April 28, 2017


Some Reflections on Chaim Potok's 'The Chosen' : The novel, published 50 years ago today, shaped the American Jewish encounter with Hasidism and Orthodoxy, while giving a pretty good play-by-play account of a baseball game (Aaron R. Katz, April 28, 2017, The Tablet)

It is only fitting that a book that is so "Jewish" opens with a description of arguably the most Jewish of all sports in the most Jewish of all American communities: baseball in Brooklyn. Ever since Lipman Pike was a star Jewish baseball player in the 1870s, Jews have always had a connection to the game. Central to the novel is a highly detailed description of a softball game between Reuven Malter's Modern Orthodox school and Danny Saunders' Hasidic school. As Potok sets out for the reader, the game itself is a product of America's entry into World War II, as a number of teachers in the Jewish school system wanted to show the gentile world that yeshiva students were just as physically fit as public school students. The description of the game is riveting, especially when we are introduced to Malter and Saunders who meet for the first time during the heated game. Ultimately, Saunders smacks the ball right toward Malter on the pitcher's mound, knocking off his glasses and sending him to the hospital where the two begin to cultivate their friendship in earnest.

Potok, clearly versed in the sport of baseball, wears the hat of a professional sports commentator throughout this opening chapter, to the extent that one can literally prepare a detailed box score of the fictional game. (Personal disclosure: I've done it. Although, for the record, in the top of the fifth inning, the inning in which Malter gets knocked out, the No. 2 batter is skipped in the batting order, and instead the No. 3 batter leads off the inning.) His biases toward Hasidim are also apparent from the opening pages. Time and time again the aggressiveness and sense of superiority of the Hasidim are asserted. In perhaps one of the tensest scenes in the opening chapter, when Saunders and Malter meet, Saunders says, "I told my team we're going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon." In Rabbinic Hebrew and in Yiddish, apikores refers to a heretic. Potok has transformed the baseball game into a religious war, with a clear delineation from the perspective of Malter, from whose perspective the book is written in first person. [...]

One of the people whom Potok thanks on the opening page of The Promise is professor David (Weiss) Halivni, a Holocaust survivor and longtime Talmud professor at JTS and Columbia University who is universally acclaimed as one of the pioneers of the academic Talmudic approach. Havlin actually finds one of the cases that Malter cites in Halivni's 1969 work, Mekorot u-Masorot on Seder Nashim.

Halivni lives in the Shaarei Chessed neighborhood in Jerusalem, and I recently saw him one Shabbos morning at the Kahal Chassidim synagogue. While it may seem strange to run into one of the foremost academic Talmudists davening at an Ultra-Orthodox shul in Jerusalem, where the congregants would not generally support his scholarly approach, in praying there, Halivni is true to the sentiments he expressed in his 1983 resignation letter to JTS: "It is my personal tragedy that the people I daven with, I cannot talk to, and the people I talk to, I cannot daven with. However, when the chips are down, I will always side with the people I daven with; for I can live without talking. I cannot live without davening." After davening that Shabbos morning, I went up to Halivni to ask him about his relationship with Potok. After exchanging warm greetings and expressing his joy in being recognized, Halivni discussed the many ways the fictional Malter and the Talmudic methodology he uses in The Chosen were modeled after him and his own personal work. With a warm smile and a wink, Halivni told me: "I am Reuven Malter."

Which is all well and good, except that Rabbi Saunders is the hero of the novel.
Posted by at April 28, 2017 5:34 AM