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The Chosen | Context

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Canon of Jewish Literature and Critical Reception

The Chosen inhabits a unique place in the canon of American Jewish literature. At the time of its publication in the late 1960s, it was the first book by a major publisher to portray Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews typically believe that the Torah, or the most sacred of Jewish texts, was divinely written and follow its precepts as closely as possible. They follow dietary law (kashrut), strictly observe the Sabbath (the day of rest), and celebrate all of the festivals and holy days according to guidelines set out in the Talmud, the books of Jewish law. All interactions among people are governed by Jewish law. There is little separation between the secular and the religious. Within Orthodox Jewry, there are divisions among interpretations and level of observance. Reuven is modern Orthodox because he accepts and embraces the secular world. Danny is a Hasidic Jew. His community looks to their spiritual leader, the tzaddik, for guidance. Their lives revolve primarily around Jewish teachings.

Although Danny struggles with the limits placed on him by his community and the focus on Jewish sacred texts, The Chosen is not about assimilation. Danny and Reuven are both committed Jews; their struggles are not the same as the protagonists in books by other Jewish writers, such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, or Herman Wouk. These authors struggled with the challenges of assimilation and feelings of "otherness." While Chaim Potok concerns himself with the secular world, his conflicts are more about the intellectual tension of faith versus scientific rationalism. His characters, like the author himself, live somewhere in the middle. They remain faithful to their God, but at the same time they explore new ways of viewing the world intellectually. Danny and Reuven do not measure themselves against non-Jews or feel shame in their accents or garb; their world remains Jewish, even as they expand it. Danny ultimately shaves his beard and his payot (earlocks, the curly long pieces of hair left to hang by the ears, favored by Hasidic Jews). Potok saw The Chosen as the story of a culture war; its subject is the conflict between Judaism and modern secular humanism (or paganism, as Potok calls it).

The Chosen was a commercial success. It spent 39 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1981 it was made into a movie that also achieved popular success. Surprisingly to some critics, The Chosen found a large audience outside of American Jewish communities.

In an attempt to understand the popularity and commercial success of The Chosen, literary critic Sheldon Grebstein suggests that, at its core, the story is a classic American tale. With its optimistic—albeit bittersweet—ending, The Chosen alludes to Horatio Alger and other American tales of success. Danny has both the pluck and the opportunity to succeed in a secular world because he is in America. If he were in the old country, he might end up like Solomon Maimon, dying young and alone, or his brilliant uncle who is gassed by the Nazis.

Although commercially successful and critically respected, reviews of the book were mixed. Eliot Fremont-Smith, a book critic for the New York Times called the book "thematically overstuffed and dramatically undernourished." Yet, in an unusual move for a critic, Fremont-Smith revisited the book in a second, less critical review. Initially, Fremont-Smith wrote, "One wants to like the book very much, and does somewhat." Because the book challenged him, he reconsidered it, not in isolation, but as a piece of Jewish literature, and changed his "somewhat" to "quite a lot." Daniel Walden, in his essay, "Chaim Potok, A Zwischenmensch ('Between-Person') Adrift in the Cultures" (Studies in American Jewish Literature) differentiates Potok from other Jewish authors, saying, "Potok writes both as a Jew and because he is a Jew."

Language

Potok's native tongue was Yiddish, and he claims—in response to critics of his dialogue—that his characters are speaking to each other primarily in Yiddish. The intonations of Yiddish, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish words, are sprinkled throughout the text.

Linguistically, Yiddish has roots in German. It is a High German language based on the biblical translations of German theologian Martin Luther (with a smattering of other influences) written with Hebrew letters. It was spoken by Jews in central and eastern Europe and is now spoken by some of their descendants. Yiddish is the lingua franca, or common language, among Hasids and other Jews of mixed national origins and languages.

In The Chosen, Danny's softball team speaks only in Yiddish and shouts Yiddish curses. Reuven and his team understand them but speak in English among themselves. Although Potok never states whether Reuven's coach, Mr. Galanter, is Jewish, he does mention that the young rabbi accompanying the other team only speaks to him in Yiddish. As Mr. Galanter responds, it is evident he speaks Yiddish as well. Reuven is surprised when Danny speaks fluent English to him at the hospital.

Hebrew is the language used in Reuven's religious classes. For many of the Hasidim, Hebrew is a sacred language and reserved only for sacred books. The religious classes in the Hasidic yeshivas (or schools) are taught in Yiddish, although the texts are in Aramaic—a language that predates Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is the language spoken in Israel. It evolved alongside Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish nation in what is now Israel, starting in the latter half of the 19th century.

Judaism and Hasidism

Judaism is one of three religions borne of the story of Abraham. Abraham was the first monotheist, or believer in one God, and from his narrative came Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism stresses the belief in one God and the relationship of every individual to God. The guidelines and laws for observance are contained in the texts that are at the heart of the collective Jewish community. In the Jewish tradition, the Hebrew bible (or Tanakh) includes the Torah, which means "instruction" or "law." The Talmud is the body of rabbinic teachings that explains the laws that are put forth by God in the Torah. It has two parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah is the law and the Gemara is the commentary and interpretation of the law. Danny and Reuven study the Talmud for hours every day, explaining the laws and reconciling different interpretations.

A Hasid (singular) is a member of a sect of ultrareligious Jews. In the United States, there is a large Hasidic population in the neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the setting for The Chosen. Hasidism began in Poland in the 18th century. It was born as a response to the narrow emphasis on study and text that defined the great rabbis. The movement originally emphasized heart and joy and was quite revolutionary for its time.

The center of any Hasidic community is its rebbe, or tzaddik, its religious leader. Typically, this is an inherited position. As the Hasidic movement grew and evolved, its de-emphasis on textual knowledge and personal connections to God changed. In The Chosen, the Russian Hasidic sect to which Danny belongs has a strong emphasis on text.

The Hasidic movement, which grew as a response to the orthodoxy and conservatism of the eastern-European Jewish community, is now considered the most orthodox and conservative strain of Judaism. After emigrating, most Hasidic communities keep their garb, language, and customs intact, making them a recognizable part of the Jewish community. In The Chosen, David Malter gives Danny a lecture about the origins of the Hasidim.

Zionism and the Origins of the State of Israel

The word Zionism, coined by Viennese Jew and early founder of the movement, Nathan Birnbaum, was first used in the late 19th century. Zionism is a movement in support of the idea that Israel is the Jewish homeland, and calls for the return of diasporic, or scattered, Jews to the homeland. Zionism encompasses many different movements, and as an ideology, it is rather controversial.

In The Chosen, David Malter is an ardent Zionist, and Reb Saunders is an equally ardent anti-Zionist. Reb Saunders, although Jewish, finds the very notion of a Jewish state created by an international treaty and governed by secular law, to be repugnant. For him, a Jewish state can only be governed by Jewish law and created by God. The creation of the state of Israel is a flash point for the characters and a meaningful conflict in the book.

Historically, there has been a Jewish presence in the area now known as Israel for (according to some scholars) 4,000 years. The land, ultimately known as Palestine, was ruled by many different nations over hundreds of years. In 1917 Britain seized Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. Later that year, the Balfour Declaration, a letter written by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Britain's most prominent Jewish citizen, Walter Rothschild, expressed support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Notably, official support for Zionism in the British parliament was opposed most strongly by Edward Montagu, one of the first Jews to serve in the cabinet, who feared that official support would threaten established and émigré Jews in European and American cities. The Balfour Declaration explicitly stated that the rights and liberties of non-Jewish communities in Palestine should not be curtailed, nor should the rights of Jews living outside of Palestine.

In 1920 the Allied powers granted Britain the mandate to rule Palestine in preparation for self-rule. Two years later Britain split the country into Palestine and Transjordan, and forbade Jewish immigration into Transjordan. In 1939 Britain placed a quota on Jewish immigrants of 10,000 people per year, except in emergencies. Jewish armed groups in Palestine began incursions against the British. David Malter in The Chosen is anguished at the notion of armed Jewish soldiers committing atrocities against British soldiers and civilians in Palestine.

The 1940s saw the world reacting to the destruction of European Jewry in World War II. In an unprecedented genocide, approximately 12 million people were murdered by the Nazis; six million of those were Jews. Before the war, nearly 10 percent of Poland's overall population was Jewish. By the end, 90 percent of Polish Jews had been exterminated. As the news of this mass extermination was released, many nations began to feel an urgency for a Jewish homeland. In the novel, David Malter—already a Zionist—sees the creation of Israel as crucial to the preservation of Jewry.

In 1947 the United Nations recommended the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Israel was officially proclaimed a state on May 14, 1948, and was recognized by the United States that same day.

Freudian Psychology

Danny is very much influenced by the writings of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. To read Freud, he teaches himself German. Potok states that the overarching conflict of The Chosen is between faith and secular humanism, the belief that humans are capable of both morality and self-fulfillment without a belief in God. For Potok, secular humanism was best understood in relationship to psychoanalytic theory, a framework for explaining human behavior. It ascribes human thought, feelings, and emotions to the unconscious mind, rather than to God. For Potok, science and faith are not incompatible, but are in conflict.

Freud, working with his colleague, Austrian physician Josef Breuer, suggested that neuroses were caused by deeply felt and buried past trauma. Neuroses are mental disorders that cause distress and impact daily normal functions. Unburying this trauma, or bringing it to consciousness by confronting it intellectually and emotionally, could cause a person's neurotic symptoms to subside. In 1895 Freud and Breuer published their findings in Studies in Hysteria.

Freud's focus on the sexual origins of patient neuroses caused a rift with Breuer, and the two stopped working together. Freud went on to an intense period of self-analysis, and in 1900 published The Interpretation of Dreams. This is one of the works that Danny reads in the library; he talks to Reuven about dreams and his fascination with them.

Danny is very interested in the unconscious. Freud theorized the mind was made up of three structures; the id (which is unconscious) is concerned with basic needs, such as sex and food; the superego (also unconscious) keeps the id under control socially and morally; and the ego, which is conscious and mediates between the id and the superego. When the ego can't reconcile the id and the superego, anxiety or neuroses follows.

For Danny, the reading of psychology is life-changing. The foundation of Freudian theory is not God, but humankind. In Freudian theory, religion is a tool used by humans to control their most powerful impulses (their ids). God is part of a collective neurosis, a need for a powerful father figure. However, Freud was a Jew. In 1938 he and his immediate family emigrated from Vienna to avoid persecution by the Nazis. While he may have believed that religion was an illusion, Freud never denied his Jewishness.

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