On Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”

When I first read Chaim Potok’s 
The Chosen
 I wasn’t yet trying to be a writer myself, and was blissfully unaware of all things writing-related. Reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience: I stumbled upon Potok’s novel in my middle school library, simply because the cover spoke to me: a young, timid-looking man clutching a book, staring nervously at something outside the reader’s view. Even before I opened the book, I knew I’d identify with that boy. That day in the library, I fell in love with The Chosen: with the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, both coming of age in 1940s Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, and the wrench that’s thrown into their relationship because of their wildly different approaches to observance. Potok’s world came alive to me, and the themes his characters grappled with—friendship, family and loyalty—have deeply resonated with me since.

More than anything, though, 
The Chosen
 stayed with me all these years because it was the first time I really experienced male relationships. For my earliest years it was just my mother and me, and it took me a long time to learn how to act around men. They felt like a foreign species that spoke a language I didn’t understand—not only older men, but the boys in my class: I always had a circle of close female friends, but I was at a loss as to how to communicate with the other gender. The Chosen helped me edge out of my shyness, simply because I cared about the fraught and complex friendship between Reuven and Danny with as much focus and intensity as I did my own relationships. Reading Potok’s novel was like having this unknowable thing—the psyche of a boy—cracked wide open, finally giving me the chance to peer inside.

Lately, a few people have commented on how “un-biographical” my story collection seems—that there are no stories about women my age, living in San Francisco—and have asked whether it was intentional that half the stories are narrated by men. And it was intentional. It was really important to me to write from the perspectives of both women and men, young and old, American, East European and Israeli. I wouldn’t let myself see the book as finished until I felt I’d written convincingly from all those points of view—in a collection that looks at how people are shaped by large historical moments, I knew I needed to explore those events from a variety of perspectives. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I see now it was The Chosen that led me to set that as a goal for myself: that writing should be an exercise in empathy, getting myself—and hopefully my readers—to care about people with experiences wildly different from our own.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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