Reviewed: 2 Books From the ’60s

Today I’m reviewing the two books seen below–they’re wildly different in tone, theme, structure, intent and pretty much whatever other feature you care to name. One’s a thoughtful and serious novel, the other a collection of very brief, often bawdy humor pieces. The only things they have in common are that both are from the 1960s (published 1 year apart), I picked up used copies of them recently and I read them, back to back. but, hey, that’s good enough for me!

So here goes….

Published in 1967, Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen is a quietly moving book that details the coming-of-age of two young Jewish men in New York City, from a little before the 2nd World War through the post-war founding of the modern nation of Israel. It’s the story of a friendship forged from near-tragedy. It’s also the story of two starkly different father-son relationships, in which each son must, in the end, disappoint his father’s expectations to live life his own way. And it’s definitely the story of a clash of cultures–but not, as one might guess, involving the minority Jewish community facing incursions from the more numerous Christian population. No, this is about conflict within and between two wildly different perspectives about what it means to be a “proper Jew.”

The narrator is the bright and studious son. His father, a teacher at one of the local Jewish private schools is a fairly Orthodox Jew, highly religious yet still embodying attitudes that allow him to be part of and interact with the wider world’s majority (non-Jewish) culture. This father thinks his son will become an educator like himself, perhaps in mathematics.

Danny, the son’s bitter rival and eventually his closest friend, is the eldest son of the area’s charismatic and determined Ultra ULTRA Orthodox Hasidic Leader. Danny’s destiny is supposed to be foreordained: He will succeed his stern and distant, uncommunicative father as the leader of the inwardly focused, traditionally dressed group he was born into.

The more worldly father’s son soon decides he’d would rather be a Rabbi, however. Given the open communication between them, this isn’t THAT big a hurdle. But his friend Danny aspires to be a psychiatrist and THAT runs totally contrary to his father’s whole worldview.

The Chosen is dramatic, moving and provides a fascinating look at a specific time and place, and at two intimately related, yet hugely different sub-cultures. It’s a really good book and I’m glad I found it.

I’m less enthusiastic about Buskin’ With H. Allen Smith. But then again, this is an entirely different sort of literature. ‘Busking,’ as Mr. Smith kindly informs us, is the oldtime word for a type of entertainment (a likely predecessor of vaudeville) in which traveling players sold books, told stories (mostly brief, very often bawdy) and sang songs (likewise, with frequently sexual and/or humorous themes) in taverns and the like.

Smith (Wikipedia informs) was a very popular humorist “especially in the 1940s and 50s.” By the 1968 it seems his style of humor was already in decline and this slim paperback was apparently one of the last gasps of his career. Many of the jokes here are of a topical nature–very much of a particular time and place, and often referencing people then (or at least of the comparatively recent past) well-known.

I was 10 years old in 1968 (and a bit of a history geek then as now), so some of these people are familiar enough to add to the fun of their antics/wisecracks and foibles. But others just fall flat. That’s the trouble with topical humor–if it’s not part of your shared culture, it just don’t work. Some whole categories of jokes or ‘funny’ stories here have worn out their welcome as well–accounts of blonde woman drivers’ follies come to mind as an example.

But while I didn’t find this book hilarious, it had its moments. If you’re of a certain age (a bit older than me, I’d say would be ideal), hunting this up might be good for a laugh or three. And I see both volumes are available even today from Amazon, among other places.

 

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