The Chosen - parenting and the path to a heart

"Long afterwards it remains in the mind and delights," says the New York Times Book Review quoted on the back cover of the Penguin Classic edition of Chaim Potok's 'The Chosen'.

This is undoubtedly true. I must have read it twice- once when at university when enthralled with my first encounter with Martin Buber and fascinated by a novel that, at its heart, had a relationship between a Hasidic rebbe and his son. Subsequently, having enjoyed it and read its sequel, 'The Promise' and many of Potok's other novels, I must have read it again sometime later.

Now, after a significant gap, I found myself reading it once more - both anew and with the renewing of memory. I was struck indeed by how much flowed back as remembered delight.

The vivid baseball game at its opening with the two yeshiva teams facing off with blistering rivalry. The 'accident' whereby Danny, the son of the rebbe, injures Reuven, endangering his eye, and yet become friends out of this adversity. The moving depiction of an adolescent friendship of gathering depth - that has both the immaturities of youthfulness and yet an abiding seriousness, one of those friendships that you seal for life.

The relationship between Danny and his father, Reb Saunders, whereby Danny seeks to extricate himself from assuming his to be inherited position of leadership so that he can follow the talents of his extraordinary mind in studying psychology. Whilst his father, with his own brother's apostasy on his mind, seeks to educate Danny's soul, alongside his mind, in the only way he can see fit. This is the 'way of silence' where he withholds himself from his son, forcing him to go inwards and rely on his own resources. It is a costly way, a way that incorporates much (mutual) suffering - and yet both seem to find a way to be at peace with it and recognise its virtue, much to Reuven's bewilderment given his quite different relationship with his father that is equally, and contrastingly, drawn.

All of this remarkable exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons drawn against the vivid background of growing up Jewish in 1940s America, the distinctions between conservative Orthodoxy and Hasidism, the intense backdrop of the unfolding war and the revelation of the Holocaust and the struggles over the birth of Israel - the excitement of Zionism and the anti-Zionist reaction of many Hasidic Jews including Reb Saunders. Only the Messiah can restore Israel not that goy Ben Gurion. It is better to live in a non-Jewish goy state like the US rather than a Jewish one. Here, as in Germany or Poland, you might lose your life but you can preserve, by living apart, your soul. All of which is fascinating and deftly drawn.

I had forgotten, however, how deeply moving the final section is when Reb Saunders addresses through Reuven his recognition of the path Danny has chosen to take and describes and explains the route of silence that he has taken. Moving because though most readers probably share Reuven's bewilderment (and hidden disgust), Potok allows Saunders' case to be deeply resonant.

This is because it speaks to every parents', person's, wish that whatever our gifts are, most notably if they are great and potentially influential, that they are subordinated, guided by soul, by heart. What is most important is that we grow in compassion and service - that in Reb Saunders' terms that our will is enfolded in making God's will manifest - and that we liberate what and whom we touch into a deeper liveliness of spirit and love.

This growth too can only ever be our own work, our own dispensation. Every parent would like to be sure, to make sure, that their children grow up walking a path with a heart but they can only set a tone, a context, make an invitation but whether we walk that way (or when) and how deeply is one of the mysteries of our freedom. One of the many things for which parents are fearful, hopeful. As Reb Saunders indicates his way may not have been wise but wisdom often fails us here and we must do the best we can, according to our lights, and hope to be forgiven!

Of such universalities is Potok's very particular tale expertly woven.


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