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The Chosen, By Chaim Potok – Not quite a review

Have you read The Chosen by Chaim Potok? My dear wife of 26 years today tells me that you will still find it on public school reading lists. I’m surprised by that because the book is rather explicitly religious and very profound.

I finished it last night, having borrowed it from a former student (Heather Jennings, nee Herrick – thanks Heather) and read it on my flight home from CA. When I closed the book, first I said, “Wow,” and exhaled. Then I thought, if you want to understand what happened to American evangelicalism compare the way evangelicals educate their children with the way the Jews (Hasidic or Orthodox, if I’m getting the terms right) educate their children.

If you haven’t read this book and you are involved in education, I highly recommend it.

Daniel Saunders is a Hasidic Jew in 1940’s Brooklynn who nearly ruins Reuven Malter’s eye in a schoolyard baseball game (grippingly told by Potok). When he visits Reuven in the hospital after the latter’s surgery, a unique and intense friendship is born that becomes the stage of the story.

It’s the story of two cultures clashing, as most stories are, and that in the context of a third culture (America) that both sustains and threatens each of the other two. Friendship grows in spite of and because of this clash of cultures and everybody grows in wisdom by story’s end.

For me, the intensity peaks near the end when Danny Saunder’s father addresses Reuven to explain why he has not spoken to his son since he was four.

Reuven, the Master of the Universe blessed me with a brilliant son. And he cursed me with all the problems of raising him. Ah, what it is to have a brilliant son! Not a smart son, Reuven, but a brilliant son, a Daniel, a boy with a mind like a jewel. Ah, what a curse it is, what an anguish it is to have a Daniel, whose mind is like a pearl, like a sun. Reuven, when my Daniel was four years old, I saw him reading a story from a book. And I was frightened. He did not read the story, he swallowed it, as one swallows food or water. There was no soul in my four-year-old Daniel, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a soul…. He looked at me proudly and told me back the story from memory, and I cried inside my heart. I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, “What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!”

If you are looking for a novel for a book group, I would highly recommend this one. You’ll never run out of things to talk about, from the power of silence, to father/son relationships, to the claims of community on its members, to the place of tradition, to how to teach and learn, to the argument of the ancient and the modern.

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok

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