The Chosen, the novel by Chaim Potok, was first published in 1967, and has been a staple of middle-school reading lists ever since.
It tells the story of two unlikely friends, Reuven and Danny, who are growing up in Brooklyn during World War II and through the creation of the state of Israel. Reuven is the son of a Modern Orthodox academic; Danny is the son of a Hasidic rabbi. Reuven’s father expects Reuven to be a professor but Reuven really wants to be a rabbi. Danny’s father expects him to be a rabbi, but Danny wants to be a psychologist.
When I was in 6th grade at Jewish day school, we read The Chosen. I’ll be honest: The only thing I remembered about it was the opening baseball game, where Reuven gets smashed in the eye by a ball Danny hit, but nonetheless, they become best friends.
I’d also, at some point, seen the movie. But other than Robby Benson with payes, I remember absolutely nothing at all.
When my oldest son was in 6th grade, they also read The Chosen. I remember we discussed how it was an odd choice for a majority non-Jewish school, and how some of the kids were getting confused between “Shabbat” and “samovar.” But because it was lying around the house, I skimmed the book again. This time I took notice of the pro- and anti-Zionism elements (which I completely missed the first time around). Reuven’s father supports the establishment of Israel. Danny’s does not, as there can be no Jewish state without the Messiah.
And then came my middle child. He didn’t read The Chosen in 6th grade. Or maybe he did and he just didn’t tell me. My middle child doesn’t tell me much. Which is OK. I don’t require soul-baring.
But what I do require is respect. Politeness. A modicum of humility.
My middle child isn’t particularly good at those, either. He graduated 8th grade last month — while becoming progressively more unbearable.
He is 14 years old, and he knows everything. I know nothing. Questions I ask are responded to with no attempt to hide the condescension; comments I make are responded to with contempt. And, God forbid, I should offer advice on a topic for which my life experience trumps his stance. Then he’s just rude.
Yes, his behavior could be deemed “age-appropriate.” But that doesn’t make it acceptable.
I’m not sure how or why The Chosen popped into my head, except that, somewhere in the deep recesses of memory, I recalled that Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, doesn’t speak to his son — unless they are studying Talmud.
The Rebbe finally explains his actions in the novel’s penultimate chapter: He talks about his brother, who was brilliant but utterly devoid of empathy for others. And he feared his own brilliant son would head down the same path.
“I did not want my Daniel to become like my brother, may he rest in peace. Better I should have had no son at all than to have a brilliant son who had no soul. I looked at my Daniel when he was four years old, and I said to myself, How will I teach this mind what it is to have a soul? How will I teach this mind to understand pain? How will I teach it to want to take on another person’s suffering?” Reb Saunders says. “I knew already when he was a boy that I could not prevent his mind from going to the world for knowledge…. And I had to make certain his soul would the soul of a tzaddik [a righteous person] no matter what he did with his life.”
Full disclosure: At our house, God is not front and center. We do not study Talmud, and I suspect all of us fall pretty short of being what Reb Saunders would consider a tzaddik.
But, as I’ve written before, our family motto is: Don’t be an ass. And I feared that my middle-child was on his way to breaking that rule.
My 14-year-old is not lazy. He works very hard to achieve what he wants — and he usually achieves it. As a result, he has developed a tendency to look down on people who don’t. And to believe that his way is the only way to do things. It is not an attractive quality in a child, and it is an even more abhorrent quality in a young adult. I was determined to stamp it out as soon as possible. (Full disclosure #2: I was exactly the same way at his age.)
Nothing I tried worked. Not carrots, not sticks, not rewards, not punishments. I tried reasoning with him, and I tried yelling at him. Finally, out of desperation, I took a page out of Reb Saunders’ book: I stopped speaking to my son.
Not the way Reb Saunders does — not completely. But I set a new rule for myself: I would not engage with him unless he engaged with me first. I would not ask about the tech projects he was currently working on, the books he was reading, or the TV shows he watching. I would not ask him about his summer job, or if he’d filled out the necessary forms to pick his classes for the fall. I would not offer help or advice — he would need to come to me.
I didn’t tell him any of this; I just did it. I wondered if he’d notice. But he noticed — even if he didn’t notice he’d noticed. Because, after a few days, he started coming to me and spontaneously starting conversations.
They weren’t deep, Talmudic conversations. They were mostly about the Arrowverse — his current pop culture obsession — and about how he could now solve his Rubik’s Cube in even fewer seconds. But they were polite, respectful conversations.
I don’t know if this approach will ultimately make him a righteous man. I don’t even know how long the improved behavior will last. But I do know that it has made our daily interactions a great deal more pleasant. And I believe it is leading him — slowly, gradually — away from the path of becoming an ass. Which will also, hopefully, lead him away from the path of getting deservedly punched in the face.
So for that, I thank Reb Saunders, Chaim Potok, and “The Chosen.”