'What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!"

Reb Saunders makes a very unusual choice for his son. He chooses to raise him in silence. Except for weekly dialogue over the Talmud and Torah, no words pass between father and son. Though it seems cruel, it is the father's best hope that the suffering it creates will fan into flame that spark of a soul that lies within Danny.

Reuven becomes the counter-balance for Danny's relationship with his father. As a more liberal Jew, Reuven is able to bring a rational element into an otherwise emotionally volatile situation. Without their friendship, it is easy to see that Danny would crumple either from rage or simply from the heavy load of expectation he carries as a burden.

Ultimately, Reb Saunders can claim at least partial victory for his son's upbringing. Danny will break the the multi-generational traditions of his ancestors; he will not step into the chosen role of Tzaddik. Rather, he will be a "tzaddik for the world", a different kind of a healer in his chosen field of psychology. But he will remain a practicing Jew, a man with a soul in whom the spark of life burns brightly.

I loved this book. It was fascinating to look behind the scenes at the traditions of the most orthodox sect of Judaism. The Jews have remained a people apart, separate from the nations. This story gives a glimpse of the challenges they incurred as a people group after WWII. The struggle was to keep their traditions intact, but at the same time to acclimate to their new home country of America. Rich, rich, rich. I have scouted out two others by the same author The Promise, which is a sequel to The Chosen, and My Name is Asher Lev, which some feel is Chaim Potok's best work.

And yes, Janie, I learned some new words:

Reb- a Yiddish word used as a title of respect for a Jewish teacher or important other. It is always placed in front of a name.

Rebbe- (pronounced REBB-uh or REBB-ee) In Hasidic circles the Rebbe is a spiritual leader, usually of higher status than an ordinary rabbi.

Tzaddik- a righteous man who has conquered his own evil inclinations.

gematriya- a word derived from the Greek "geometry". The letters of the Hebrew alphabet have assigned numerical values; in studying the Torah, meaning can be read into these values, sometimes of a mystical nature.

Hasidism- orthodox Judaism of a mystical nature originating in the 1700's in Eastern Europe.

Yeshiva- A Jewish parochial school

Pilpul- empty, nonsensical arguments over minute points of the Talmud with no practical application to the world.

tzitzit- long fringes that hang from the four corners of the orthodox Jewish garment.

Postscript: The Chosen was made into a movie in 1982 ~~ one of the actors is Rod Steiger. Has anyone out there seen it?

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