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Building a Friendship

The Chosen began its life in the city of Jerusalem, as author Chaim Potok worked on his PhD dissertation. He wrote academic research part of the time, and the fictional story of two Jewish boys growing up in 1940s Brooklyn the rest of the time. When Potok returned stateside, his novel returned with him and his family. The book was a bestseller when it was published in 1967, received great critical praise, and led Potok’s authorial star to rise.

When Potok decided to adapt the novel for the stage, he looked to playwright Aaron Posner to co-write the script. The play was published in 1999 and has seen many productions over the past 25 years, capturing the essence and spirit of the original text.

Chaim Potok (born Herman Harold Potok) was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, NY. He was the son of Polish immigrants and was raised in a Jewish Orthodox home. His mother had Hasidic roots and his father was a Hasid, so he had experience with the cultures he represents in many of his works like The Chosen. As a teenager, Potok decided to become a writer and like Danny in the play, spent a large amount of his time reading many of the “great works” of the English literary canon.

During this time, he became interested in less restrictive Jewish doctrines, specifically the Conservative movement. After attending Yeshiva University and obtaining his degree in English Literature, he attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and was ordained a Conservative rabbi. He served as a combat chaplain in Korea, taught at several Jewish colleges, and served as an editor of several Jewish publications. In the play, the character Danny is Hasidic, and the character Reuven belongs to a non-Hasidic Orthodox tradition, reflecting Potok’s evolution in his faith, going from a Hasidic upbringing to becoming a Conservative rabbi. 

The Chosen was Potok's first published novel and was the first book from a major publisher to portray Orthodox Judaism in the United States. The book met critical acclaim and became a commercial success. Potok followed it with a sequel, The Promise, that picks up a year after The Chosen left off with Danny and Reuven's stories. His next book series followed a young Hasidic artist as he struggles with family and community: My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev, published in 1972 and 1990, respectively.

Photo of Eli Mayer (Reuven Malter) and Hillel Rosenshine (Danny Saunders) by Mikki Schaffner.

Aaron Posner has made a prolific career in regional theatre, directing across the country, and seeing his plays produced hundreds of times, both here and abroad. A skilled adapter, most of Posner's plays are based on novels, novellas, short stories, or plays. He not only adapted The Chosen with author Chaim Potok, but also wrote a stage adaptation of My Name is Asher Lev.

In an introduction to the show recorded by Milwaukee Rep, our co-producers of The Chosen, Posner reflected on the power of this enduring story.

"Of all the stories I've told on stage during a 30-something year career, this is the one I'm most proud of bringing to the stage. Chaim uses the word worthwhile a lot, both in this book and in other books, and it's one that's certainly become a part of my personal lexicon. I believe in doing things on stage that are worthwhile, that are worth people's time, that have the capacity to connect deeply. And this story is a beautiful and worthwhile story about how we find meaning in our lives, how we live in relation to a complicated world, and it's about coming together across difference. How do you reconcile differences? How do you actually engage with things that seem impossibly difficult? I don't think there's anything more important for us to be talking about in the world right now than how do we respect other people's opinions. How do we operate when we're in passionate disagreement?

This is a play about faith. And they're not a lot of plays that engage deeply with faith, whatever that faith is. When it has been done around the country, one of the things I've been really proud about is that it brings in Christian schools [and] it brings in Muslim audiences. Even though it's a very Jewish story, it is a story that has the power to go deep for everyone. I don't believe this play is going to change the whole world, but it is the kind of story that we need to be telling right now if we're hoping to make a difference."

Thank you to our co-producer, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, for generously providing resources for this article.


Following all performances of The Chosen beginning Friday, April 19, members of the artistic team invite audience members to have in-depth discussion about the themes and ideas represented in the play. These will be facilitated by Playhouse staff who will be joined by an expert on the content of the play. Such experts include Dr. Gary P. Zola, Dr. Jordan Finkin, Dr. Mark Raider and Rabbi Dr. Richard Sarason. These discussions provide an opportunity for patrons to dive deeper into the show’s subject matter and connect with other audience members about their interpretations.