Potok's novel The Chosen concerns the tensions of living a religious life in a secular society. This conflict is reflected through an examination of two Jewish communities in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, New York. Two Jewish boys, an ultra-religious Hasidic Jew named Danny Saunders and a Modern Orthodox Jew named Reuven (Roo ven) Malter, discuss the realities of trying to be committed, religiously observant Jews in a secular American society. The main theme in the novel is Danny's conflict between his desire for secular knowledge and his obligations to his father, Rabbi Saunders, and his father's followers.
Reuven Malter is the son of Modern Orthodox Jew and teacher David Malter. Even though the elder Malter is religiously observant, he encourages Reuven to explore nonreligious thought. Thus Reuven is thoroughly acquainted with Western secular tradition. But Reuven has conflicts of his own. His father teaches Judaism from a scientific point of view, but the instructor at Hirsch College adheres to a more traditional, religious orientation.
Relationships between fathers and sons are important in The Chosen, especially in the choices of the sons' careers. Danny's father expects him to become a rabbi and leader of his Hasidic sect, following the tradition of generations, while Reuven's father lets him choose his own path.
The novel's action begins symbolically with a softball game between the Jewish parochial schools that Danny and Reuven attend. Potok sets up the game to highlight the differences between Danny's branch of Judaism and Reuven's.
During the softball game, a ball hit by Danny strikes Reuven in the eye and puts him in the hospital. Despite the boys' initial an-tagonism — Reuven blames Danny for deliberately hitting him with the ball — the boys develop a warm friendship. They discuss their feelings about their respective Jewish sects and about their fathers. Over the course of the novel, The Chosen focuses on and gradually expands Reuven and Danny's discussions.
Central to the novel are Potok's concerns about Jews who live in the United States. He asks how much a committed, religious Jew can participate in American society without forfeiting a sense of Jewishness, or the perceptions of what it means to be a Jew. Potok also questions how much an American Jew wanting to participate fully in American society can practice Judaism without giving up the sense of being an American. Can a balance be struck between these two apparently diverse concerns?
Since the seventeenth century, and especially since the nineteenth century, more than 45 million people, representing many ethnic and religious groups, have come to America seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. Included in this large number of immigrants are Jews. Jews are members of both a religious group and an ethnic group, with ethnic traits and traditions that lie outside their religion. Knowing something about Jewish history can enhance an understanding of The Chosen.
Jews first came to America in 1654. At the time of the American Revolutionary War, their number totaled about 2,000. Most earned their living as merchants. Because they had been persecuted as a visible community in Europe, pre-1820 American Jews generally emphasized that they were simply members of a religious faith, not a specific community. Colonial Jews tended to live in major American cities, such as Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York.
Most Jews who came to the United States during the colonial period were Sephardim — descendents of Spanish Jews. (Sepharad is the Hebrew word for Spain.) Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and Spanish Jews immigrated to Holland, the Ottoman Empire (which included parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa), and some areas of the Americas in search of refuge. Although the Jewish population in colonial America was small, Jews embraced their new homeland and accommodated themselves into the majority Christian population. By the early nineteenth century, some Sephardic Jews in America had even converted to Christianity.
Other Jews who arrived in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came from Central Europe and spread throughout the United States, establishing communities in almost every state. These Jews had suffered persecution in Europe since the First Crusade in the eleventh century and were often forced by government authorities to live in ghettos.
Even though the civil life of Jews in the German states and in Western Europe had improved by 1820, other factors prompted large numbers of German Jews to immigrate to the United States. These included economic downturns and regular eruptions of anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews). Moreover, it was almost impossible for Jews to exist as small retailers if the peasants with whom they did business were leaving the rural areas for the cities. Also, Jewish population was increasing heavily — the number of Jews tripled during the nineteenth century, and the need for better economic opportunities was urgent.
These Central European Jews often became peddlers or opened retail shops. By the middle of the nineteenth century, at a time when the United States economy was rapidly expanding, Jewish businesses had become important to the country's economic development. Throughout the country, Jewish peddlers brought merchandise to less-populated towns and villages that had no retail stores. In the folklore and history of American Jews, peddling is described as the way in which some immigrants gradually moved into retail businesses. The usual retail store was small, although some Jewish immigrants built great department stores.
In Europe, before coming to the United States, these Jews had experienced a relaxation of the Orthodox tenets of their Jewish faith. Consequently, when they got to the United States, they created communities founded on the principle of reforming Judaism to fit a more secular way of life. The pragmatic character of American society and the demands of small-town frontier life encouraged flexibility, even in religious matters.
Traditional religious practices, including strict adherence to dietary laws and to the rules of the Sabbath and religious holy days, were altered in America. By 1881, the American Jewish population had assimilated into American culture and adapted their religious observances to a more relaxed American life.
The Eastern European Jewish Migration to the United States
In 1881, Russian Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The Russian government blamed Jews for the assassination and undertook violent physical attacks — called pograms — on them. In 1882, the government passed the May Laws, which sharply curtailed Jews' ability to earn a living and participate in Russian society.
Faced with outright hostility and ostracism, many Jews left Eastern Europe, believing that the United States offered religious tolerance, economic opportunity, and the possibility for starting a new life. Eastern European Jews referred to the United States as the "goldineh medinah," Yiddish for golden land. In spite of physical problems leaving Eastern Europe — the difficulty of getting a passport, the high price of a steamship ticket, and the hunger, thirst, and sickness caused by the sea passage itself — about two and a half million Eastern European Jews came to the United States between 1881 and 1914.
Almost all Eastern European Jewish immigrants after 1870 stopped in New York City. A great number of them stayed there and found their way to a section of New York called the Lower East Side, a twenty-square-block area south of Houston Street and east of the Bowery. By 1910, about 542,000 Jews lived in this area, and overcrowding became a growing concern. The streets were crowded, but the tiny apartments in which the immigrants lived were often worse. One immigrant remembers sharing two rooms with two parents and five other boarders — people taken in to help pay the rent. As Gerald Sorin recounts in his book A Time for Building: The Third Migration, "The cantor rehearses, a train passes, the shoemaker bangs, ten brats run around like goats, and at night we all try to get some sleep in the stifling roach-infested two rooms."
At this time, the garment industry was experiencing great growth in the United States, with New York City as its center. By 1897, about 60 percent of the New York City Jewish labor force was employed in the apparel industry. By 1910, the city produced 70 percent of the nation's women's clothing and 40 percent of its men's clothing, creating jobs for newly arriving Jews.
On the religious front, the majority of Jews who came to the United States from Europe between 1881 to 1914 were Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah is the basis for the structure of religious law that applies to all areas of a Jew's life.
In addition to the written Torah, Orthodox Jews adhere to an oral tradition that they believe was communicated directly from God to Moses, who then transferred it to the religious leadership of the Jewish people. This oral tradition was finally written down in the second century A.D. and is called the Talmud (Tall mood). The Talmud explains and clarifies the frequently controversial laws expressed in the Torah.
For Orthodox Jews, Jewish law applies to all parts of life — for example, when and how to pray and which blessings to say at a wide variety of daily activities. But Orthodox Jews had a difficult time fulfilling their religious obligations while living in the United States, an overwhelmingly secular society. Business life was regulated by a Christian calendar, and many Orthodox Jews, wanting to improve their lives economically, encountered conflicts between religious observances and economic necessities that they had to resolve in favor of American demands.
For example, Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest, but it is an ordinary workday in American culture. Moreover, it is difficult for a business person to pray three times a day and remain faithful to Jewish dietary laws and other Jewish principles. A noted Jewish professional of the time, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, once remarked that "the economic factor makes even the distinctive religious expression of Jewish life, particularly Sabbath observance, very difficult."
To resolve this religious versus economic conflict, many Orthodox Jews believed that, in order to ensure that their children were not completely secularized, they would have to make some changes in their daily lives. They saw their children, raised in the United States, wandering away from Jewish practice and observance, ashamed of their parents with their foreign accents and clothing, their tastes for European foods and styles of life, and their old-fashioned customs and religion. Moreover, because the parents were uneducated in American ways, their children saw them as members of an ignorant, lower-class ethnic world. This conflict was aggravated by government efforts and social demands on immigrant groups to adjust to American culture.
So the elder Jews established for their offspring the Young Israel movement, which began on the Lower East Side in 1912 with a mission to help young Jews feel completely American while remaining faithful to Judaism. Young Israel built a microcosm of the larger American society. Through the years, it developed Boy Scout troops, athletic leagues, and sisterhoods, and it established an employment service to assist Sabbath-observing Jews find employment when discrimination against Jews in employment was legal and widespread.
Modern Orthodox Jews
The Young Israel movement was one of the foundations of the Modern Orthodox movement in the United States during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Its various positions on such things as spiritual and secular matters are embraced by David and Reuven Malter in Potok's The Chosen.
Modern Orthodox Jews believe that they can be committed to time-honored Jewish traditions and observances and yet still participate in the general American society. For example, they dress like other Americans while still adhering to Orthodox law. They are committed to "Torah Judaism and secular learning," the motto of New York's Yeshiva University, which Modern Orthodox Jews founded. They see their Orthodox position not in terms of narrow Orthodox restrictions but in terms of the larger issues of the Jewish and general societies.
Modern Orthodox Jews are traditional in their reliance upon the wisdom of the past and their view of tradition as an anchor, or foundation, in their lives. But because they believe in the benefits to be had from interacting with the modern world, they remain attached to modern society. Samuel Heilman, a prominent Modern Orthodox Jew, commented on this dual commitment in Natalie Gittelson's "American Jews Rediscover Orthodoxy," The New York Times Magazine, September 30, 1984:
I live in two worlds. I have thought at times of abandoning one of these worlds in favor of the other. But I realize that for me there can be no such flight. Each world has become more attractive by the possibility of life in the other. So, like many Orthodox Jews . . . I have tried wherever possible to remove the boundaries between the two worlds and find a way to make myself a whole person.
Other Orthodox Jews do not want to change their ways of living to assimilate completely into an exclusively American culture. These Jews are represented in The Chosen in the characters of Danny Saunders and his father, Reb Saunders. They are Hasidic (Hah see dick) Jews, and their movement is called Hasidism. The word Hasidic, of Hebrew origin, means pious one.
The Hasidic movement dates from the eighteenth century, when a traveling healer and storyteller named Israel ben Eliezer began to preach in Eastern Europe to the common Jewish people. Preaching a Judaism that relied less on books and more on personal experiences, he perceived that Jewish practices of the day, with their overemphasis on fine scholarly issues and complicated ways of studying Jewish texts, were alienating the common Jew.
Given the name Ba'al Shem Tov, which means Master of the Good Name, he began to preach that God accepts prayer not only through scholarship and study but also through piety, love, prayer, and worship full of song and dance. He emphasized the mystical presence of God in everything. It was very important, he said, to be cheerful. Serving God cannot be done in an atmosphere of gloom. A Jew who is conscious of God's closeness is automatically happy.
In addition, the Ba'al Shem Tov decreed that excessive fasting and self-denial are worthless goals. It is far better to enjoy God's blessings and be grateful for them. One should not deny material possessions. "The smoke of my pipe," the Ba'al Shem Tov said, "can be an offering of incense to God."
The Ba'al Shem Tov expressed himself by using simple sayings and stories that the people listening to him could understand. As examples of his principles, he used the life around him. One such saying is, "Get rid of your anger by doing a favor for the one with whom you are angry." Another wise saying of his is, "Bear in mind that life is short, and that with every passing day you are nearer to the end . . . . Do not waste your time with meaningless quarrels with people."
The Ba'al Shem Tov traveled throughout Eastern Europe, and his reputation spread quickly. Gradually, large numbers of Jews started to depart from their towns to follow him and his disciples. These many followers eventually became the leaders of the Hasidic movement.
Not surprisingly, opposition to the Ba'al Shem Tov's teachings grew. The most important criticism of the Hasidic way of life was that it de-emphasized Jewish learning and scholarship. Those who believed that Hasidism was a threat to Jewish life and culture were called Mitnagdim (Meet nog dim). They especially criticized the Hasidic belief in the position of the tzaddik (sah dick), also called Rebbe (Reb eh), short for rabbi — the Ba'al Shem Tov's position within the movement — and the apparent Hasidic belief that he could issue divine blessings independent of the Torah.
Many non-Hasidic Jews criticize the belief in the position of a tzaddik because they perceive that giving a tzaddik such an exalted position comes too close to idol worship, which is condemned in Jewish practice. Jews, they suggest, attempt to draw near to God directly and require no middle person to act as a conveyor of God's word. They concede that a rabbi is someone who knows more about Jewish law and practice than a layperson, but a rabbi is not needed in many instances — for example, all that is required to hold a prayer service is the presence of ten Jewish males. Indeed, a Jewish saying states: "Nine rabbis do not make a religious service, but ten cobblers do." The central position that the Hasidim give to their tzaddik is not shared by most non-Hasidic Jews.
The Hasidim firmly believe that their manner of approaching God is the correct one and that all other ways are wrong. Furthermore, they believe that their own rebbe, or tzaddik, is the authority on Jewish religious matters. Each rebbe has distinct ways of looking at Jewish religious practice, but each sect believes that its own rebbe is absolutely right. Moreover, the Hasidim believe that there are great differences between Hasidic and Modern Orthodox beliefs. The differences between these beliefs serve as a backdrop to Potok's The Chosen.
Whereas many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews seek to integrate themselves into American society, the Hasidim keep themselves greatly isolated from American culture and influence, trying to re-create a more traditional, European-style society. They reject any attempts of assimilation into the secular world and fight any form of change within their culture.