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A New Perspective On “The Chosen”

MCQ - January 19, 2009

I read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen for the first time when I was in high school.  I liked the book very much and identified particularly with the character of Reuven, especially in his condemnatory attitude toward the parenting practices utilized by the father of his friend Danny.  These practices are revealed throughout the book and, without giving away too much of the story, they are characterized mainly by almost total silence between the father and son.  From an early age, Danny finds that his father refuses to answer questions and never speaks to his son directly in any way.  The only meaningful verbal exchanges between the two happen in public as part of the sabbath service that Danny’s father performs as the leader of his ultra-conservative Jewish congregation.  Near the end of the book, during what is, for me, perhaps one of the best monologues ever written in modern fiction, Danny’s father tells Reuven the reason that he has been raising his son in near-total silence. 

But Reuven does not accept the reason, and as a 17 year old high school student, neither did I.  It is easy to label the father as an extremist and a victim of misguided priorities that are clearly out of step with even the 1940s(!) society in which the story is set.  In essence, I thought then (in 1982) that this father sacrificed any relationship he might have had with his son, and subjected his son to the equivalent of mental and emotional abuse for reasons that are at best insufficient and at worst, criminal.  After all, we criminalize the behavior of those who refuse medical treatment to their children for religious reasons.  Is this so different?  Both result in harm to the child that can only be justified if you accept that the religious priorities of the parent are real and more important than the child’s immediate physical, mental or emotional well-being.

As some might expect, however, I found that reading the story again now, when I am the parent of adolescent children, made a difference in how I felt about Danny’s father.  I find myself more sympathetic toward  his efforts now.  I understand his desire to place the health of his child’s soul above that of his body or his mind.  I still think it’s wrong to raise a child in silence, but I am now more inclined to judge Danny’s father by his intent.  I have an appreciation now of the difficulty of passing on to a child, the love of something beyond the physical, mental or emotional needs he or she may have, and help them connect with their spiritual selves, and gain an understanding of and a relationship with that other spirit that we refer to as the Holy Spirit. 

As parents, sometimes we despair of teaching our children anything, especially when it comes to something as intangible as faith.  My own children sometimes seem mystified by the need to fast, unmotivated to attend church, and bored by the scriptures.  If we truly believed (as Danny’s father surely does) that, by raising our children in silence, we would have a better (or perhaps the only) chance to impart a measure of faith or spiritual knowledge to our children, would we do it?  I’m not sure I could, no matter what the circumstances, but if we put the question that way, and after experiencing my own frail attempts at parenting, I’m much more able now to understand those who wish to try.


  1. [...] A New Perspective On “The Chosen” Posted on January 19, 2009 by MCQ Please see my post on this here. [...]

    Pingback by A New Perspective On “The Chosen” « MCQESQ — January 19, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  2. It seems like no one wants to talk about this, but I thought of something else that is analogous to the subject, so I thought I’d add it. That is the fact that some Mormons, in my observation, believe that mainstream media (in the form of TV, music, magazines, video games, and movies), is dangerous for kids and they severely restrict access to it, some even going so far as to prohibit access to certain of these forms of media. Is this the Mormon equivalent of raising children “in silence?” What are its pros and cons?

    Of course, even drastic restrictions from mainstream media cannot really be compared with a parental refusal to talk to a child, but it seems to be at least analogous. Your thoughts?

    Comment by MCQ — January 21, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  3. I think that the amount of time that media are on in a typical American household actually imposes a silence on the family. No one talks to each other because the TV is dominating the conversation.

    Comment by Seth R. — January 22, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  4. That’s certainly true to some extent, Seth, but it’s not equally true of all media. For example, TV often gets the most knocks for dominating the time and attention of American families, especially the kids, but are music, newspapers, magazines and the internet all equal offenders with TV? Obviously not, because you don’t hear as much about people banning those things from their life, or the lives of their kids.

    Even talking about the worst offender, TV, though, it’s hard for me to make the case that it’s always a bad thing. It’s overused, and it’s a distraction from more important things, but it can also be a great medium of communication and education.

    I’ll give you an example of this. I met a guy once, a member of the church, who had grown up on a farm in Idaho without TV. He was an unapologetic apostle for keeping TV out of the home. He gave talks about it in church. Said TV was one of the great evils of modern society and kept people from truly connecting with their families and having the Spirit in their homes. He was also one of the worst racists I ever met. He couldn’t get through a game of ward basketball without calling the Black guy on the other team a n—–. If that’s the result of no TV, I’ll take TV anytime.

    Comment by MCQ — January 22, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  5. I think the Internet and video games are much greater distractions from family-strengthening than TV. I’ve always thought TV got a bad rap. In our home, we as a family find specific shows that we enjoy together– American Idol, How I Met Your Mother, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, House, Bones– and we constantly interact and interject throughout the shows. We don’t do board games and have little patience with just sitting around and talking for more than 10 minutes, so this is our solution. Of course we each also have our own shows, but usually TiVo them for alone-time.

    Comment by David T. — January 22, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  6. I agree that TV time isn’t necessarily completely non-family time. You can interact during shows and some shows even generate some good family discussions. I think it is important to limit TV time so that every evening isn’t consumed by one activity. Incidentally, David, I like your list. HIMYM, House and Bones are three of our favorites as well.

    But TV watched together as a family probably isn’t a major problem. The problem is when everyone is involved in that, plus also wtching their own shows, plus listening to music, plus surfing the net, plus reading magazines, plus playing video games, plus watching movies on cable or on DVD…

    You can see how that kind of schedule can severely limit time for family as well as church activities, scripture study, family prayer, journal writing and missionary work. How do we fit in the important spritual activities and make them meaningful without completely unplugging from all of the media in our lives?

    Comment by MCQ — January 22, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

  7. MCQ,

    I had a similar experience with a girl from college who grew up without a TV. She wasn’t racist but had an unhealthily black and white outlook on life (you know, everything I’m into and all I do is are good things but most everything else is bad)

    The media I run into most as a school teacher are mp3 players and cellphones. The positive is listening to music often helps many kids concentrate on their work (although some kids THINK they do but they really don’t). The negative is most kids can’t stand silence in any setting. Also, I’m quite sure cellphones a one the signs of the apocalypse.

    Comment by Bret — January 23, 2009 @ 11:37 am

  8. Ha, I think you’re right, Bret, I know my own kids appear to be texting 24/7. It makes you feel like they’re never actually present. They’re always engaged in a conversation with someone else, or even several someones. ADHD is the new normal.

    Comment by MCQ — January 23, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

  9. Exactly. Apparently someone somewhere ELSE is more important than interacting with people who are RIGHT THERE WITH YOU! This is one of the many reasons I prefer boardgames to video games (though those are fun too:)

    ADHD is also the most self diagnosed ailment in the world, I’m quite sure, along with bad spelling and forgetting people’s names.

    Comment by Bret — January 24, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  10. He was also one of the worst racists I ever met. He couldn’t get through a game of ward basketball without calling the Black guy on the other team a n—–. If that’s the result of no TV, I’ll take TV anytime.

    Oh, give me a break. If you think that lack of TV leads to racism, particularly on the basis on a single farmboy from Idaho, you’re the one showing profound ignorance here.

    My former wife and I only owned a TV for about 3 months of our 10-year marriage (which was spent in Utah, California, and Texas). Our three kids who were born and raised during that period are neither warped, ignorant, or racist. The two oldest are outstanding readers; the third was born a few years before the end of that marriage and had access to TV once he hit 4 or so years old. Note that I never preached in church (or anywhere else) on the “evils of TV”, nor did I particularly feel that way. I also feel that none of us missed much of anything; after all, we’re talking about 1974-1984. :-)

    Note, by the way, that our two oldest daughters frequently watched TV at their friends’ houses and at my parents’ house. We weren’t particularly concerned about that. What did happen was an awful lot of reading — by myself, my wife, and our daughters — at home. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — January 30, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  11. Geez, Bruce, who spit in your cheerios? It seems like you’ve been a little cranky lately. Maybe you should get more sleep or more of whatever else you are missing (TV?) and take a break from the blogs.

    You’re arguing against your own straw man here. I didn’t say that a lack of TV made him a racist, I just related that anecdote and said IF that was the cause, then it would not be an endorsement of a “no TV” lifestyle.

    I’m glad you found that lifestyle to work for your family. I highly doubt, however, that the only consequence of that choice was “more reading.”

    Comment by MCQ — January 30, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

  12. For example, you caused your family to completely miss “Welcome Back Kotter.” How do you sleep at night?

    Comment by MCQ — January 30, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

  13. [...] people wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the connection as much — or how all of these Mormon blogs love to read Chaim Potok and liken them unto themselves). I guess I’m not immune from all the [...]

    Pingback by Mormonism…least “guilt”y? « Irresistible (Dis)Grace — February 11, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  14. I loved The Chosen, so it’s interesting to see how your perspective has changed. Have you read some of Potok’s other books?

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — February 13, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  15. Hi Michelle! Yes, I love My Name is Asher Lev and The Promise as well. Potok is definitely one of my favorites.

    Comment by MCQ — February 13, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

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