© 1969 Chaim Potok
Growing up is never easy, but for Orthodox boys in the mid-20th century, it’s especially hard. The Jewish people are in turmoil after the horrors of the Holocaust, some pinning their hopes on Israel and others recoiling from it as anathema. The latter is true of Hasidic communities from Eastern Europe, fleeing both European and Soviet persecution, finding safe haven in the United States. The welcome American Jews might have given to their kin, however, is worn thin by the Hasids’ swelling number and their fervent defense of rigid Orthodoxy. In this setting Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, two Orthodox boys introduced in the gripping tale of The Chosen, complete their coming of age, united in the treatment of a young boy whose genius is matched by his inexplicable rage.
In The Chosen, Danny chose to depart from his father’s legacy as a Hasidic rabbi, a leader of his community. He chose instead to pursue psychology, while his more mainstream rival-turned-friend Reuven realized a call to the rabbinate. The Promise opens with both young men engaged in their graduate studies, and both faced with shared difficulties that force them to reconsider the paths they have taken. The first challenge is a boy with a passion for astronomy, the son of a humanistic Jewish scholar who is the object of scorn to the traditionalists governing Hirsch University. Michael is very sick, possessed by fantasies and given to episodes of rage; he exhausts therapists and seemed doomed to be institutionalized. Both Danny and Reuven have a personal connection to the stargazer Michael, in being companions of his older cousin Rachel. Danny has an idea for how to treat Michael, but it’s risky: if it fails, it may destroy the boy’s psyche altogether. Meanwhile, Reuven’s position as a graduate student who must soon defend his grasp and attitude of Talmud study to a panel of elders forces him between more liberal scholars like his father and Michael’s, and the traditionalist Hasids. He recoils against the ‘mental ghetto’ of fundamentalist Talmud studies, but is not satisfied with answers that reduce Judaism to empty family traditions.
In The Chosen, Potok impressed me by having Danny and Reuven both embroiled in an intense and challenging relationship with Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, who despaired both of Danny’s interest in the outside world, and of Reuven’s own father’s modernist approach to Talmudic study. Although they began as antagonists, however, ultimately they arrived at mutual understanding. No one is defeated, their differences do not cease, but they break through the arguments to re-embrace the people making them. Potok accomplishes something very like that here, in the person of Rev Kalman. Kalman survived the death camps of the Nazi state, but lost nearly everyone he knew, and when confronted with American Jews he sees challengers that threaten to complete by sophistry what Hitler began with direct industrial murder. Kalman stands between Reuven and ordination, and is an especially difficult antagonist given that he rails against Reuven’s father in the press. Yet Potok does not resolve the tension by having Reuven choose a prescripted side. Instead, he makes his own choice, and Kalman proves to be much like Reb Saunders: the enmity is defeated, but not his person.
Though initially appealing for being the further story of Danny and Reuven, Potok’s skill at rendering intense debate that results in mutual understanding rather than one-sided triumphs impressed me. I imagine as a rabbi himself, Potok has spent long hours having similar heated conversations with his colleagues and academics, attempting to reconcile an ancient faith with modernity without losing the power of those values and practices to endue lives with direction and meaning.
I know this is English Literature month, so er…consider this a salute to Benjamin Disraeli, former Jewish prime minister of Great Britain. (It’s also Passover, so..chag sameach!)