Chaim Potok wrote a short history of the Jews called Wanderings. That depth of knowledge must be why he is able to make history shine in The Chosen. He reveals an unfamiliar world, helping us understand the backstory that illuminates the lives of Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders. We can see it. We can understand why Jewish people were in a particular situation in the place and time that The Chosen takes place.
To shine light on the situation of Danny Saunders and his father, Reb Saunders, the tzaddik of a Hasidic community in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Potok has to take us back to Poland. He recounts the feud between the Polish nobles and the Cossack peasants, a feud that found Jewish people vulnerable. Those Polish lords bad brought in Jews to carry out their business and run things for them. Since the Cossacks weren’t powerful enough to attack the Polish lords, they pillaged Jewish villages and killed men, women, and children.
Bad blood continued for centuries, until it happened during WWI that a young rabbi’s wife and infant daughter were killed. He himself was left shot and stabbed, but was nursed back to health by a peasant. He had to be tied to a bed for weeks while fever and delirium almost took him. Eventually it became known to his small community of Jews that he had survived. Out of more than one hundred and eighty Jews in the village, only forty something survived. The rabbi led them to America, to Brooklyn, to the Williamsburg neighborhood. The rabbi was Danny Saunders father, a hard man, but a man who had survived horrors and done great things for his tiny community.
The pathos of Danny’s situation becomes even more apparent. A genius, a rare light in the gloom of Hasidic Jewish life in the forties, Danny doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his father and four other generations of rabbis and tzaddiks. But he will. His personal desires matter less to him at this point in the story than his duty to the people.
Reuven is our point of view character. We see through him as if we were in the story. One night after the Sabbath, his father is explaining the origins of Hasidism to him. Other readers may feel what I did, an attraction to the power and simplicity of the Baal Shem Tov’s religion. Whatever Hasidism has become, there is something pure and lovable about its founder and his ideas.
The point of life is achieve holiness in everything, in sleep, in work, in eating, in being. I have to say this ideal only appeals to people who understand “holiness” not as the oppressive goal of judgmental religion but the freeing aspiration of lonely souls to find the light of the universe. For the Besht (Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, see more on wikipedia), it was apparent that God was everywhere and that everything, including sleeping and eating, were done in his Presence. A hard shell covered the spark of divine light in us and the only way to transcend the shell was to pray honestly and sincerely and often. He found nature to be the place where we most easily could find enlightenment, piercing the shell with our prayers.
Reuven, the teenager becoming a man, is taking all this in at the same time he is finding in Danny Saunders a true friend. Momentous things are happening around Reuven. Reflecting on his coming of age, events that swallowed up his life in a period of a few short days, he says, “I felt I had crossed into another world, that little pieces of my old self had been left behind on the black asphalt floor of the school yard alongside the shattered lenses of my glasses.”