‘The Chosen’ Themes Endure 50 Years Later


Rena Potok believes she has inherited her famous father’s literary traits, including ability with the written word, analysis and character empathy.

The daughter of Chaim Potok, a resident of Merion for much of his life, who became one of America’s most-loved Jewish writers prior to his 2002 death at 72 from brain cancer, had many enjoyable sessions with her dad.

“My father audited some of my classes when I was going for my doctorate and it was like having another teacher,” Potok said. “At the Shabbat dinner table, instead of discussing Talmud, we’d discuss my dissertations. It was fun.”

The Chosen has sold 3.4 million copies. Photo provided)

The Chosen was Chaim Potok’s most-acclaimed novel, selling 3.4 million copies and being translated into several languages. It was made into a movie directed by Jeremy Kagan in 1981 and developed into a play by Aaron Posner in 1999.

And it will be the centerpiece of a Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival program at 6 p.m. on Feb. 17, at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

The play ran for a month in 1999 at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. It also ran at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh and won the 1999 Barrymore Award for best new play.

“Aaron really helped my father with all aspects of the play,” said Potok, an adjunct professor at Villanova University. “He was fortunate to work with some good people.”

The 1981 film, featuring Maximilian Schell as Professor David Malter, Rod Steiger as Rebbe Issac Saunders, Robby Benson as Danny Saunders and Barry Miller as Reuven Malter, will be shown. Potok will answer questions from the audience and talk about a new book, The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok, which she edited and contributed an introduction.

Kagan will be available for questions via Skype.

“The Chosen really typifies my father’s theme in a lot of his works of core-to-core culture confrontation,’’ Potok said. “He grew up in a strict Orthodox house with his parents not wanting him to read books by non-Jewish authors.

Rena Potok (Photo provided)

“He felt some of that growing up. With The Chosen, first there was the novel, then the movie, then the play and, as one would expect, the adaptations are a bit different per areas of art. But the core-to-core confrontation — tradition versus modernity — theme is present throughout.”

The plot of The Chosen, set in Brooklyn from 1944-50, features two Jewish teenage boys. The Chasidic Danny is expected to succeed his father as rebbe of the Saunders’ small sect, and the modern Orthodox Reuven is the son of a liberal college professor and ardent Zionist.

The film spotlights the differences in the way the Chasidic group looks at world and Judaism with how the modern Orthodox view the same matters. The boys originally meet in a baseball game in which Danny hits a line drive back at Reuven, who was pitching. The ball breaks his glasses and injures his eye.

“In that time period, a lot of things happen,” Potok said. “The core-to-cure culture clash is how the two groups want things to be. After World War II ends, and the subject of the creation of Israel comes up, the Chasidic sect believes only the messiah can give the Jews a homeland, while the modern Orthodox are thrilled with the aspect of a Jewish homeland.

The core-to-core clash also occurs individually with Danny and Reuven, with Reuven’s wanting to date Danny’s sister, Shaindel Saunders, and being told he can’t because she already has an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, Reuven, who aims to be a rabbi, takes Danny to his first-ever movie. A newsreel comes on showing the Nazi camps, which the Chasidic contingent had no knowledge of, and leaves the rebbe and his followers terrified.

Another feature of the film is how Danny is treated by his father. Except when he and the rebbe are studying Talmud, the father invokes “The Silence” and does not talk to him at any other time.

“Danny is a brilliant kid, with a photographic memory,” Potok said. “The rebbe believes because of that, Danny will have no feeling or empathy for people. Teaching through silence turns out to be successful, as Danny becomes a very sympathetic psychologist in the The Promise, which my father wrote as a sequel to The Chosen. So much my father experienced when he was young went into these books. He gave so many their first understanding of the Chasidic world.”

The two boys suffer through a few other rough patches because of the core-to-core confrontations between the Chasidic system of beliefs and the modern way of thinking with the same beliefs. After the two boys begin to attend Hirsch College, a Jewish University, Danny decides to transfer to Columbia University to study psychology and appears, not in Chasidic black, but in a modern suit as the film ends. l

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