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Born in the Bronx, New York, in , and raised in a Hasidic Jewish community, Chaim Potok grew up in a world of rigorous Talmudic scholarship and adherence to Jewish values, beliefs, and rituals. He was also exposed to the ideas of Western art, literature, and philosophy at an early age, although he met with hostility as he pursued these. Subsequently, his broadening vision and the challenges he met helped move him from Orthodox to Conservative Judaism.

The result was that he had to construct a new existence. Potok rejected all attempts to divide the universe into separate domains of religion and science.

Alienation

And a pattern of behavior that is not linked to a system of thought is an instance of religious robbery. Set in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the story concerns two boys who begin as enemies and wind up as friends. Fifteen-year-old Reuven Malter and his father are Orthodox, or observant, Jews. Danny Saunders, the oldest son of the revered Reb Saunders—the Hasidic leader of a dynastic community—is obliged by history and tradition to succeed his father as a tzaddik a teacher or spiritual adviser but is instead drawn to secular knowledge of the kind that Reuven has been exposed to.

The Rebbe, fearing that his brilliant son would not grow to be a compassionate leader, decided early on to bring up Danny in silence, communicating to him solely through others or during Talmudic debates in the synagogue. This withholding of communication, he reasons, will teach his son denial and sensitize him to suffering.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok Book Review and Summary

The end result, however, is that it leads Danny to explore his own nature and to try to understand why he is so drawn to the hyperrational world represented by Reuven and his father. David Malter, while understanding that the fanaticism of men like Reb Saunders had kept the Jews alive for more than two millennia, is nonetheless contemptuous of the way Reb Saunders has raised Danny in silence.

This conflict is portrayed in and central to The Chosen. Reuven knows that in Jewish law a rabbi is not necessary for religious services to be held; any Jew may convene a minyan ten Jewish The Chosen males for a service. These novels, written by brilliant Catholic writers dissenting within their own tradition, impelled Potok to a future in which he continually explored the struggle between faith and secularity. Like those that inspired its author, The Chosen is a novel that came from a person on the inside of the Jewish tradition—a believer, not a skeptic.

The dramatic beginning of the novel focuses on combat, in a baseball game between the Orthodox boys and the Hasidic boys. The next day, very contrite, Danny visits Reuven and they become fast friends.

Discussion of Thought Questions

What is essential is the conflict between blind fanaticism and piousness. In that sense the novel is a true reflection of each group. That Potok may have used poetic license may also be true; after all, the world to which Danny is drawn outside the Hasidic community bears some responsibility. Feeling trapped by his position as heir to the Rebbe, Danny must go beyond his limiting study of the Talmud, must sample the best minds and literature of the past centuries.

Not surprisingly he is attracted to psychology, which represents almost a secular religion to him, and in the end, the Rebbe agrees that Danny will be a tzaddik for the world. At the end, one has to agree that The Chosen —about two kinds of Jews, about the divisions between Orthodoxy and Hasidism—is also a very American novel.


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  6. Chaim Potok has written in The Chosen a truly American, multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic masterpiece. Year after year, people of all faiths and backgrounds came to this book. Potok was a world-class writer and scholar. Though critics often underrated him, it is my judgment that in the long run he will emerge as one of the major American Jewish writers of the twentieth century.