Chaim Potok was to the tenets and vicissitudes of Judaism as Eli Wiesel was to the Holocaust. Each man pursued his personal obsession with unflagging intensity, to a total of 57 books by Elie Wiesel and 32 by Potok (including 14 volumes on Jewish Ethics).
But Potok was also a prolific playwright, presenting the diversity of Jewish thought through the words of the conflicted heroes of his plays. Such a play is Potok’s “The Chosen,” currently onstage at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre.
Adapted from his first and most popular book, “The Chosen” pits two young men against the certainties of their fathers, two very different rabbis. David Malter, played by Jonathan Arkin, is a modern rabbi, an ardent supporter of Israel and a man who contemplates the future with equanimity and hope. The other rabbi, Reb Saunders, played by Alan Blumenfeld, looks to the past and agonizes over it. Clad in a full-length silken robe with his long curly forelocks hanging from an over-sized, rectangular black fur hat, he clings to old traditions: parsing the Torah’s words into numbers, subtracting them from other word/numbers and interpreting them as messages from God. “Without the Torah we live only half a life,” he says.
Reb Saunders is a tzaddick, a righteous man, who is expecting his son to succeed him as a bridge between the people and God. But his son Danny (Dor Gvirtsman), a brilliant young man with a prodigious memory, has secretly defied his father’s orders and spends his time in the library reading forbidden secular books by Dostoevsky, Hemingway, and the like. He has also read Freud and has determined that he would like to become a psychologist . He feels that he was “born trapped” by religion, like his father before him, and protests “I’ve got to be able to breathe!”
The two young men are as different from each other as they can possibly be. Malter’s son Reuven (Sam Mandel) is responsive to the wisdom and warmth of his father, but even though he pursues his Torah studies at a religious school, he has no intention of following his father’s profession. He, like Potok in real life, wants to become an artist.
Danny and Reuven meet on a baseball field and conduct a two-man “Holy War” which ends when Danny smacks a baseball into Reuven’s eye. The next day Danny visits Reuven in the hospital to apologize and the two agree that “differences of opinion should never ruin a friendship.” So, gradually, they become inseparable friends and together they endure the traumas of their time: the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the death of Hitler and the
end of the war, and the news of the concentration camps and the murder of six million Jews.
The two rabbis disagree about the establishment of the state of Israel. Reb Saunders believes that Israel should be founded only “when the Messiah comes,” and Rabbi Malter becomes a political activist, declaring “Never again will Jews be bystanders to evil. Never again!”
The four participants, under the superb direction of Simon Levy, present their opposing positions convincingly and forcefully, dealing with everything from the concepts and admonishments of the Torah to the arcane minutiae it also offers. But I believe
that this new adaptation, prepared by Potok himself and Aaron Posner, is so filled with esoteric trivia and language as to be nearly unintelligible to a non-Jewish audience. And maybe to a Jewish one as well.
But as Posner writes in the playbook, “Conflicts between people only seem to be growing more heated, complex, and intractable” and Potok, he says, “asks us to contemplate a world where we chose to fill our lives with greater meaning…and where complexity, understanding, compassion, and reconciliation are among our highest values.”
With that as its motivation, “The Chosen” succeeds exceedingly well.
“The Chosen” can be seen Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm and Sundays at 2 through March 25th at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, in Los Angeles. Call (323) 663-1525 for tickets.