The podcast version of this book review can be found here.
“When Mendal was already the far-famed and much-hated rabbi of Kotzak, he once returned to the little town in which he was born. There he visited the teacher who taught him his alphabet when he was a child and read five books of Moses with him. But he did not go to see the teacher who had given him further instruction, and at a chance meeting the man asked his former pupil whether he had any cause to be ashamed of his teacher. Mendal replied: ‘You taught me things that can be refuted, for according to one interpretation they can mean this, according to another, that. But my first teacher taught me true things which cannot be refuted, and they have remained with me as such. That is why I owe him special reverence.’” – Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidism (reprinted in Tending the Heart of Virtue)
Several years ago The Chosen was recommended to me through an educational group which was trying to nurture parents in their vocation of cultivating a lifelong learning environment in their homes. I had never heard of the book, the cover was forgettable, and I was terribly unimpressed by the first chapter. In the second chapter, things became more interesting, but almost painful to read. Because I was resigned to the task of reading it, but wasn’t excited about it, it became my mission to read the book as quickly as possible so as to be done with it and move on. While every chapter improved upon the chapter before it, that first reading experience was quite challenging for me. In fact, through much of the book, I felt an oppressive heaviness weighing down on the characters and my soul as I read. And then, just as it was ending, it all came together. Not unlike Brideshead Revisited and Till We Have Faces the end contextualized everything that came before it. My first reading was complete and I knew that I needed to re-read it again immediately. I have been re-reading it every year, ever since. I am always learning something new, always delighting in some idea better understood, and always wishing there was even more there so I could stay in the story a little longer.
The educational group was not wrong. This book is about cultivating a well-ordered love of learning. It is also about mentoring and parenting. It deals deftly with deeply human questions of identity. And, it is a sublime window into Orthodox Jewish culture in the United States and in Europe. The more I read this book, the more convicted I am that my children’s education will be incomplete if they do not encounter this at least once in their high school career.
Like any classic, this story has many layers. In the first layer, we have a tale of friendship. Two unlikely friends become confidants through a crisis. While both are Orthodox Jews, the subculture they live in is extremely divided. Essentially, it is only with the blessing of the rabbinical leadership that Danny and Reuven are permitted to cross traditional lines and share the journey with each other. Central to their friendship, however, each boy’s relationship to the other boy’s father. Each boy fundamentally loves and respects his own father, but has intellectual and spiritual needs that only the other father can address. This makes the story of friendship complex and fascinating.
In the second layer of the story, we have two young men who are coming of age in a world that is recovering from war. When the story opens, WWII is in its final stages. Not long after the celebration of V-Day, the atrocities of the death camps are discovered. When the boys cross the traditional cultural lines to become friends, they are echoing the hope and joy that Americans feel as the war resolves. As the world contends with the shocking realities of the holocaust and the devastating effects on the Jewish people as a race, American Jews become polarized in their responses. Potok uses the undulating emotions of the American Jews to cause a unique tension in the friendship of the two boys. In one moment their fathers are unified in their shared contempt for the death camps, in the next their fathers are at odds over the appropriate Jewish response. This pushing together and pulling apart gives the story momentum and authenticity.
In a third layer of the story, we have a collection of vignettes which are quilted together by the blossoming friendship between Danny and Reuven. As an example, Reuven’s hospital stay feels isolating even when the young man is sharing a room with other uniquely interesting characters. Potok uses Reuven’s eye injury and fear of blindness to bind him to other characters who are vastly different than he is, but who are similarly challenged. In doing it this way, Potok guarantees that we will care about all of the characters regardless of how small a role they play because we are learning about the main characters and their internal struggles through their relationships with the minor characters. The ways in which Reuven and Danny are blessed by the Almighty are accented in the ways in which the minor characters do not receive blessings. While each scene almost stands alone, they are best understood together. This is masterfully done.
I know that there are many more layers to this story. In four readings, I think I have just begun to scratch the surface on what this book can teach me. Beautifully written, I am sad that this story is largely unknown and not more commonly advanced as an example of great American literature. My life is richer for having read The Chosen.