Mandel sits on the floor in glasses and sweater vest, looking up pensively
Sam Mandel in the stage adaptation of Chaim Potok's classic novel "The Chosen" (Photo/Ed Krieger)

‘The Chosen’ onstage: Is the classic book frozen in time, or still relevant?

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When playwright Aaron Posner was seeking a Jewish-themed book to adapt for the stage in the late 1990s, he went to the author Chaim Potok for advice. To prepare for the meeting, he read some of Potok’s works — and quickly found the one he wanted to adapt: “The Chosen.”

Posner felt the book about a Hasidic boy and an Orthodox boy finding common ground despite religious and cultural differences, and their challenging relationships with their fathers, was as relevant in modern times as when it was published in 1967.

Posner saw it as a parable for how people could overcome differences in a polarized society.

“What he was writing about so beautifully and elegantly is the need for people to come together across differences, both real and perceived,” said Posner, who continued to consult with Potok while writing the play. “Everything about our world now tells us it is more timely and urgent than ever.”

Gvirtsman in black Hasidic garb stands with arms crossed looking at Mandel in glasses and sweater vest
Dor Gvirtsman and Sam Mandel on stage in “The Chosen” (Photo/Ed Krieger)

Some 50 years after the book’s release and nearly 20 years after the completion of Posner’s award-winning adaptation, “The Chosen” is being staged this weekend at the Palo Alto JCC. The Fountain Theatre production follows by a few months a sold-out, six-month run in Los Angeles.

The cover of the book "The Chosen" by Chaim PotokPotok’s seminal book, set in the mid-1940s in Brooklyn, has sold more than 3.4 million copies since it was published a half-century ago. It spent 39 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and became required reading for decades of kids in Jewish day schools and many public schools.

But is it still a story for our times? While Posner and others argue the themes remain relevant, local historian Fred Rosenbaum says the story is dated and fails to touch on some issues of importance in contemporary Jewish life — such as intermarriage and the changing role of women.

“The Chosen” is the story of Reuven Malter, a modern Orthodox teen, and Danny Saunders, a Hasidic teen, who meet for the first time on a baseball field in New York. After smashing Reuven’s glasses with a line drive to the face, Danny initiates a friendship that changes both their lives.

The story focuses on the bond between the boys and the relationship each has with his father. Danny is the son of a revered rabbi, and is expected to follow in his footsteps, even as he is drawn to the secular world and the study of psychology. Reuven lives with his father, an ardent Zionist and Bible scholar. It explores the religious differences between the families, as well as the clash within the Jewish community over the formation of the State of Israel.

Howard Freedman, director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, is one who sees resonance in the work’s themes.

Arkin talks to Mandel, who sits in bed with bandages on his face
Jonathan Arkin and Sam Mandel on stage in “The Chosen:” (Photo/Ed Krieger)

“The ability to overcome differences in order to begin or sustain relationships is always relevant,” he said. “In fact, when I think of Danny shunning Reuven because of his support of a Jewish state, and the personal hurt that Reuven sustains as a result, I think of relationships that are being torn by conflicting political loyalties today, with Democrats and Republicans often no longer able to coexist within some families or social groups.

“Danny’s situation is particularly profound because it is not only his family, but his entire community, that is looking to him to assume his destiny. And it’s a destiny he turns out to be quite ambivalent about,” Freedman added. “The question of living up, or not living up, to a parent’s expectations will be a poignant theme as long as humans exist.”

While many Jewish parents likely read “The Chosen” when they were teenagers, that’s not necessarily true for their children. Isaac Jacobs-Gomes, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade English at the Brandeis School of San Francisco, said Potok’s work has “fallen out of fashion” in comparison with books by authors such as Philip Roth or Berkeley’s Michael Chabon.

Jacobs-Gomes said he reread “The Chosen” this summer while attending a Great Jewish Books program at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, and understood why it was a safe choice for past generations.

“Reuven is a perfect Jew, beyond reproach,” Jacobs-Gomes said. “Roth is showing Jewish life, warts and all.”

“The Chosen” is not on the reading list at Brandeis. In fact, a quick survey of 10 Bay Area Jewish schools showed only two still have it on their reading lists — Contra Costa Jewish Day School and Oakland Hebrew Day School.

The three stand and sit around a table with volumes of Talmud arguing
Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman and Steven B. Green on stage in “The Chosen” (Photo/Ed Krieger)

Dean Goldfein, head of school at CCJDS, is currently teaching “The Chosen” to a seventh-grade Judaics class. He said it demonstrates the diversity of the Jewish community and provides an accessible look at the study of the Talmud and other religious texts.

“It invites discussions of identity, family obligations, the character and role of sacred texts and ritual today,” he said. “Though ‘The Chosen’ presents only male protagonists, its universal theme of individuals struggling to discover themselves in a modern context through the lens of tradition, community and family has encouraged people of all cultural and gender identities … to embrace the work.”

Rosenbaum, co-founder of the adult learning center Lehrhaus Judaica, argues that the story’s themes of male friendship and the father-son relationship are enduring, but that the focus on religious distinctions between the Malter and Saunders families, while it is “of great historical value,” may be “a little off the mark.”

“As a historian, I think it offers very valuable information about Hasidim and the life of Orthodox Jews, but today’s problems are different. When this book was written, intermarriage was really rare among American Jews,” Rosenbaum said. He called Potok’s work “dated” because today’s issues are more social than theological.

“There was no attention given in the 1940s to the gay issue or even in the 1960s to that issue in terms of Jewish life,” he pointed out. “Now, many rabbis perform same-sex marriage, many rabbis are gay. This is where it lacks relevance. It doesn’t apply to the problems we face today.

“Much more important than the divide within the traditional community is the lack of any attention at all to Jewish women [in ‘The Chosen’]. In some denominations, half of the rabbis now are women and they hold key community positions.”

Posner, the playwright, writes in his foreword to the play that it’s “perhaps unfortunate that this story so desperately needs to be told” because of the lack of understanding among people. And he says Potok, an ordained rabbi who died in 2002, probably would be sad that people continue to have so much trouble reconciling differences of opinion.

Aaron Posner
Aaron Posner

But Posner said “The Chosen” will resonate for all, non-Jews as well as Jews, because it touches on Potok’s core beliefs.

“This story was never of most interest to Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, just as the story of ‘Hamlet’ was not designed for Danish royalty,” Posner said. “Chaim was writing about the world he knew. But every great classic builds off particularities and specificities to speak to the universal.”

Simon Levy, who directed the play at the 77-seat Fountain Theatre in L.A. earlier this year and is directing the Oct. 20-21 shows in Palo Alto, said the election of President Donald Trump attracted him to this piece of work that conveyed a sense of respect for opposing viewpoints.

A Hassidic man in a fur streimel hat and tallit, looking up with arms raised in ecstasy
Steven B. Green on stage in “The Chosen” (Photo/Ed Krieger)

“We live in such a polarized society now, with all the partisanship that’s going on, that the last thing we’re able to do is hold two conflicting ideas in our mind at the same time and acknowledge that we can have two truths,” he told J.

Though Levy did not read the book until its 50th anniversary last year, he said it had personal echoes for him. The beauty of “The Chosen,” he said, is that it’s “a specific story that has universal themes in it.”

“At the heart of the book — and this is what transcends time — Chaim achieved this wonderful ability to bridge opposites,” Levy said. “He bridges these chasms that exist between modernity and tradition, secular and sacred, Zionism and Hasidism, adolescence and adulthood, friendship and family, fathers and sons.”

The four actors who performed “The Chosen” in Los Angeles will reprise their roles at the Palo Alto JCC.

One is Dor Gvirtsman, who plays Danny. A Tel Aviv native who grew up in Mountain View, he says the first professional play he ever saw was a TheatreWorks production of “The Chosen” just before his bar mitzvah. He said it was especially powerful to an Israeli American kid.

“Israelis have this feeling of straddling. The story does such a great job of mitigating that betweenness for both characters, Danny and Reuven,” he said.

“I would even argue ‘The Chosen’ is more relevant today than when it was written. That feeling of being neither here nor there in a global world is becoming more powerful. It seems people are more within reach of each other, and farther away from each other, than they have been in a long time.”

“The Chosen.” The Fountain Theatre stages Chaim Potok’s 1967 book. Adapted by Aaron Posner, directed by Simon Levy. At Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21. $25-$40.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.