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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
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Chosen!