Sights and Sounds: Thoughts* on Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (by Bethany)

* It seems to me that there should be a statute of limitations to the use of the word “review.” After a book has been around for a while, I have trouble saying that I am “reviewing” it. So I think I will use the word “thoughts” to describe what I write about books that my gut instinct considers too old to review. How old is too old? I don’t know. It will probably depend on the book, the author, my mood, and the phases of the moon.

When I reached the end of Bring Up the Bodies, I felt, I don’t know, fragile. Weary. Perhaps because of the fifty pages of hangings and eviscerations and beheadings on which the novel ends; perhaps for other reasons, more personal and existential. One way or the other, though, the books that I had thought about reading next all felt too cold and intimidating. Since I was in my childhood home at the time and surrounded by my childhood and college book collection, I thought it would be comforting to reread an old favorite, and I gravitated toward Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.

As a teenager, I remember thinking that The Chosen would have been a great novel if it weren’t for the 34-page baseball game in the first chapter. As far as I was concerned, the novel began on page 35 – just as I always tell my students that The Scarlet Letter begins on page 42. The baseball game provided a convenient way for Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders to meet, since their differences in background would have made such a meeting unlikely otherwise. Still, I thought the game could have been summarized.

When I sat down to reread this novel, I remembered this initial impression and decided – before I had even read the first page – that Potok had clearly organized his first chapter around the baseball game in order to remind his readers that the story he was about to tell was an American story. While many of his characters did not necessarily talk or dress or live their lives in ways that might seem quintessentially American, as immigrants and the children of immigrants who came to this country seeking religious freedom and struggling to strike a balance between integrating and remaining true to the culture and religion of their ancestors, these characters are more quintessentially American than they would be if they all wore Levi’s and dined nightly on hot dogs, and I decided prematurely that the presence of the national pastime served as a reminder of this fact.

I don’t think I was necessarily wrong, but I do think that I probably should have read the book before deciding on this interpretation. During the baseball game, protagonist and relief pitcher Reuven Malter is struck in the eye by a ball hit by Danny Saunders, a player on the opposing team with whom Reuven has already struck up a rivalry and exchanged a few mild insults. The ball breaks Reuven’s glasses and he is taken to a hospital to have shards of glass removed from his eye. The novel’s lengthy second chapter covers the week Reuven spends in the eye ward of a hospital recovering from his surgery. His bed is situated between those of a former prizefighter and a young blind boy awaiting surgery to restore his sight. Reuven’s doctor tells him that his eye may develop scar tissue and that he may be blind in that eye; if not, though, his eye will be as good as new and his vision will completely recover. As it turns out, neither the blind boy nor the prizefighter has a successful surgery; Reuven, however, has his sight completely restored.

The beginning of chapter 5 (also the beginning of the novel’s Part II) bursts with visual imagery as Reuven puts his glasses back on for the first time and sees his familiar world with new eyes. “The world jumped into focus and everything suddenly looked fresh and bright and clean… there was a newness everywhere, a feeling that I had been away a long time in a dark place and was suddenly coming home to sunlight” (93). The sense of sight is not the only one awakened for Reuven upon his return home; he is also strikingly aware of the smell of chicken soup in his family’s kitchen, the wetness of the kiss his housekeeper gives him, and the shape and placement of each familiar object in his bedroom. In literature, the sense of sight is often associated with prejudice and ignorance; even though our eyes can give us access to information and truth, but our eyes also often lead us to make quick and faulty judgment. Ever since Tiresias in Greek mythology, the blind person whose lack of vision leads him to a preternatural wisdom has been a common archetype in western literature.

Reuven is not blind, but he is almost blinded. His confrontation with Danny Saunders – whose family’s Hasidic Judaism prompts him to live an isolated and seemingly-austere lifestyle – could lead to greater prejudice and ignorance. As is, he quickly makes assumptions about Danny, but these assumptions are challenged when Danny visits him persistently in the hospital and the two become friends. Both Danny and Reuven make the choices that prevent either of them from becoming figuratively blinded.

This novel is taught at the eighth, ninth, and tenth grade level in some schools, and several years ago I tried assigning it as a summer reading novel for incoming ninth graders. This experiment did not go well; the students did badly on a rather easy test on the book and generally told us that the book was boring. I was surprised, since I remember being riveted by the book when I read it on my own in high school. But, reading it again, I think I understand why our fourteen year-old students did not respond well to it. While Potok does use the senses to advance the development of his characters and themes, this novel is profoundly cerebral. This is a novel about being a nerd; in fact, I am not sure that I have ever read such a compelling narrative that is fundamentally about people doing their homework. This is a novel of friendship in which months pass in which the main characters do not see each other – not because something dramatic is happening to keep them apart but because they are simply too busy studying. I wasn’t bothered by this feature of the novel when I was a teenager because even at that age I was already a nerd myself; I was well aware of the tempests that can thrash around in the cerebral cortex and was delighted to see these internal dramas enact themselves in literature. But knowing teenagers as I do now, I can understand why they found it dry, offputting, and alien.

The Chosen is also a novel about exile and silence. Reuven and his father live a life of semi-isolation in which religious ritual and the demands of academia keep them tethered to a tight routine. Danny’s family is isolated by a religious culture that prohibits unnecessary interactions with the corrupt world. In a global sense, World War II ends at this novel’s midpoint, and the awareness of the millions of Jewish voices that were silenced by the Holocaust is omnipresent in the second half of the book as the American Jewish community in the novel coalesces and recommits itself to its duty to preserve Jewish traditions.

Perhaps most troubling, though, is the silence that characterizes Danny’s relationship with his father.  His father – a rabbi within a Hasidic sect in which leadership is passed from father to son by inheritance – recognized Danny’s brilliance and intense curiosity when he was young and used decided to practice a traditional technique known as raising a child in silence. He does not speak to Danny except when the two of them are studying scripture or the Talmud together. The practice is designed to force the child’s soul to mature quickly, just as the suffering caused by exile can prompt a person to grow to greater heights of wisdom and compassion than someone who has had an easy life. He suspects – correctly – that Danny will choose to pursue his own career instead of taking on his father’s position as head of his community, and he wants to give Danny’s soul a lifetime’s worth of education in less than eighteen years.

In a way, Danny Saunders is a microcosm of the surviving Jewish community at the close of the second world war. While his physical health is fine, his soul and psyche are both profoundly wounded by the silence of his childhood and possessed of a heightened awareness of its own sacredness. “He must grow old beyond his years,” Danny’s father explains to Reuven, referring both to Danny specifically and to all young people who are destined to be spiritual leaders. “He must cry, in his heart he must always cry. Even when he dances and sings, he must cry for the suffering of his people” (265). Danny’s academic field of study is psychology; even though he will not become a practicing rabbi, he does enter a career in which his understanding of silence and exile will be invaluable.

There is something wonderful about returning to a book that helped me to grow up. When I read this book for the first time at sixteen or so, nothing bad had ever happened to me. For me, reading served the purposes that Danny’s father ascribes to raising a child in silence. Reading made me away of suffering; it taught me to be serious and made me crave contact with my own inner seriousness. Contemporary American culture is constantly jumping around, trying to make children laugh. Who ever said that children are supposed to laugh all the time? This novel and others like it taught me to seek congress with my own soul and with the sensory stimuli – sights, sounds, smells – that can explain the world to us if we just keep listening.

This entry was posted in Authors, Chaim Potok, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sights and Sounds: Thoughts* on Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (by Bethany)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I read The Chosen early in college. Or late in high school. I think early in college. I read it because you handed it to me at Green Apple and said, “Here, read this. You’ll like it.” Many years have passed since then… I did read and enjoy The Chosen, but reading this essay makes me think I may have missed the point. Perhaps this should be a re-read too?

    • lfpbe says:

      I doubt if you missed the point – on one level, the novel is a fairly straightforward coming of age/friendship story. But this time around I was aware of it on so many other levels, especially in terms of the language.

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