Title: The Chosen
Author: Chaim Potok
Genre: Modern Classic (Published 1967)
Rating: 5 out of 5
This book was selected as the January read by the Dewey Decimators. One of the best things about being in a book club is that it encourages you to read books that you might not pick up on your own, and sometimes you discover real gems like this one.
The Chosen follows six years of life and friendship between two Orthodox Jewish young men in Brooklyn. Reuven (the narrator) and Danny come from very different homes and religious traditions. Reuven’s father is a Modern Orthodox scholar who has a rationalistic approach to his faith, and Danny’s father is the leader (tzaddik) of an Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community who has a much more mystical (and restrictive) approach to faith.
The friendship that grows between these young men (starting with hatred at their first meeting at the age of 15) provides warmth and support as they deal with historical events like the the death of FDR, the end of World War II, discovery of the horrors of the holocaust, and the establishment of the modern state of Israel. On a more personal level, there is the brilliant Danny’s feeling of being increasingly trapped as he is being groomed to become his community’s next tzaddik by his silent, brooding father who only talks with him when they discuss the Talmud.
The author brings the characters and setting to life so brilliantly that it is hard to believe this is fiction and not an autobiography. It provides a compassionate examinations of the experiences, culture, and faith of American Jewry as well as a heart-warming and heart-breaking look at family and friendship. I highly recommend this book!
An additional thought from my own faith: in the book, one of the roles of the tzaddik is to help bear the griefs and suffering of the world until Messiah comes. While this compassionate desire is, in a way, beautiful, I also find it very sad because it is taking on a burden too great to bear…a burden that properly belongs to the Messiah, which I believe has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. – Isaiah 53:4-6
One final thing to take care of: this review is also being linked to the Back to Classics Challenge 2017 in the category of Award-Winning Classics. It won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award (and was nominated for the National Book Award).