baal shem tov

J-BOM February: The Chosen, Chapters 3-7

baal shem tov 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.”

4 Comments

  1. The Baal Shem Tove was indeed a man of great holiness and I felt a sadness that the purity of his beliefs became marred in the years to come, through his followers. Isn’t that how it happens in every religion when man begins to let in his own will rather than YAHWEH’S?
    I also was interested in the thoughts Reuben had about Rav Saunders as he watched him . He is so different from his own father.

  2. I learned so much about Hasidic history from this book. Mr. Potok engages the reader in what might otherwise be a dry retelling of facts. I found it particularly interesting that Reuven likens the Hasidic traditions with Catholicism, and is simply told by Danny that he doesn’t understand. The tension and respite between the fathers, sons, and friends keeps the story moving and draws the reader in to these unique relationships, and very different faith values. I kept reading because I wanted to understand how they each thought so differently and yet were able to have and grow a friendship.

    1. I agree, Kelli. I thought it was ironic that these young men actually ended up wanting what the other had, in terms of the road that seemed to be ahead of each of them…..Reuben drawn to the religious and Danny to the secular. I was also touched by the change in Danny’s father. He accepted Danny’s plan more easily than I thought he would.

      1. Yes, Michelle, Reb Saunders was a touching and surprising character. As a mother, my heart broke for the realization he had when Danny was a young child – a mind without a soul. Another thing that touched me from the book was the vast difference between the two fathers and how they believed they should live out their devotion to God. One believing he must do, the other believing he must wait. I have often found myself wondering what it is God is asking of me in particular circumstances – forge forward in faith, or stand and wait on Him. Clearly I am not alone in that juxtaposition as it was beautifully included several times in the book. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot.

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