I’ve only been to Israel once—for a week this past February, as part of Write On for Israel. In fact, my first memory of this thing called “Israel” was when, on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, my kindergarten class built a makeshift shuk in our classroom. We bought and sold falafel and oranges and, at the end of the day, the entire kindergarten grade (which consisted of five other classes) gathered together in the schoolyard and sang “Hatikvah.”
It was then, while singing “Hatikvah” and looking at all of the Israeli flags and pictures that adorned the walls of my school, that I got my first glimpse of Israel. For me, Israel was a mysterious land where everyone greeted each other with the word shalom and ate nothing but falafel and hummus.
Fast forward about five years; it’s now the summertime and I was sitting on my bed reading Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia” for the umpteenth time, and sitting next to the most recent Harry Potter book, which I had read at least four times up to that point (and would read again). My mother walked into my room, scowling and angry at the fact that I wasn’t reading anything new. She dropped a book on my pillow and told me to read it. I stared at the cover, “The Chosen.” It showed a boy standing resolute, carrying a pile of books and wearing what I thought were nerdy, retro glasses.
I would be first to admit that I found the book incredibly boring when I began reading it, but I plodded on, mostly because “Bridge to Terabithia,” after reading it so many times, was more boring than Chaim Potok’s novel. “The Chosen” ultimately became my favorite book and one that I now read again every few months.
Since that one day in kindergarten, my knowledge of Israel has become much broader. I now know that Israelis not only eat falafel and hummus, but also enjoy Israeli salad and tahini sauce, too.
But on a more serious note, I have learned more about Israeli culture. I have also learned how the establishment of Israel affected Jewry in America; it inspired passionate support and strong criticism from various groups. “The Chosen” offered me my first glimpse into the controversies within the American-Jewish community that surrounded the establishment of the State of Israel.
My entire life I have interacted with people who support Israel and who have taught me that living in Israel (however scary it may have seemed when I was younger) was an aspiration. It wasn’t until I read “The Chosen” that I was exposed to a school of Jewish thought that was ardently anti-Israel, one that did not aspire to live in or support the idea of a Jewish state.
Reading “The Chosen” opened my mind to a different way of looking at the establishment of Israel. After being pushed on the subject by Reuven, the protagonist, Rabbi Saunders offers his opinion on the Jewish state: “Apikorsim! Goyim! Ben Gurion and his goyim will build Eretz Yisroel? They will build for us a Jewish land? … Goyishkeit they will bring into the land, not Torah!” (p. 197).
When I first read this passage, I was taken aback by Rabbi Saunders’ rant, which continued onto the next few pages. I read those pages over and over again, and could not possibly fathom why any Jew in the world, especially in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, could oppose the idea of a Jewish homeland. More important, why did Potok choose to write about it?
Over time, as I learned more about the creation of the State of Israel — and after rereading the book and that particular passage — I think I may have found an answer. This book was not targeted solely at the Jewish community. It was aimed at the masses, people who may or may not have known about the controversy that the creation of the State of Israel caused within the Jewish community; the book highlighted this difference of opinion. Although Potok himself makes his opinion on the matter clear (he’s a Zionist), he presents both sides of the arguments and ultimately lets the reader fashion his or her own opinion on Israel.
As a writer, I have always found it enjoyable to either cause controversy or to write about it. I am a firm believer that arguing is the best way to formulate and bolster one’s opinion. “The Chosen” highlighted the controversy caused by the establishment of Israel in the world at large and within the American-Jewish community.
By presenting both arguments and coming down on the side of the fervent Zionists, Chaim Potok made his readers, Jews and non-Jews alike, feel the importance of a Jewish state. In doing this, Potok helped me better understand my belief in the State of Israel, as well as the need to protect and advocate for it. Ultimately, a book written more than 40 years ago helped me understand why I support Israel today.