Friday, 21 June 2013

The Chosen & The Promise - Chaim Potok

I am a HUGE Chaim Potok fan. I've been reading and re-reading his books since I was in high school, and all the times I've had part of my collection in storage, my Potoks are the first to go on the NOT TO GO IN STORAGE pile!! I thought I had managed to collect them all. However, in a recent Sunday afternoon wander in one of our favourite inner city haunts, DB and I were prowling a second hand bookstore and to my quite incoherent - albeit, noisy - excitement, I found a Potok I didn't even realise existed - The Promise - sequel to The Chosen, which is one of my most favourites of his books. This meant a re-read of The Chosen prior to the first reading of The Promise, so this will be a necessarily succinct reflection on them both together.
The Chosen is set in Brooklyn, home to numerous different Jewish groups of differing levels of religious observance. The different groups eye each other with some suspicion, each sure of their own heritage as true followers of Torah, and seeing commonality only in their united suspicion of those 'non-Torah Jews', who by adopting more contemporary styles of dress, and having regular contact with people outside their immediate communities are viewed as contravening the commandments as they understand them.

Danny Saunders is the eldest son of the rebbe (leader) of his particular Chassidic sect. Such groups are usually dynastic, so it is his destiny to inherit the leadership of his community when his father dies. Danny wears the payot (long side curls), black suits and visible tzitzit (ritual fringes) of the ultra-Orthodox observant Jew. Reuven Malter is the only son of a modern Orthodox rabbi, who works as a teacher in a religious school, and is known for his publications that are commentaries on the Talmud - the books of Jewish Law. The two boys would not ordinarily have even met, let alone become friends, had it not been for an inter-school baseball tournament. They both play for their schools, and in a game heavily laced with sectarian enmity, Reuven is injured when he is hit in the eye by a ball Danny pitches. The injury is serious, landing him in hospital with the possibility that he may lose his sight. Reuven's father counsels him to not hold a grudge against Danny, and when Danny visits Reuven in hospital, the seeds of a friendship are sown.

Due to the strict observances of his Judaism, Danny never eats with the Malters, but Reuven is invited to Danny's house - mainly so that Reb Saunders can inspect him, this odd, different new friend. This is when Reuven discovers that Danny has a very different relationship with his father, compared to his own. When he goes home it is Reuven's father who explains the very old Chassidic method of parenting with silence - the only open interaction Danny has with his father is via Talmud lessons. Reuven finds this inexplicable, all the more so when he unwittingly finds himself being used as a channel of communication between Danny and his father. Because, Danny has a secret. Brilliant Talmud scholar though he is, and strongly committed to his life as an observant Jew, he doesn't want to follow his father into the leadership of their community. Unbeknown to anyone - except Reuven's father who had discovered him in the public library long before the baseball accident that brought the boys together - Danny dreams of studying Freud and Jung, and becoming a psychologist. This can only bring him into conflict with his father, and indeed, with his entire community, particularly since such study would require him to be educated in public universities, amongst non-Jews, and therefore becoming exposed to a world that their enclosed community attempt to shut out.

Reb Malter encourages the friendship, sensing that Danny, and his father too, need the mediating influence that Reuven brings to the family dynamic. Reuven, tutored by his father, is also a brilliant Talmud scholar, so Reb Saunders, while initially cautious of the friendship, comes to realise that far from being a bad influence, Reuven has the potential to keep Danny close to his roots. However, Danny is not to be swayed, and realising that he can't go against his true inclinations, he faces his father with his great dream and, loving his son, Reb Saunders eventually has to concede that Danny must make his own way, while at the same time, extracting from him the promise that he won't abandon his observant practice.

The Promise picks up a few years later when both boys are well into their respective studies. Danny, always academically gifted, is excelling in his psychology studies, while Reuven is doing well in his studies towards rabbinic ordination. Reuven has met a girl, Rachel, daughter of a man known for his highly contentious books on Judaism and interpretation of halachah (Jewish Law). He thinks she may be the one, and is keen to continue exploring their relationship. While holidaying with his father and Rachel's family for the summer, he comes into contact with Rachel's young cousin, Michael, a troubled youngster who has what becomes evident as deep seated psychological issues. Failure to connect with any therapists to date means that little or no progress has been made to get to the root of the issues, and a number of events occur during the summer that indicate that the problem is becoming serious. Hearing of Danny's work for his post graduate research, the family ask if he might be able to see Michael.

Danny agrees, and proposes, after a few sessions with Michael, and the agreed supervision of his academic mentor, to take Michael into a residential program to see if they can make some headway via more intensive work. Meanwhile, Rachel and Danny meet, and to Reuven's initial dismay, it is clear that an instant and strong bond is formed - which, given the difference in their religious backgrounds, could prove explosive. 

When Michael fails to make progress, and in fact becomes more violent and unpredictable, Danny proposes a radical experimental therapy, feeling it may be the only option to break through the boy's defences. Based on the methods Danny's father used to parent him, Danny proposes to isolate Michael completely in order to eventually break down Michael's self-imposed isolation by using actual isolation from people n order to push him to WANT to talk, and open up to what is troubling him. It is risky, Michael's parents are, justifiably concerned. They enlist Reuven's input, based on his long friendship with Danny, and with great misgivings, the therapy is commenced. With the complexities of that to manage, Danny is also courting Rachel - with both being extremely circumspect about publicising the relationship. Reuven has graciously given way, realising that Rachel never loved him as she does Danny, all the while, wondering what will become of them.

I positively gobbled The Promise - I really couldn't put it down. I have read The Chosen at least annually for decades now, and I always wondered what became of Reuven and Danny, and whether their boyhood friendship could withstand the pressures of adult life and their respective differences. The Promise held a number of surprises - there's no way I could have predicted the various outcomes for each of the storylines contained in this quite complex novel, but like all of Potok's books, it was ultimately, an entirely satisfying read. Given how many years it took me to discover the book even existed, I'd assume it never really had the popularity of the first book, so it might be a bit harder to locate, but if you're a Potok fan, do go and hunt it down. If you've never read Potok, The Chosen is a good first book to start with...and then you can hunt down the sequel!!


  1. Hello, my old friend. Just checking in to say that despite the rampant rumors, I'm not dead. It's hard to build up a "regular" clientele when you do a book review site, because no one who hasn't read the book you're reviewing has anything to contribute. So I'm just checking in to let you know that, despite the fact that my taste in reading approximates that of a ten-year old boy, I still read everything you post. I keep thinking that repeated exposure to a literary commentator will make me smart; no luck yet, but I keep trying...

    Should you visit my bio section at WdC, you will find that this blog is listed as one of the three "favorites" that I am allowed to link there. While you're there, visit my "Fun Between the Covers" forum where I review the occasional book... If I can't be smart, I can at least have fun while I'm doing it!

    Be safe, Be well, Be happy!
    ~ JT

    1. Hey Jack! Great to hear from you - check your email - I'll touch base with you there properly.

      As far as Potok goes, you MIGHT (no guarantees) enjoy 'The Book of Lights'. It is another one that might be hard to find - Ebay probably... Set partly in Korea during the war, and deals with a young rabbi who enlists as a chaplain - he's a Kabbalist. So, a really interesting mix of mystical spirituality and army stuff.

      House full of people - I'll scrawl you an email later today when it's a bit quieter.


    2. I realize this is an older post, but just saw it and want to let you know that, The Book of Lights as well as most, if not all, of Chaim Potok's can be found at Amazon.

    3. Thanks for that! Comments appreciated any time - old posts or recent ones :-) I am so addicted to the bricks and mortar bookshops, I tend not to think of all the online options - and Amazon has second hand books too, doesn't it?

  2. Just found a copy of The Promise at a thrift store. Will this stand alone as a read, as I have never read The Chosen?

    1. The Promise is the sequel to The Chosen. I think you'll find there are significant gaps, so it would be worth hunting down a copy of The Chosen first.