Thursday, August 20, 2009
This past couple weeks, I've really enjoyed listening to The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. It's one of those classic books that I thought I should catch up on, especially after Potok's works kept popping up in various conversations lately. (The most surprising and random was last Sunday, when I asked at family dinner if anyone had read any Potok. Turns out my mother was also in the middle of The Chosen, having picked it up on a sale table at the bookstore, not knowing anything about it.) The story follows an unlikely friendship between two boys in 1940's Brooklyn through high school and college. Though they live just a few blocks apart, Danny, a Hasidic orthodox Jew (black caftan, beard, earlocks), and Reuven, a modern orthodox Jew, had never crossed paths until Danny nearly took out Reuven's eye in a baseball game. I enjoyed learning much about Hasidic Judaism that I didn't know, their history, their distinctive practices (like dynastic leaders), as it unfolded in the two boys getting to know each other, and their distinct experiences of their "common" faith. The backdrop of the story exposed the events of World War II and the founding of Israel, which while well known events, was made fresh in the way these people experienced it at the moment. The story also contemplated father-son relationships, contrasting the close relationship Reuven had with his father (a teacher and later a Zionist activist), versus Danny's silent relationship with his father (the tzadik of his community, a position to be inherited by Danny). The narrator, Jonathan Davis, did a great job reading this book, properly pronouncing all the Hebrew and Yiddish words, and all with a good Longg Island accent. His voicing was given wing, I think, by Potok's great ear for natural dialog with these characters. An opening epigram in the book really stayed with me: a description of how a trout fights when it is hooked, and how the other trout swimming by see its struggle but don't understand it because they can't see the hook and the line. The book is a real lesson in empathy and compassion, as well as Jewish history.