Friday, September 2, 2016

The Chosen - Chaim Potok

The ChosenThe Chosen is another book I'm reading as catch-up for the Deliberate Reader book club.  This was the selection for March.  It's an older book, originally published in 1967, though it's gone through several rounds of re-issues; the cover pictured here is from an edition from the 1990s.  The story takes place in the later part of World War II and in the years immediately after it, and follows two Jewish boys living in New York City.  Reuven is our narrator; the son of a professor who writes lots of articles on Judaism and who becomes a prominent Zionist, he wants to become a rabbi when he grows up, despite his father's wishes for him to become a mathematics professor.  The other main character is Danny, who Reuven first encounters during an ill-fated baseball game.  Danny is the son of a Hasidic rabbi and is supposed to become a rabbi himself when he grows up, following in his father's footsteps, though what he really wants to do is study and practice psychology.  Despite the rocky start at the baseball game, Danny and Reuven become friends, and the story follows them through the trials of their friendship as they try to balance the expectations placed upon them with their own hopes and dreams.

This was a really interesting book to me not because of the story itself, but because of what it fundamentally is.  Ultimately, this is a book with Jewish characters set during WWII which doesn't deal with the Holocaust.  The Holocaust is mentioned in passing, once troops reach the camps overseas and news comes back, and some of the older characters are absolutely destroyed by it, but ultimately it plays a very minor part in the story.  I might just be narrowly-read in this area, but in my experience it's fairly rare to find books with Jewish main characters set in this time period that doesn't deal with the Holocaust in a very intimate way.  I actually liked this; while the Holocaust was a horrible, horrible event, it's also very widely-written, and I liked that this book offered a view onto Jewish life as it continued on in the US, despite the ongoing war.  It was just something that I don't see very often, and was therefore a very refreshing read.

The relationship between Danny and Reuven is really the center of this book; the relationships with the fathers are, in my opinion, secondary.  It's Danny and Reuven who shape each other more than their fathers ultimately do, as they encourage each other in different ways, support each other, and help cement what are essentially the opposite fates of what their fathers had intended for them.  In some ways, Danny would have been better suited with Reuven's father, and Reuven better suited with Danny's--though Danny's father raised him in this weird sort of silence, the reasons for which were ultimately explained but didn't really hold water for me, and Reuven blatantly said that would have been terrible for him.  So maybe that pairing wouldn't have worked out after all.  But watching the deviation from their intended paths to their desired ones, even when they were separated, was an interesting process.  It's a character-driven novel, definitely, which means that if you're going to look for a strong plot, there isn't one.  It's very much about Danny and Reuven's development as people rather than being about them actually setting out to achieve a specific goal.  But I think that's the type of narrative that was best suited here, and I ended up really enjoying this one.  It put out a lot of information about Judaism in general and Hasidism more specifically that I wasn't aware of, and so it also functioned as a sort of educational experience.  As I mentioned before, the whole "raised in silence" thing, while it seems like it might be real (I can't weigh in on that) didn't hold up for me, but that's really my only big complaint about this book.

4 stars out of 5.

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