Memory No. 3: Potok’s The Chosen changed my life. –Teens Can Write Too! Blog Chain (January 2013)

Dear Reader/Writer,

This is my first time ever participating in a blog chain, and I’m super excited! The topic is: “Is there one particular book that changed your life? If so, why did you originally choose to read it? What impact has it had on you?”

If nothing else, I think I can say with certainty that hundreds of books have shaped me as a writer, and each of them has, if even in just a tiny way, changed my life. But today I decided to focus on a single book that I would not have read if it weren’t required for school: The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. I had not even heard of it until I received a copy of it in class and was told “read the first three chapters.” There was no blurb on my copy, no anything. I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

The book begins as most books for English class tend to begin: boringly, with completely unrelatable characters (unless you’re the son of a rabbi living in Brooklyn during WWII…). The story itself is lacking in action, strong female characters, and earth-shatteringly beautiful prose. The narrative arc follows a (non-romantic) friendship, focusing also on father-son relationships, religion, and silence.

It all begins with a softball match between Reuven’s high school and Danny’s yeshiva, which ends abruptly when Danny hits a ball breaking Reuven’s glasses and injuring his eye. Danny later visits Reuven (who is at the hospital) to apologize, and slowly they begin to form a friendship. Soon enough it is revealed that Danny is an uber-genius aspiring to be a psychologist (which is only, like, the coolest thing ever), but that his father needs him to become a rabbi. The thing about Danny’s father is, however, that he only speaks to his son when discussing the Talmud. He wants his son to be able to hear silence.

The Chosen features everything that I had never known I was looking for. It features a brilliant main character who is in no way stereotyped or dehumanized. Instead, Danny has intensely conflicted emotions of hate, love, and confusion brought alongside his drive to discover intellectual truth.  It was only when I read the part where Danny confesses to going to the public library to read secular works by authors such as Freud and Dostoevsky that I realized I could actually relate to the characters in The Chosen. Yes, I may be Asian and female and an agnostic living in the twenty-first century (as opposed to Caucasian and male and Jewish in the 1940s), but I’ve read (and loved) Dostoevsky. As I continued to read, I found myself further drawn into the story by the focus on a single friendship (instead of the all-too-common romance). After all, I have never fallen in love. School and learning and just talking (instead of running around fighting demons) are major parts of the novel, and I found that strangely compelling.

As the story continues, Potok raises questions about religion in a modernizing world. Although I did not necessarily agree with his answers (he himself having been a rabbi), I found them still to be incredibly satisfying.

But what really makes the book amazing is the ending.

The ending is absolutely brilliant. I would feel guilty telling you what happens, but I assure you—the entire book is worth reading if only for the reason behind Danny’s father’s silence. It’s such a beautiful display of his unconditional love for his child and the strength of their father-son bond. Chaim Potok brilliantly executes this revelation, explaining what must be explained and yet leaving unexplained many of the emotions that even the characters themselves do not understand. In a way, he’s the one that taught me to do that in my own writing: explain only what you must, because when you lay it all out in words it is set in stone, but what you do not explain the reader can explain with a multitude of explanations and answers and possibilities, all of which are true.

This is the main way in which The Chosen changed me as a writer. It also did a number of other things to my writing such as push me towards focusing more on character emotions, as well as helped feed my growing interest in the role of religion and faith in our lives and the concept of secular spirituality. In addition to all of these things, it encouraged me to be unashamed of who I am. By creating characters who were so relatable—characters whose emotions I could repeatedly identify myself with—it helped me realize that a lot of things I’m going through now, people have been going through again and again for the past millennial. I don’t know why it was a book about a friendship between two Jewish boys that finally showed me this, but who said life makes sense?

A lot of the books I read give me the opportunity to escape my own world. But The Chosen looked at the world I live in and introduced characters I could fully relate to. The way friendship is everlasting, knowledge is an obsession, and silence can mean everything—using main characters whose confusion I could relate to, Chaim Potok reminded me of all the things I needed reminding of.  And when reading about characters asking the very same questions I ask and as much at a loss for answers as I am, I felt connected. In this way, The Chosen changed my life.



P.S. Read about the books that changed the lives of my fellow Teens Can Write Too! blog chain participants!

January 5th – Muslim Spirit by Fida
January 6th – The Teenage Writer
January 7th – Miss Alexandrina
January 8th – Between The Lines
January 9th – Avon’s Babbles
January 10th – Life.
January 11th – Inside The Junk Drawer
January 12th – Notebook Sisters
January 13th – Musings From Neville’s Navel
January 14th – The Loony Teen Writer
January 15th – A Mirror Made Of Words
January 16th – Epistolary Girl
January 17th – Inklined Writers
January 18th – Zara Hoffman’s Blog
January 19th – SydneyJoTo
January 20th – Reality Is Imaginary
January 21st – The Little Engine That Couldn’t
January 22nd – Writers Response
January 23rd – John Hansen Writes
January 24th – Miriam Joy Writes

Categories: Dear Past, Memory | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Memory No. 3: Potok’s The Chosen changed my life. –Teens Can Write Too! Blog Chain (January 2013)

  1. Hi, followed you here from the nerdy non fiction reading challenge, and found your review of The Chosen. I read this book over 30 years ago and although the details of the story are lost to me all i remember is that I loved it, and now feel inspired to find it again, something I don’t often do.
    thanks for sharing

  2. Brilliant post — I’ll definitely have to bookmark that for later reference, to see if I can find the book in the library. I love it when you’re reading a book and you suddenly realise the character has ONE thing that’s exactly like you, ONE thing that makes them relatable… I had that when reading Pride and Prejudice for school. I hated it until Elizabeth said something (I’ve now forgotten what! That’s awful of me) which was exactly like something I was feeling at the time, and I suddenly realised we weren’t so different after all. Following that point, I found it much more enjoyable to read, because I could see it from my viewpoint as well as hers.

    Thanks for participating — I loved reading this one.

    • Thank you for such an awesome prompt!
      I certainly hope you find this book at the library–it’s a marvelous read. And yes, I know so well that feeling that you speak of. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside! (:

  3. The Chosen is sitting unread on my shelf. You’ve inspired me to go read it! I love characters with strong, and conflicting, emotions. They’re real! (And interesting.)

    stopping by from the TCWT chain

    • Yay! Don’t get too discouraged if the beginning is really boring–I mean, there are probably people out there who thought the book was wonderfully engaging from beginning to end, but I found the story to have an extremely slow start (although in retrospect, I cannot possibly imagine it beginning any other way). Also, there is/are a lot of religious vocabulary/references that you may or may not understand, depending on your background–but the only thing you really need to know, I think, is that the Talmud is essentially a series of commentary on the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. (: I hope you enjoy it!


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