First published 1967 by The Random House Publishing Group
Maybe I have read another book by Chaim Potok. It was in 1990, I was temporarily in the guest house at the Department of Botany, I think, of the Louis Pasteur University, Strasbourg, waiting for more permanent accommodation. One of the earlier guests had left behind a book about hasidic Jews in New York. I only vaguely remember it, but the description of their habits and traditions now seems to me like what I just read in 'The Chosen'. One thing I do remember clearly from that long forgotten book is how the hasidim discuss whether turning on the electric switch on Sabbath constitutes a violation of the religious law, which requires a hasid to do no work at all on that day, but only study the Talmud. 'The Chosen' was Potok's first novel, and the title seems somewhat ironical, but maybe I've just layered my own feelings on it. For, the book takes itself seriously enough, describing an encounter between an extreme view of Judaism and a slightly less extreme one, but representing the two as diametrically opposite. The hasidic family is represented by a Rabbi and his brilliant son Danny, who is being trained in a harsh and unforgiving manner to take over from his father as the next Rabbi. The slightly less extreme tradition, Zionist, is represented by a teacher of the Talmud at a Yeshiva (Jewish seminary) and his son Reuven, also brilliant, also being instructed by his father in the Talmud, but less harshly. The training, in both cases consists of endless scholasticism regarding the Talmud and its interpretation. The story takes place in New York at about the time World War II was coming to an end, and Israel was being created. The book is well written, good to read, and opens a few mental windows, but is very insular. The messages and attitudes it conveys cannot really translate into the world outside the Jewish culture. I dislike the way the author assumes that it was right to displace an entire population (the Arabs) simply because, after Hitler and all the centuries of persecution, the European Jews desperately needed a homeland of their own. Wouldn't it have made more sense to carve out such a homeland in Europe itself, or, failing that, in the vast underpopulated regions of the New World (America and/or Australia). The British (and now, the Americans) did what they did (and continue to do it) because they can - not because it is right. I remember the argument (actually shouting match) I had with Osnat Herzberg on this topic when she was in Bangalore for a conference. I think I was stupid then, not for what I said, but how I said it. Anyway, these politics forms a vague background to the story, which is really about how to bring up your children, in particular contrasting a very traditional and harsh way with a more liberal (but only slightly more so) method.