I was very disappointed when I read Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel “My Name is Asher Lev” last fall as part of the American Jewish literature class that my wife and I were taking. It is the story of a young man, some of a prominent Chasidic scholar and envoy, who also happens to be a talented artist. Asher Lev’s artistic talent creates an enormous conflict for this still-religious young man, upsetting family and teachers alike. He finds an artistic mentor – a formerly religious Orthodox Jew, who persuades him to follow his talent, and he breaks from his family, after much psychological struggling, being virtually forced out of his community and encouraged to live outside his country. He moves to Europe, becomes a successful artist, but remains a committed Jew.
I, and I think most of the class, was not comfortable with this book. The conflict between Asher the Chasid, and Asher the artist, was too prominent. I found the entire story line not quite credible, the book’s characters not quite realistic and somewhat hackneyed, and the writing style a bit adolescent. I was not anxious to read more Potok.
But Theater J’s next full stage production is Potok’s “The Chosen”, based on the book of the same name. And I decided to read the novel, published in 1967, first, so that I could have that much more of an appreciation of the play.
I thought “The Chosen” was a great book. Like “Asher Lev”, the style is very straightforward and the book is easy to read, although I did not think “The Chosen” was sophomoric in the least. It is the story of two young Orthodox boys in Brooklyn, one the son of the Dubrover rebbe, a Chasid, and the other, the son of a modern Orthodox talmudic scholar. They meet playing on their respective schools’ softball teams. Modern Orthodox Reuven Malter is pitching; young Chasid Danny Saunders is at bat. Saunders, who excels in softball as he does in everything else, hits the ball sharply and directly at the pitcher’s head. Rather than ducking, Malter tries to catch the ball, but it hits him instead, putting him in the hospital. Malter hates Saunders, but it turns out that Saunders has become friendly with Malther’s father, whom he has met in a library, where Malter’s father is researching his next book, and Saunders is trying to expand his universe but reading about things that he, as a Chasidic student, was not allowed to read. The boys become fast friends, and the book follows their student days. Malter decides to pursue rabbinical studies at an orthodox school, while, to the surprise of everyone, Saunders decides to break away from his position as his father’s presumptive heir and become a psychologist.
This brief outline of the plot does not give the flavor of the book, through which the differences in the lives of the two young men, and the attitudes of their families, are key. Their relationship with each other is very difficult because of the differences in their seemingly similar communities, and the peculiarities of their families. But both Reuven and Danny are exceptional individuals; their intellectual strengths, their interests, their spiritual natures, their ethics and their personalities give Potok the ability to tell their tale as a tale of continual strivings, each looking to do the right thing, and to help the other do the right thing, and usually succeeding, as life throws them challenge after challenge.
I enjoyed “The Chosen” so much that I went on to read its successor book, “The Promise”, which continues the Danny-Reuven story, following them through their university years, through Danny’s romance with the daughter of another Talmudic scholar, through the struggle for rabbinic ordination that threatens the career choice of Reuven. It is equally compelling, I thought.
So many challenges in these books. Reb Saunders, Danny’s father, has a very unique way of bringing up his son. He refuses to speak to him at all, except when they are studying Talmud together. Very painful for Danny, yet when Danny, now a psychologist, is asked to treat his fiance’s teen-age first cousin, who has severe emotional problems, he chooses a treatment of silence. In each case, the treatments are despised, but seem to work (or at least to do no harm).
Danny’s father is considered a world-class Talmudic scholar, but his approach to the Talmud is not accepted by many Orthodox scholars – whenever there is a textual problem in the Babylonian Talmud that cannot be solved, he looks for textual errors in the Talmud itself, emending the book in order to make sense of the package. Sometimes the emendations have historical bases, sometimes not. He publishes a book, which is bound to cause controversy. One of the most severe critics is Reuven’s Talmud teacher, who publishes two very strong condemnations of Rabbi Malter, and threatens to withhold his son’s ordination unless the son renounces the father.
At the same time, the father of Rachel (Danny’s girlfriend, fiance and then wife), is also a religious scholar – but he is a non-believer, who upholds all the rituals and traditions, and writes to explain how this can, and his mind, should be accomplished. An unlikely choice for marriage for the son of a Chasidic rebbe.
So, we have a coming of age story of two brilliant young men, a description of two very different Brooklyn Orthodox communities, an analysis of various approaches to Torah teaching, all placed within a larger context of observant Jewish life during the years immediately following the end of World War II.
How it would be for a non-Jew to read these two books, I am not sure. But for someone interested in good story telling, and Jewish life, I would rate them both an “A”.