Can’t place the title of the book? It makes for a great trivia question. What famous book with the title “The Long Silence of Danny Saunders” on its original manuscript, sold well over 3 million copies? A further clue: the original manuscript had the first name of the author as “Herman”.
That’s right! The 50th Anniversary Edition of the book that fooled professional book critics (who panned it) to the same degree that Trump fooled professional pollsters has just been released, and in it you’ll learn the story of how the book got its title, and see that the initial manuscript identified the author’s first name as Herman Potok rather than Chaim. (“Le-Herman” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
Among the supplementary material included in this edition is a short piece by Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster on The Birth Of The Chosen. As Gottlieb tells it, he was stymied about an appropriate title for the book when, on the way to the men’s room, he ran into Arthur Sheekman in the hallway. Sheekman was a screenwriter and, seeing a look of worry on Gottlieb’s face, asked him what the problem was. “So I told him I was going nuts trying to find a title for a book about boys in wartime Brooklyn, Hasidism, and baseball. ‘Call it The Chosen’, he said casually, and walked on. Literary history was made because I had to take a leak.”
Playwright (ever wonder why it isn’t spelled “playwrite”?) Aaron Posner, who adapted Potok’s work for the stage, contributes this observation: “I had read The Chosen in junior high school. I remembered there was a baseball game, and that was out it. In reading it as a searching adult, I was struck by so many things – the stark and powerful prose of the storytelling; the raw force of the core conflicts; the endless complex humanity of all the characters; and, finally, the universality of the story.”
Look, I love baseball more than the next guy, but the construct of the baseball game [graphic by Joon Mo Kang, NY Times] as a creative force that frames The Chosen is a bit far-fetched. In the Foreword to the 25th Anniversary Edition, Potok writes that this metaphor as a way of uniting different themes from his youth came to him on a gray November morning, when the memory of watching ‘Hasidic’ youngsters in a Brooklyn park playing the game called running bases popped into his head. But they were playing amongst themselves, and without the trappings of gloves and bats. Back in the days when Potok wrote the book (1963-1965), while pursuing a Ph.D. in Jerusalem, it’s unlikely there would be an organized softball game pitting teenage Satmar Boys vs. the Y.U. High School Maccabees. Even these days in the Catskills’ Orthodox Bungalow Baseball League, Chasidim of Danny Saunders’ ilk aren’t like likely to field a team to compete with Reuven Malter’s brand of modern Orthodoxy. The closest one might come to an organized event at a baseball venue in New York co-mingling Chasidim and non-Chasidim would be Torah At Citi Field.
But I’m quibbling here. In re-reading The Chosen, I’ll extend Potok full literary license for how well he represents the cultural divide through a softball metaphor that levels the playing field. I hadn’t appreciated how much Potok’s fiction was semi-autobiographical, mirroring his lifelong quest to understand his role as a Jew in the fabric of a secular world. After his undergraduate days at my alma mater, Yeshiva University, Potok would become ordained through the Conservative bastion known as the Jewish Theological Seminary. His singularly transformative experience however, came through his service as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army in Korea. It was there that Potok navigated through a sea of people to whom Jews were invisible or non-existent, and for whom the entire Abrahamic culture was irrelevant. Yet he greatly admired their spirituality and values, and through his writing chose to analyze the effects of his own insularity.