When I was fourteen we took a trip to Chicago to visit a friend of my mom’s. On the way we stopped to visit my mom’s “St. Louis relatives.” I had previously met my Great-uncle Theo, who was deaf, but had not met any of his progeny. Almost immediately upon entering their house it dawned on me that they were Jewish. For one thing, they served bagels, a rarity in the Oklahoma I grew up in. As it turned out, my grandfather was one of ten children of a former rabbinic student from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. None of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters that I knew practiced any religion, much less Judaism. My Uncle Theo was the only one.
Soon after that I was in a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. I was hooked. Ever since then I have been very attentive, curious, and fascinated by all things Jewish. I also have a reflexive and perhaps irrational defensiveness about the Jews which may blind me to the dark side of Jewish reality (in Israel, for instance). It doesn’t help that I’m a romantic sentimentalist.
Many years later I discovered Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise. I don’t remember when or how. I just know that they instantly took their place among the handful of books that I could reread on my own, with The Lord of the Rings and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I later read My Name is Asher Lev and one other novel, the name of which I can’t remember. All I remember about it is that there was a scene in which burly Jewish men play some kind of sport in Central Park.
For me one of the big draws is the peek into the Jewish world which fascinates me. I feel like I’m really in that world of the tsaddik, earlocks, yeshivas, gematria, Hasidim, the Talmud. It is like Fiddler on the Roof on steroids.
I am always drawn to Potok’s portrayal of the intellectual life—the study of the Torah and the Talmud; the intense scholastic life of a young Jew; the debates over the interpretation of the text. That is the model of academic life that I love, cultivated in the Great Books program at Notre Dame. Perhaps there is a familial memory of my great-grandfather’s rabbinic studies in the Old World?
The Chosen tells the story of the friendship between Reuven Malter, the son of an Orthodox Talmud scholar who uses modern scientific methods, and Danny Saunders, the son and spiritual heir of a Hasidic tsaddik, or spiritual leader. The tension comes when Danny, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, wants to study secular, Freudian psychology rather than follow in his father’s footsteps as leader of his Hasidic community. Reb Saunders is conflicted because he wants Reuven and Danny to be friends, but is strongly opposed to Reuven’s father’s method of Talmudic studies and his Zionism.
The Promise is the sequel to The Chosen, in which Reuven and Danny get involved in the psychological struggles of a disturbed 14-year old son of an "unbelieving" Jew. Reuven himself struggles with studying the Talmud with a teacher who will not accept his father’s scientific method. To complicate things, Danny and Reuben are involved in a love triangle with Rachel Gordon, the cousin of the boy. Danny seeks to figure a way to reach the disturbed boy and finds the tools he’s been given by his psychological training are inadequate. Can he perhaps find tools from his tradition? This description sounds more like a soap opera, but it really isn’t. It is as rich and insightful as The Chosen. It also inspired my daughter to study psychology.
My Name is Asher Lev is the story of a boy being raised in a strict Hasidic community who discovers early that he has a talent for drawing and painting—and an attraction to modern art. This causes tension with his father and with his teachers, who believe that representational art is not compatible with Jewish piety and who aren’t thrilled by the likes of Picasso. The real focus of the book, though, is the suffering that Asher Lev’s mother experiences as a result of the tensions Asher’s gift causes in his relations with his father and with their community.
The Chosen is at first blush a coming of age novel. Beginning with the incident on the baseball field that brings Reuven and Danny together, both boys begin to learn what it is to be a man in the world and a true friend. The transformation from childhood to the beginning of adulthood begins in the blink of an eye:
Somehow everything had changed. I had spent five days in a hospital and the world around seemed sharpened now and pulsing with life. I lay back and put the palms of my hands under my head. I thought of the baseball game, and I asked myself, Was it only last Sunday that it happened, only five days ago? I felt I had crossed into another world, that little pieces of my old self had been left behind on the black asphalt floor of the school yard alongside the shattered lens of my glasses.. Pp. 102-3
Other themes are the nature of true friendship and the difficulties a father has in raising his children and the difficulties children have being raised by their imperfect fathers.
The meaning of silence plays a significant role in The Chosen and The Promise. Danny’s father has chosen for reasons that are explained at the end of the book to raise his son in silence. He only talks to him when discussing the Talmud. “Why have you stopped answering my questions, Father?” Danny asks. Reb Saunders responds, “You are old enough to look into your own soul for the answer” (Chosen 280). Eventually Danny begins to understand: “‘You can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.’” (Chosen 162)
Potok explores the tension between a commitment to strong, clear, comprehensive religious tradition, such as Hasidic Judaism, and engagement with the world. This question is a live one for those of us involved in homeschooling. It has also been brought to the fore recently by Rod Dreher’s proposal of what he calls “The Benedict Option,” which has been countered by others who propose an “Escriva Option.”
Potok clearly values the tradition. Even though Potok is a conservative rabbi, he can speak of the Hasidic vision in almost glowing terms. Reb Saunders explains his religious vision to Reuven:
A man is born into the world with only a spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul. The rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, Rueven. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.” (Chosen 276)
A dark, almost Augustinian vision which I tend to resonate with, despite my attraction to Thomism.
Reuven’s dad explains the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, this way:
He taught them that the purpose of man is to make his life holy--every aspect of his life: eating, drinking, praying, sleeping. God is everywhere, he told them, and if it seems at times that He is hidden from us it is only because we have not yet learned to seek Him correctly. Evil is like a hard shell. Within this shell is the spark of God, is goodness. How do we penetrate the shell? By sincere and honest prayer, by being happy, and by loving all people. (Chosen 110)
When Asher Lev, a Hasid Jew, is given permission by his Rebbe to pursue the study of art, the Rebbe clarifies that fulfillment as a religious man, is not primarily about religious practice or intellectual study of the Torah or the Talmud: it is about what you make of your gifts and of your life—what you do anything for:
A life should be lived for the sake of heaven. One man is not better than another because he is a doctor while the other is a shoemaker. One man is not better than another because he is a lawyer while the other is a painter. A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven (Asher Lev,184).
Fulfillment may even involve going outside the tradition at least to engage it.
It is a pity [Reb Saunders] occupies his mind only with Talmud. If he were not a tzaddik he could make a great contribution to the world. But he lives only in his own world. It is a great pity. Danny will be the same way when he takes his father's place. It is a shame that a mind such as Danny's will be shut off from the world. (Chosen 150).
So, Talmudic studies take advantage of the scientific method; Danny, in order to be the compassionate tsaddik (righteous one) that his father wants him to be, must turn to secular psychology. Asher Lev must go outside the Jewish tradition “because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment” (Asher Lev 313).
Yet, going beyond the tradition involves first being thoroughly grounded in it so you don’t lose the treasure that has been handed down. As Asher Lev’s art teacher tells him about the “tradition” of painting:
I will force you to master it. Do you hear me? No one will listen to what you have to say unless they are convinced you have mastered it. Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it. Do you understand me, Asher Lev? (Asher Lev 204)
Potok is interested in the meaning of the soul and how it is cultivated. It is more than the intellect. In fact, the intellect can be a barrier to compassion, to carrying the pain of others. Only a soul that suffers has compassion. How does one raise children to pay attention to their soul? Reb Saunders decides to raise his son in silence when he discovers that the four year-old Danny is “without a soul,” without compassion. Danny himself later asks, after he has enrolled in a program that emphasizes experimental psychology, “What do rats and mazes have to do with the mind?” (Chosen 207). For him, the mind has come to transcend the mere intellect, and the empirical.
I love Potok’s descriptions. They are lush and sensual, yet they pay attention to little psychological details:
It was a warm night, and the window between the stove and the sink was open. A breeze blew into the kitchen, stirring the ruffled curtains and carrying with it the odors of grass and flowers and orange blossoms. We sat at the table dressed in our Shabbat clothes, my father sipping his second glass of tea, both of us a little tired and sleepy from the heavy meal. There was color now in my father's face, and his cough had disappeared. I watched him sip his tea and listened to the soft rustling of the curtains as they moved in the breeze. Manya had done the dishes quickly after we had chanted the Grace After Meals, and now we sat alone, embraced by the warm June night, the memories of the past week, and the gentle silences of the Shabbat. (Chosen 104)
Potok’s paints a rich, but stark picture of Reuven’s first introduction to the world of the Hasidim.
A block beyond the synagogue where my father and I prayed, we made a right turn into a narrow street crowded with brownstones and sycamores. It was a duplicate of the street on which I lived, but a good deal older and less neatly kept. Many of the houses were unkempt, and there were very few hydrangea bushes or morning glories on the front lawns. The sycamores formed a solid, tangled bower that kept out the sunlight. The stone banisters on the outside stairways were chipped, their surfaces blotched with dirt, and the edges of the stone steps were round and smooth from years of use. Cats scrambled through the garbage cans that stood in front of some of the houses, and the sidewalks were strewn with old newspapers, ice cream and candy wrappers, worn cardboard cartons, and tom paper bags. Women in long-sleeved dresses, with kerchiefs covering their heads, many with infants in their arms, others heavily pregnant, sat on the stone steps of the stairways, talking loudly in Yiddish. The street throbbed with the noise of playing children who seemed in constant motion, dodging around cars, racing up and down steps, chasing after cats, climbing trees, balancing themselves as they tried walking on top of the banisters, pursuing one another in furious games of tag-all with their fringes and earlocks dancing wildly in the air and trailing out behind them. We were walking quickly now under the dark ceiling of sycamores, and a tall, heavily built man in a black beard and black caftan came alongside me, bumped me roughly to avoid running into a woman, and passed me without a word. The liquid streams of racing children, the noisy chatter of long-sleeved women, the worn buildings and blotched banisters, the garbage cans and the scrambling cats all gave me the feeling of having slid silently across a strange threshold, and for a long moment I regretted having let Danny take me into his world. (Chosen 123)
Those sycamores play an important role throughout The Chosen, as can be seen in this passage:
On the afternoon of the first day of Passover, I walked beneath the early spring sycamores on my street, then turned into Lee Avenue. The sun was warm and bright, and I went along slowly, past the houses and the shops and the synagogue where my father and I prayed. I met one of my classmates and we stopped to talk for a few minutes; then I went on alone, turning finally into Danny's street. The sycamores formed a tangled bower through which the sun shone brightly, speckling the ground. There were tiny buds on these sycamores now and on some I could see the green shoots of infant leaves. In a month, those leaves would shut out the sky, but now the sun came through and brushed streaks of gold across the side- walks, the street, the talking women, and the playing children. I walked along slowly, remembering the first time I had gone up this street years ago. Those years were coming to an end now. In three months, in a time when the leaves would be fat and full, our lives would separate like the branches overhead that made their own way into the sunlight.” (Chosen 273)
Potok is also a master of dialogue, paying attention to the faces of the speakers and how they express their psychological experience. A great example is the scene in the first chapter of The Promise, where Michael Gordon, the disturbed boy, reacts violently to being cheated by a Jewish owner of a carnival game. You can feel the boy’s disturbance, plus the disturbance of Rachel and Reuven—not to mention the cynical evil of the carny.
—Robert Gotcher and his wife, Kathy, live in Milwaukee, where they've been raising their seven children, four of whom are "out of the house" more or less. He teaches writing and Latin at a seminary. He wrote his dissertation on de Lubac and Vatican II. He is originally from Oklahoma, but has lived in Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Innsbruck, Austria.