Here are thoughts from my re-reading of Chaim Potok’s Jewish novels. First: The Chosen and The Promise.
The Chosen: This was a great read when I was young, but felt stiff and wooden on the re-read. You know that writer’s cliche about “Show, don’t tell”? Potok (or his editor) just tells … and tells and tells and tells. What he tells is extremely interesting, though. It’s mostly about two things: Chasidism and modern Orthodoxy, and what happens when they clash. The family of Danny Saunders and Reb Saunders’ congregation are trying to hold on to the values of the Old World. Reuven Malter and his father, David, are trying to adapt to modernity while holding on to their Orthodox Jewish identity. In the middle of all of that comes young Chasid Danny, who wants to escape his fate as an heir to the family dynasty and become a psychologist (Abraham Twerski, anyone?). Reb Saunders, who has not spoken to his son outside of study for more than a decade as a way of teaching him to understand pain, uses Reuven, part of that threatening modernity, to reach out to his son.
This was my first exposure to anything Jewish, so it holds a special place for me, even if I didn’t like it as much on the recent re-read. The narrative is interrupted too much for history lessons. The relationship between Reuven and his father isn’t developed as much as that of Danny and Reb Saunders is, which is funny, considering that for most of the book, Danny and his father don’t really have a relationship.
Next: In the Beginning, My Name Is Asher Lev, and The Gift of Asher Lev.
The Chosen received rave reviews when it was published, and established Potok as a novelist, though. That was a good thing, because he went on to write many more and much better novels, starting with …
The Promise, the sequel to The Chosen: Something happened between Potok’s first two novels, because The Promise reads like it’s written by a totally different writer. The characters are fully developed, the plot lines smooth, the message not so much in-your-face.
The story is again told from Reuven’s viewpoint, and this time, much of the story is about him. Psychologist-in-training Danny Saunders still has the plot spotlight, though, as he tries to help a schizophrenic boy named Michael.
Potok beautifully unveils the demons haunting Michael and handles Danny’s treatment of him well, but the more fascinating plotline is Reuven’s relationship with Reb Kalman, an old-school Talmudist who doesn’t like Reuven’s scientific method of explaining Talmud, which Reuven had learned from his father. Like The Chosen, we have a clash between tradition and modernity. In this case, it’s a draw. But the character of Reb Kalman is intensely drawn and, despite his arrogance, sympathetic, and I found on my re-read most enjoying the classroom scenes featuring the interplay between him and Reuven.
Danny? He saves the day with Michael and gets engaged to a non-Chasidic girl who is the daughter of another modern Jew considered an apostate. Oh, well, as Isaac found out, boys will be boys.