The Chosen


I read The Chosen by Chaim Potok for a class in high school. Not surprisingly, I have rarely thought of it since and remember very little from it. On the other hand, I recall more from it than from probably 90% of the books I read back then.

I remember liking it, I remember it holding my interest well, at least compared to the overwhelming majority of mandatory reading in high school.

Not being Jewish or being exposed to much about Judaism growing up, I wouldn’t be surprised if half or more of what I learned about Judaism and Orthodox Judaism as a child came from that one book. Certainly it was new and interesting to me to find out there had been a lively debate within Judaism over Zionism after World War II, over whether the founding of Israel was a good or bad thing.

This movie version of The Chosen is from 1981, with Barry Miller and Robby Benson as teenage pals Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders.

The story takes place in New York, starting during World War II and ending in 1948 with the founding of Israel as a Jewish state. Reuven and Danny do not meet for the first 16 or so years of their lives, despite both being Jewish and growing up a few blocks from each other. Actually both are Orthodox Jewish—I looked it up and that surprised me—but Reuven’s family is of Modern Orthodox Judaism (defined by Wikipedia as “a movement within Orthodox Judaism that attempts to synthesize Jewish values and the observance of Jewish law with the secular, modern world,” and is closely associated with Religious Zionism), whereas Danny’s family is of the more hardcore strain of Orthodox Judaism that most people probably picture when they think of Orthodox Jews, with the curly sideburns and such.

Reuven is being raised by a single father, a college professor who has made a name for himself with his Zionist pamphlets and editorials and such. Danny’s father is a stern, much respected rabbi who led his community out of Russia some years ago after a massacre by Cossacks. In fact, Danny comes from a long line of rabbis, and it is understood that he will one day take his father’s place.

Their relationship starts rather inauspiciously when Danny drills pitcher Reuven with a line drive and sends him to the hospital the day they meet. But soon they are close friends.

Danny is of extraordinary intelligence, has a photographic memory, and is a remarkable Talmudic scholar for his age, so he appears well equipped to become a rabbi as intended. And he’s pretty much reconciled to that future, though only because he’s used to having no choice about such matters. Left to his own devices what he would like to do is pursue some career related to psychiatry, as that, and learning in general beyond the Talmud, is fascinating to him. He secretly visits the library regularly and voraciously reads Freud and numerous other books—secretly because he knows his father would disapprove.

It is not the kind of thing he can discuss with his father, because basically he doesn’t discuss anything with his father. For most of his childhood, with the exception of regularly drilling him about his education relevant to becoming a rabbi, Danny’s father has rarely spoken to him, a highly peculiar parenting choice that is not explained until late in the movie.

Danny’s father does bend to the extent that he allows Danny to enroll at the same college as Reuven, but only to continue studying to be a rabbi.

The movie shows the contrast between the strictly Orthodox Jews represented by Danny’s family and the more secular Jews represented by Reuven’s family. The more extreme Orthodox Jews are far more insulated, far more isolated from the surrounding community, and live an Amish-like life of simplicity and religious conservatism. They do not allow themselves commonplace diversions such as movies or popular music, and they maintain traditions such as arranged marriages and full patriarchal authority within the family.

Danny’s relationship with Reuven, as well as his surreptitious self-education in psychology and related subjects, is a major part of his maturation process, of his coming to experience and understand a wider world beyond what was allowed to him in his childhood, but Reuven is also influenced by coming to know and respect Danny’s father and his family’s traditional piety.

The main contrast between the families and the strains of Judaism they represent is over Zionism. As mentioned, Reuven’s family is enthusiastic Zionists. Reuven at one point even gets involved in illegally obtaining guns and shipping them to the Zionists in Israel who are fighting the British, and instead of being upset his father reacts with pride. But Danny’s rabbi father is bitterly opposed to the formation of Israel on the grounds that their religious teachings decree that the Jews are not to return to form their own state in Israel until the Messiah leads them in doing so. To create a Jewish state now, prematurely, will be the gravest of sins.

To indicate the bitterness of the disagreement, fights are shown breaking out over the issue at Danny and Reuven’s college, with the more Orthodox students charging that the Zionists are worse than Hitler, in that the Nazis only destroyed Jewish bodies, whereas the Zionists are destroying their souls.

It reaches the point where Danny’s father forbids his son to have any further contact with Reuven, a command that Danny reluctantly abides by.

I found the movie version of the story interesting and entertaining, and the characters consistently likable. But throughout I had the feeling that somehow it lacks a certain bite, a certain heft, that I vaguely remembered the book having.

For example, even this many decades later, I recall a passage from the book where Danny admits to Reuven that he is secretly teaching himself German, so as to be able to read Freud untranslated. Reuven is stunned, as if this constitutes a violation of the most emotionally powerful of taboos. Something about that really brought home to me the visceral reaction that Jews around the world had to anything German during the Nazi era; even learning the German language was an unthinkable insult to the Jews the Nazis had murdered.

The movie in fact includes this exchange, or at least the part where Danny mentions he’s studying German. But it’s treated not as anything shocking or potentially objectionable, but at most as surprisingly ambitious and a further indication of his great intellect and thirst for education.

Even when the movie does include conflict, it just feels like there’s some intensity missing. The fights over Zionism, the forcible separation of Danny and Reuven by Danny’s father, etc. are emotional and engaging to a degree, but not as much as they could be. For instance, when Danny tells Reuven that he is no longer allowed to have contact with him, he alludes to his father having “exploded” that morning over the Zionism issue and their friendship. But that’s just it: we’re shown Danny telling Reuven that rather than being shown the explosion.

The more extreme Orthodox Jews, represented by Danny’s father, don’t come across nearly as forbiddingly harsh and non-mainstream as I would expect. In part I suspect that’s intentional, that the film is taking the position that in spite of some quirky habits on the surface, deep down inside people really aren’t so different from each other and there’s no reason to hate or fear the “other.”

Not that that’s so bad a message, but it feels facile here. Danny and Reuven have really no trouble communicating after the first few minutes, and each fits perfectly well with the other’s family, in spite of the profoundly different ways they were raised.

Religious extremists in real life are frankly dangerous weirdos. But in this movie, their odd practices are harmless traditions, and even the seeming exceptions—most notably the way Danny is raised “in silence” by his father—are ultimately explained away as being well-intended and beneficial in the end after all. I have trouble swallowing this notion that religious zealots are all quite reasonable folks once you get to know them.

Not that I wanted a movie filled with bitterness, malice, or communicative gaps too wide to ever bridge, but the problem with The Chosen is that it feels like even at the times of greatest conflict every one of these characters could be played by Alan Alda.

But let’s get back to that point about Danny’s father Rabbi Saunders barely even speaking to his own son throughout his childhood outside of an academic context.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, he explains after Danny grows up that it was all an intentional strategy intended to benefit Danny, to cure him of the arrogance that can accompany such an extraordinary intellect.

He says it all in such a loving way, and Danny reacts so favorably with emotional tears as he understands and accepts what his father tells him, that you can lose sight of the fact that it’s really a pretty alarming thing he’s saying. When you get right down to it, he’s stating that he spent years severely abusing his son emotionally because the more his son suffered the more he would develop into an empathic, compassionate person who was aware of and cared about the suffering of others.

Um, maybe. But it’s far from obvious to me that this constitutes healthy parenting. If anything I find it less plausible than when the father of the protagonist of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” explains to his son that he gave him that name for his own good to toughen him up. As a rule of thumb, abuse increases the likelihood of the recipient becoming an abuser, rather than making the recipient a more compassionate person who cares about the suffering of others.

I did like this movie version of The Chosen, even if not quite as much as the book (to the slight extent I can remember the book). And I thought it ended on a high note, with a story from the Talmud about a son who has left home. The father sends a message commanding his son to return, and the son sends a message back refusing to do so.

So the father tells him in his next message, “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way.”

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