“The Chosen”

“True happiness consists not in the multitude of friends, but in the worth and choice”

It has been a long time since I read a book that captivated the imagination like this.

The Chosen is a story of two Jewish boys – one Hasidic, one not. Their friendship starts when one hits a baseball into the others’ eye, and is set in Brooklyn, New York in the 1940s. The book follows these boys as they grow through teenage years and attend college.

I devoured The Chosen late into the nights, curled up in my sleeping bag under a single lightbulb. It took less than a week.

The Chosen is semi-autobiographical. Potok, the author, was born in 1929 in Brooklyn as the son of Polish immigrants, and raised in an Orthodox Jewish home with a Hasid father. Like the boys in his story, Potok discovered a new world through the public library. Through novels of great writers, Potok discovered that fiction could “create worlds out of words on paper”.

The Chosen was his first world out of words to be published. On my first time through, my favourite parts were the dialogues. I’m guessing that Potok’s background in playwriting honed his skills in making a printed conversation live.

Potok weaves symbolism throughout his book. Dreams, silence, and Hasidic earlocks indirectly tell a greater tale. But of all symbols, the eye dominates.

At the very beginning Danny hits Reuven in the face with a baseball, shattering his glasses. A piece of the glass pierces Reuven’s eye, close to his pupil, and is removed by operation. During his time in the hospital, Reuven meets Mr. Savo, who has eye troubles, and blind Billy. After he is released, with a healed eye, he continues to notice and describe eyes: moist eyes; cold, glassy eyes; red eyes; eyes bright and alive with excitement; dark eyes “with pinpoints of white light playing in them as they do in black stones in the sun”; gentle eyes; widening eyes behind spectacles; wet eyes. As the life of Reuven’s friend Danny becomes increasingly miserable, his eyes become more tired, always blinking, and weak. But finally at the end, “there was a light in his eyes that was almost blinding”.

Reuven’s father says:

“We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity…What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?…I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning.”

Throughout the book Reuven learns not to see the brevity of the blink in his chosen friend Danny, but to fight together with him to fill a life with purpose and meaning.

I definitely recommend this book. Potok will be on my shelf again this Summer!

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