Chaim Potok, an American rabbi and scholar, was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1929. The eldest son of Polish immigrants, Potok grew up in New York City and started writing fiction when he was only sixteen years old. Potok received a rigorous religious and secular education at Yeshiva University, a school very similar to the fictional Hirsch Seminary and College in The Chosen. He then received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He died on July 23, 2002 at his home in Pennsylvania.
Potok wrote numerous novels, plays, and short stories, and was a painter all his life. As an author, Potok is best known for exploring the interplay between religious Judaism and the broader secular world, a fundamental tension in his own life.
The Chosen, Potok’s first novel, is part of a larger tradition of twentieth-century Jewish-American literature, which includes the authors Abraham Cahan, Henry Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick. The tensions between tradition and modern American life is a frequent theme in Jewish literature and, more broadly, in American immigrant literature. The Chosen explores this theme in an unusual and distinctive manner, focusing on the ways in which different Jewish communities attempt to strike a balance between tradition and modernity, and the tension this effort creates. Instead of becoming completely assimilated into American culture, Potok’s characters try to balance their religious interests with their secular ones.
The Chosen’s two central characters are a Hasid and a traditional Orthodox Jew. The Hasidim are known for their mystical interpretation of Judaism and for their faithful devotion to their leaders. In contrast, traditional Orthodoxy emphasizes a rational and intellectual approach to Judaism. The novel examines Jewish identity from within these contexts by telling the parallel stories of two Jewish adolescents who are similar enough to become best friends, yet different enough to change each other’s view of the world.
Like many of Potok’s novels, The Chosen takes place at a significant moment in world history. The first third of the novel unfolds during the Allied offensive in World War II, the middle third deals with the American Jewish community’s response to the Holocaust, and the final third is concerned with the Zionist movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine. These events are not merely backdrop for the novel, but contribute significantly to its plot and thematic content. For example, the differing ways Reb Saunders and David Malter react to the Holocaust indicate a major difference between them. Reb Saunders’s argues that the murder of six million Jews is God’s will and that, in response, man can only wait for God to bring the Messiah. In contrast, David Malter believes that American Jews must give the Holocaust meaning by preserving Jewish culture in America and by creating a homeland in Palestine. This fundamental difference of opinion between the two men eventually has important consequences for the novel’s plot.
In tracing the friendship of two religious adolescent boys influenced by their fathers, Potok offers insight into the challenges of faith facing the American Jewish community in the wake of the Holocaust. Moreover, the book’s historical backdrop catalyzes one of the novel’s central conflicts: the conflict between tradition and modernity. Throughout the novel, characters are forced to choose between isolating themselves from the outside world and retreating into tradition—as Reb Saunders advocates—or actively embracing issues that extend beyond a single community—as demonstrated by David Malter’s activism. Among other subjects, the novel studies the different ways of balancing Jewish observance with life in twentieth-century America.