Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review - "The Chosen" by Chaim Potok

I recently finished "The Chosen" by Chaim Potok.  "My Name is Asher Lev" (same author) was recommended as a good read (I still haven't read it).  "The Chosen" was at halfpricebooks so I took a shot.

It was very good.  A book that makes reading and debating the Talmud interesting has something going on.  Good storytelling carry it through and lays bare the meaning of friendship and the struggles between father and son.

It is a story that has common elements and gets you caring about the boys (Danny and Reuven).  They are growing up in New York in loosely rival Jewish communities during WW2.  The story timing also continues into the struggle and establishment of Israel as a nation.  While those world changing events are happening Danny and Reuven go through highschool and through college.

It is an easy read and sticks with you.  Definitely emotionally driven rather than action driven but I was hooked early and never lost interest.

If you get the time and inclination give it a shot. It is an enjoyable read. 9/10.

A deeper look (probably spoilers, I'm not trying to avoid them)

Becky and I had a spell of watching Malcolm in the Middle.  It was a super show.  Well written, very funny and just enjoyable.  In the show Malcolm is a genius and survives growing up in a "barely getting by" family with brothers (and himself) causing many hijinx.  In one episode Malcolm is in the school gifted program and a new student shows up.  New guy is ultra-genius.  Malcolm is relating how it is to think ultra fast.  The new kid says (roughly) "my head is a swarm of bees, and everyone one of them thinks like that".  That's Danny and Reuven.  Reuven is smart and Danny is smart squared (probably to the 3rd).

Danny is raised by his Orthodox Jewish Rabbi father, Reb, in a manner that is strange.    After deep Talmud study Danny is quizzed and debated by his father.  They have no talking beyond this.  NONE.  At one point Danny speaks of learning to listen in the silence.  Reb talks with his other children as is normal in child rearing.  I was truly perplexed by this until the closure at the end.   Early on Reb gets a glimmer of Danny's brilliance and a complete lack of compassion (he has a mind, he needs to get a soul).  Reb had a brilliant brother and saw him grow up cruel and heartless, and Reb is resolved to make better of his brilliant son.  The philosophy goes that Danny will learn pain and heartache in the silence.  It works, but at such a price.

I had about 2 seconds of thinking of raising my kids in silence.  It would be a burden I couldn't bear.  I get terrified at various times by my kids.  Raising a family in such a fast moving and corrupt world is overwhelming at times.

Reuven is the sounding board, compassionate ear, and guidance that Danny had been needing.  He also helps Reb to hear what his son is struggling with.  All brought to light in the climax/reconciliation of the book (which I just ruined for you).

There is also a focus of the Zionist debate in the establishment of a Jewish state.  An orthodox Jewish Rabbi (Reb) is strongly (violently) opposed to a Jewish state.   I found this interesting to see.  I can see and understand Reb's opposition to this.  I have the same thoughts on a "Christian" nation.  There are some principles that can be established and held as goals to aspire to.  However, you cannot legislate faith.  Corporate faith only happens when it is a group of individuals with faith.  A national faith is a shallow and faulty image of what true belief is.  It tends to be a watered down version that everyone is comfortable with; faith gets tested when it becomes uncomfortable.

There is a short flash of numerology.  Using the numbers of certain words to develop a deeper understanding of the Talmud.  Basically I think it is shoddy as a Biblical interpretation and it basically gets shot down as a tool within "The Chosen".  Neat and amusing but there is enough flexibility to create any number and re-interpret it to get to any word/answer.  It is notable that Reuben excels at this and Danny can't get his head around it.

1 comment:

  1. What I liked most about the story was the friendship between Reuven and Danny, and how real it seemed. Potok was amazing in his ability to create a believable story in that way.

    As for raising a kid "in silence" and withholding love to try to make someone into a compassionate person? Not a chance.

    I thought that even beyond arguing the Talmud, the book made Jewish history sound intriguing.

    Make sure you write something when you get through My Name is Asher Lev also. I wonder what you'll think of Potok after reading (or hearing) what else he can do with a story.