The Chosen

Orthodox vs. Hasidic on the Silver Screen

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Excerpted with permission from Reel Jewish (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

To the uninitiated, the worlds of ultra-religious Hasidic and modern Orthodox Jews might seem close enough to be one. But to the Jews in The Chosen, based on the novel by Chaim Potok, they are indeed worlds apart.

The 1981 movie was adapted by Edwin Gordon and directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan,who is the son of a rabbi. Set in the mid­1940s, it is the story of a growing friend­ship between Danny Saunders, the son of the grand rebbe of a large Hasidic sect in Brooklyn, and Reuven Malter, the son of a more secularized writer and scholar. It is also an exploration of Zionism, family traditions, soul searching, parental influence, and the pursuit of personal goals.

Superb Casting

That’s quite a lot of serious and very Jewish content to load into one American mainstream movie, but The Chosen pulls it off. Part of the reason is its cast--Rod Steiger as Danny’s father, Maximilian Schell as Reuven’s father, Barry Miller as Reuven, and a surprisingly effec­tive turn by Robby Benson as Danny.

With characterizations and a production design so skilled and so complete, there is never any question about who these people are, where they are, or even why they are motivated to do the things they do.

Danny is expected to inherit the mantle from his respected fa­ther and one day become the next grand rebbe. The problem is that he wants to study psychology. "I get tired just studying Talmud,” he tells Reuven one day.

Ironically, Reuven, who is cu­rious and slightly skeptical of the ways of the Hasidim, thinks he may want to become a rabbi. “I never realized how full the life of a rabbi could be,” he tells Danny. “Babies to be blessed, boys to be bar mitzvah, disputes to be settled.” He also happens to no­tice the fire of passion in just about everything Danny’s father says and does, and it is a passion he himself would love to possess.

Zionism vs. Jewish Anti-Zionism

Reuven’s father has passion, too, but his is for the founding of a Jewish state, a topic for which Rebbe Saunders has little patience. Only the Messiah, he says, can be respon­sible for a new Jewish state. This major dif­ference of opinion almost destroys the friendship between Danny and Reuven--especially when Reuven’s father makes a public speech about the need for increased Zionist activities.

The Chosen is also a story of good men, wise men, fathers who know that stubborn­ness is not an option when it comes to rec­ognizing basic truths. For despite their differences in lifestyle and opinion, Reuven’s father will not disparage the rebbe, the fa­ther of his son’s best friend. “In a way it is that kind of fanaticism that has kept us alive,” he says to Reuven about Rebbe Saunders. Nor is Danny’s father one to force his son to lead a life he really and truly does not want to lead.

There is a lot of compas­sion in The Chosen. Perhaps Rabbi Kagan never in­tended his son Jeremy to become a filmmaker. But the young Kagan did be­come a filmmaker and he made a movie that was’ roundly praised. The Cho­sen, then, becomes a testa­ment to following your dreams. That’s where the compassion comes from.

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Joel Samberg, a humor and opinion columnist, also is the author of The Jewish Book of Lists.