Book Review: The Chosen by Chaim Potok

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is a book I feel like I should have read in junior high. It’s a Ballantine Book; one of those small paperbacks with the newsprint paper that leaves ink smudges on your fingers, and weighs in at just under 300 pages. Add to this the very subtle “after school special” feel you get from it. You know what I’m talking about–dramatic, filled with not-so-subtle lessons, and just a tad precious.

I probably shouldn’t have started out with that “after-school special” comment, because the truth is that in spite of all that, I enjoyed The Chosen very much. It grabbed me and held onto me; I was completely unable to stop thinking about it for 24 hours (which is about how long it took me to read it, all told) and even now, I still think about some of the ideas the book brings up. I can already tell the story is one of those that will stay with me for a long time.

The Chosen (which takes place between the end of the Great Depression to a few years after the end of WWII) is the story of two exceptional boys from different Jewish backgrounds who meet under lonely and difficult circumstances and become best friends. Their families are different, their fathers (both of whom figure largely in the story and in each boy’s intellectual development) are seemingly at odds, and neither boy quite fits in with the world around him. When the book begins the boys are just entering that passionate and impetuous phase of adolescence; and so is the world around them as America’s role in the war grows.

On a historical level, the book is a revealing look at the era just during and after WWII. Any mention of WWII will always bring to mind Hitler and the horrors he committed, but rarely have I had the opportunity to view those atrocities from an insider’s point of view. And even these boys are not truly on the inside; they are helpless witnesses, touched on a personal level, but unable to take any action to effectively fight the nebulous monster bent on destroying their ancestry and birthright.

Beyond this, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the world of Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism, a world I already have a more than passing interest in. The devotion to study and tradition exhibited by the main characters is inspiring, and in many ways very appealing. I have always been intrigued by the aspect of Jewish tradition that is all-encompassing, bleeding into every aspect of life–what you eat, how you cook, an entire 24 hours of every week–the things that make it not merely a belief, but a way of life.

One thing missing from the book was any kind of female point of view, or even any female character of substance. Now, it doesn’t bother me if a book is man-focused. Some books (although appealing to both genders) are masculine, and some are essentially feminine. But The Chosen mentioned the role of women in this unique community just enough to make me curious, and then never followed through. It was a little tease that didn’t satisfy.

Truly, this book explores so many themes, it would be impossible to deconstruct them all in one blog post: male friendship, father-son relationships, independence and loyalty, tradition and submission, the quality of silence, and standing out in a crowd. I would love to find a book similar to The Chosen, but written on a more adult level. I really found it only touched on issues that I wanted to delve into deeply and explore to the utmost. It piqued my curiosity and set me on the road to further study.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Chosen by Chaim Potok

  1. I loved this when I read it in junior high! It sounds like maybe I should reread it. I remember thinking it was a life-changing book. Strange I can't remember many details now 😉

  2. The Chosen is my favorite book ever, the only book I have reread more than three times (close to ten times, but not in the last five or six years). It used to be my ultimate comfort read. I was recently reunited with my copy and am now itching for a re-read.Have you read any other books by Chaim Potok? Some of them, most notably Davita's Harp have female protagonists. Also, I think you will find the sequel to The Chosen, The Promise, written in a more mature way. Potok's two Asher Lev books are also higly recommended (but then, Potok is one of my favorite writers – in cas you hadn't noticed 😉 ). Off the top of my head I can also recommend Pearl Abraham's first book (though I can't think of the title right now) for a look into Orthodox and/or Hasidic Jewish life from a female perspective. I have a very soft spot for Jewish-American writers, and I should be able to recommend you more, if only I had more of my books at hand right now.

  3. Myrthe, so glad to meet such an avid Chaim Potok fan. Thank you for your reviews and recommendations for further reading! I definitely plan to check out some of the books you mention, especially some of those with female protagonists. I have another friend who recommended Potok's first Asher Lev book, so I have that on my Kindle and am reading it now. I'll let you know how I like it when I finish.Thanks for your comment and suggestions!Jenni

  4. You're welcome! After reading your review, I reread The Chosen in the past week, and I did enjoy it as much as ever. It's a book I will keep turning to when I need a comfort read (as I did this week) I'll post a review on my blog in the next few days.While I read I kept some of the things you wrote in mind and I mulled them over. One of the questions I am trying to answer is why I love this book so much even though I have so little if anything in common with the characters. I'm a non-religious, feminist woman in her mid-thirties, but every time I read The Chosen it completely pulls me in and wins me over. I think one important reason is the role of learning, education and books in the book.For some reason it doesn't bother me that there are no female characters of note in The Chosen. I feel that this story in particular doesn't need them.Okay, I'll stop here, before I end up writing my review here in the comments! 😉 Anyway, thank you for reading this book when you read it and giving me food for thought!

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