The Chosen Summary – Chapter 1
The Chosen begins in 1944. The protagonist is a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy named Reuven, who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The area is heavily Jewish, and there are several Hasidic sects in the neighborhood. These are very conservative Jews, some from Russia and others from Poland. Each Hasidic sect has its own rabbi and its own customs, including distinctive clothing. Reuven is not Hasidic. His father is an Orthodox Jew, and Reuven attends a yeshiva, a Jewish school, in Crown Heights, where there are Hebrew studies in the morning and English studies in the afternoons. The emphasis is on study of the Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinical commentaries that interpret biblical laws and commandments. Reuven’s father teaches at the yeshiva.
In early June, 1944, as World War II rages, Reuven takes part in a varsity baseball game that will have a major effect on his life. It will be his first encounter with a boy named Danny. Reuven has been playing baseball for two years and has become good at second base. He has also developed a swift underhand pitch that deceives the batter.
That afternoon Reuven’s team is scheduled to play a team from another yeshiva that has a reputation for wild slugging and poor fielding. Reuven’s team are looking forward to the game and badly want to win, partly because they like their coach, Mr. Galanter. Reuven’s teammate Davey Cantor warns Reuven that their opponents are “murderers,” but Reuven does not take him seriously.
The opponents are from a Hasidic sect, as Reuven sees from the fact that they wear the traditional tzitzit (fringes) with their uniforms and are coached by a rabbi rather than an athletic coach. They speak to each other in Yiddish.
The rabbi insists that his team be given a few moments to practice before the game begins. He also insists, to Mr. Galanter’s annoyance, that the other team leaves the field.
Reuven sees nothing remarkable as he watches the other team practice, but Davey still insists they are ruthless. He identifies one of their opponents as Danny Saunders, the son of Rabbi Isaac Saunders. Reuven has heard from his father about how Reb Saunders zealously rules his own people.
Danny walks past Reuven, ignoring him, and Reuven decides he does not like what he sees as this Hasidic sense of superiority.
Danny’s team bats first, and Reuven takes up his position at second base. The first batter strikes out, and Reuven doesn’t feel the opposition is anything to worry about. But the third batter, a big boy named Dov Shlomowitz, hits the second pitch, and then charges straight into Reuven at second base, knocking him down.
The next batter is Danny, who hits the ball straight at the pitcher’s head, who avoids it by diving to the ground. The pitcher thinks that Danny aimed deliberately at him. Reuven is still not concerned, and at second base he congratulates Danny on his hit. Danny is not very friendly, saying his team is going to “kill you apikorsism.” (Apikorism are those who do not follow Jewish law and practice. Danny regards anyone who does not share the narrow beliefs of the Hasidic sect to which he belongs as an apikoros.)
When Reuven’s team bats, it appears at first that Danny’s team, with the exception of Danny, are poor fielders. Realizing that Danny’s team regards the game as a war between themselves, the righteous believers, and the sinful apikorism, Reuven starts to feel hatred for Danny. There is ill-feeling between the two teams as the game continues. It starts to resemble a war.
When Danny is next at-bat, he again hits the ball over the pitcher’s head. Reuven makes a leaping catch and falls down. By the top half of the fifth and final inning, Reuven’s team leads by five to three. Reuven is the pitcher when Danny comes to the plate. Reuven’s fifth pitch comes in fast. Danny has figured out the curve and swings low at it. He hits the ball straight at Reuven. Reuven puts his hand up and the ball deflects off his glove, shatters his glasses and then glances off his forehead, knocking him down. His eye hurts when he blinks and Mr. Galanter, his coach, helps him off the field and puts a wet handkerchief on his head. He watches as his team loses the game. The pain in his eye gets worse, and Mr. Galanter calls a cab to take him to the hospital.
Chapter 1 – Analysis
The novel is about the tensions between different approaches amongst Jews to the core of the Jewish tradition. These different approaches are introduced through the baseball game. Potok spoke of this in an interview with Harold Ribalow that was published in Conversations with Chaim Potok: “In that baseball game you have two aspects of Jewish Orthodoxy in contention. You have the Eastern European aspect, which prefers to turn inward and not confront the outside world. You have the Western European more scientific aspect . . . within Orthodoxy, that is not afraid to look at the outside world that produces scientists.”
The attitudes of these two approaches to Judaism will be examined as the novel proceeds. The two main characters have already been introduced: The Hasid Danny and the Orthodox Reuven. They start off as rivals, and both are the outstanding players on their team.
The Hasidic sects tend to keep to themselves and place great value on their religious traditions. They don’t take part in the wider American life and have what Reuven calls a “ghetto mentality.” They are also suspicious of anyone who does not share their beliefs. This comes across in their fanatical, win-at-all-costs approach to the baseball game. They think they are superior, and are ruthless in their pursuit of victory. They think of it as a war.
The Orthodox, on the other hand, are more open to entering the cultural mainstream and becoming scientists, professors, doctors and lawyers. When Danny and Reuven first meet, it is clear that Reuven is the more friendly, open one. He is more engaged with his surroundings. Danny seems aloof and closed off; he is focused on winning the game and nothing else seems to matter.
There is some symbolism in this first chapter. The novel is concerned with different ways of seeing, with different visions of the world. Reuven’s glasses are broken and he is injured in his eye. This means that he is about to have his way of seeing the world, of perceiving things, challenged and altered.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 2
Reuven is taken to the Brooklyn Memorial Hospital, accompanied by Mr. Galanter. His left eye is still extremely painful, and he is examined by a doctor, who calls in his colleague. Then a third doctor, Dr. Snydman, examines him and asks that he be taken upstairs to a place where they have more sophisticated equipment. Reuven thinks that a piece of glass may have scratched his eye, and that was what is causing the pain. He is concerned about how worried his father will be when he gets the news.
Some time elapses. Reuven awakens in a hospital ward. His eye is bandaged, and the pain has gone. In the bed to his right is a friendly man who also has an eye injury, shown by the black patch over his right eye. He is a professional boxer named Tony Savo, who was injured in the ring. On Reuven’s left is Billy, a boy of about ten or eleven, who is blind.
Reuven is served a meal and he discovers that it is Monday afternoon, the day after the baseball game. He has been asleep all that time. He chats with Tony and Billy, and finds out that Billy is to have an operation that may restore his sight. Then Reuven’s father arrives. He tells Reuven that Dr. Snydman operated on his eye, and removed a piece of glass from it. It will heal in a few days, and then he can come home. But Reuven realizes that his father is holding something back, and it transpires there is a possibility that scar tissue will grow over the eye and damage his vision, perhaps even blind him in that eye.
David Malter tells his son that Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, has called him and told him that Danny is very sorry for what happened. But Reuven is angry with Danny, since he believes that Danny deliberately tried to hit him. His father rebukes him for speaking badly of Danny, since he cannot know what the boy’s motivation was.
Mr. Malter also brings a radio so that Reuven can keep up on the news from Europe. The invasion of Europe (D-Day) is to happen soon. For the time being, Reuven is not allowed to read.
After his father leaves, Reuven thinks about what it might be like to be blind in one eye. He has never thought much about his health before, as he has never had reason to. He then thinks of Billy, and tries to imagine what it would be like to be completely blind.
Chapter 2 – Analysis
One of the themes of the novel is the relationship between fathers and sons, and this chapter shows how Reuven and his father regard each other. Malter is a fond father, who also provides moral guidance to his son-he will not let his son speak badly of Danny-and Reuven accepts his authority. Malter is not in the best of health, and his son worries about him, noting how pale and thin he looks. There is obviously a warm relationship between them, one of deep mutual affection and respect. When Reuven guesses he is holding something back regarding his eye, Malter admits to his son, “I have never been good at hiding things from you, have I?” The relationship between them is important for the structure of the novel, since they will be contrasted with the relationship that exists between Danny and his father.
Reuven’s stay in the hospital gives him a glimpse of the suffering of others, and he shows that even at the age of fifteen, he has a compassionate heart. He is kind to Billy, translating his Jewish name Reuven into Robert so it will be easier for Billy to remember, and then shortening it to Bobby. Even though Reuven has worries of his own, he does not focus exclusively on himself. Imagining what it would be like to be blind, like Billy, he shows he has empathy for the young boy.
It is also made clear that Malter and Reuven take an interest in world affairs. They follow the progress of World War II keenly. The tide of world events will become increasingly important as the novel unfolds.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 3
Reuven is awoken by a commotion in the ward. People are cheering and he hears loud voices. It turns out they are excited about the news from the war, since the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, has begun. Reuven, Mr. Savo and Billy all listen to Reuven’s radio and learn about the invasion. Billy says his uncle is a bomber pilot.
Reuven puts on his tefillin. Tefillin are scriptural passages in small boxes worn on the forehead and arm during prayer and worship. The word is sometimes translated as “phylacteries,” which is the word the nurse uses. Reuven prays for the safety of the Allied soldiers.
In conversation with Mr. Savo, Reuven reveals that his father wants him to be a mathematician. However, he is not sure what he wants to do. It is possible he may become a rabbi.
Mickey, a sick boy of about six, comes in from another ward, and Mr. Savo plays catch with him. Mrs. Carpenter, the nurse, tells him to stop, and take some rest.
Reuven receives a visit from Mr. Galanter, who is excited by the war news. His next visitor, to Reuven’s amazement, is Danny. Danny is the last person he would have expected to visit.
Danny says he is sorry for what happened, but Reuven is angry with him and tells him he can go to hell. Danny says he came to talk to him, but Reuven says he does not want to listen. He tells Danny to go home, and Danny departs, still insisting that he is sorry.
After supper, Reuven’s father visits, and Reuven tells him about Danny’s visit. Malter speaks sternly to his son and tells him that according to the Talmud, if a person comes to apologize for having hurt you, you must listen and forgive him.
After his father leaves, Reuven regrets what he said to Danny.
Reuven spends the following morning listening to the radio, and is surprised to have another visit from Danny. This time he is pleased to see him, and he apologizes for his behavior the previous day. Danny says he does not understand his own feelings during the baseball game. He literally wanted to kill Reuven after Reuven pitched the curve ball at him.
They engage in conversation, comparing how much time each spends on Talmud studies. Danny studies four pages a day, compared to Reuven’s one. Reuven is amazed that Danny can do that much, and study English as well. Danny then recites about a third of a page of Talmud word for word. He says he has a photographic mind. He also explains to Reuven that he is going to become a rabbi, and eventually take his father’s place as head of the sect. He has no choice in the matter, since the position is inherited. If that were not so, he says, he might become a psychologist instead. Reuven is surprised to hear that, and talks about how he likes the idea of becoming a rabbi. He would enjoy teaching and helping people when they were in trouble. Becoming friendly toward each other, the two boys discuss baseball. Danny explains that he had told his father that Reuven’s team were the best around, and that his team had a duty to beat them at what they were best at. Otherwise his father might not have allowed them to have a team.
Danny says he will visit again the next day.
Chapter 3 – Analysis
In this chapter, Reuven continues to provide evidence of his character that is in keeping with what the reader has seen so far. Not only is he very intelligent, he is committed to his Jewish religion. He prays wearing tefillin, and he tells Danny that he wants to become a rabbi. He is extremely thoughtful and very considerate of the feelings of others, as is seen in the delicate way he handles the visit of Mr. Galanter.
But the real interest in this chapter is in Danny. Up to now, he has seemed a strange, aloof figure, dressed in the garb of a fundamentalist sect, and so fanatical about winning at baseball that he hits the ball directly at the pitcher, as if he wants to hurt him. It looks as if he and Reuven are going to be serious rivals, if not open enemies.
But now there is a turnaround. When he visits Reuven in the hospital, Danny reveals himself to be human after all. He is sorry for the injury to Reuven’s eye, and after they have talked for a while, the two boys are well on their way to becoming friends.
Danny is the most important character in the story, and this chapter gives the first clues about the difficult situation he is in. He has a very demanding father who has very high expectations about the capabilities of his son. Danny is also bound by tradition to succeed his father as head of the Hasidic sect. But in spite of his obvious intellectual brilliance, he does not seem very excited by the prospect. He seems to prefer to become a psychologist. Although at the moment this is only an idea in his mind, the Hasidic sect to which he belongs pursues a very narrow education, and his father would surely not approve if Danny were to express an interest in psychology. Although the reader has not yet met Danny’s father directly, the difference in the two father-son relationships is already clear. Reuven and his father are close, and communicate well. Reuven is free to go into whatever profession he chooses. His father actually wants him to be a mathematician. Although David Malter is a teacher, Talmudic scholar and writer on Jewish issues, he does not insist that his son be the same. But Danny’s father appears to be more authoritarian. When Reuven asks Danny what would have happened had the Hasidic team lost the baseball game, he says, “I don’t like to think about that. You don’t know my father.”
So there is some reverse parallelism in the two relationships: Reuven’s father wants him to be a mathematician (a secular profession), but Reuven wants to be a rabbi (a religious profession); on the other hand, Danny’s father assumes Danny will become a rabbi, but Danny wants to be a psychologist. It is easy to see who is going to have the easier passage in life.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 4
Reuven’s father visits, bringing the news that Reuven will be able to leave the hospital in a few days, but he will not be allowed to read for ten days. Reuven is relieved that he will not have to spend a Shabbat (Sabbath) in the hospital. Reuven tells his father about Danny’s visit, and Malter asks him to make Danny his friend.
After Malter leaves, Mr. Savo inquires about Reuven’s father and about Danny. He warns Reuven to be wary of fanatics, which he assumes Danny, because of his appearance, to be.
The next day, the curtains are drawn around Mr. Savo’s bed, although Reuven does not know what is wrong. He gets out his tefillin and prays for Mr. Savo. Later that day, Danny visits, wearing his characteristic dark suit, dark skull cap and fringes showing below his jacket. They are both pleased to see each other, and agree to go outside to the hall, where they can talk without disturbing Mr. Savo. Danny lets slip that his father never talks to him except when they study. He also tells Reuven that he reads a lot of books that his father would not approve of, such as Charles Darwin. He also reads Hemingway, which his father would not approve of either. He reads a lot because he gets bored studying Talmud all the time. He met a man at the library who recommends books for him to read.
Reuven is amazed to hear this, since it is not at all what he would have expected. To him, Danny sounds more like an apikoros than a Hasid. He notes how sad Danny seems, and Danny admits that he is not going to like being a rabbi, but he has no choice in the matter. The family expects it and the members of the sect expect it. Danny’s family has supplied their rabbis for six generations.
Reuven talks about his interest in mathematical logic, also called symbolic logic. Danny has never heard of it, and wonders if it is taught in Reuven’s high school. Reuven says it is not; he reads it in his own time.
Reuven’s father arrives, and Danny seems amazed and disconcerted to meet him. It quickly transpires that Malter is the man who recommends books to Danny in the library.
The next day, the curtain has been drawn back from Mr. Savo’s bed, and he appears to be all right, although it turns out that he has had one eye removed. Billy has gone; he is having an operation on his eyes. Reuven prays for him. Later that morning, Dr. Snydman removes the bandage from Reuven’s eye. He thinks there will be no problem with scar tissue. Reuven’s father comes and takes his son home.
Chapter 4 – Analysis
While Reuven continues to make his recovery, this chapter reveals more of Danny. The approaching conflict in his life is clear to see. Reuven astutely observes that the way Danny looks and what he wears do not seem to match the way he acts and talks. Danny is a member of a fundamentalist religious sect but he appears more broad-minded and intellectually curious than might be expected of him. He reads voraciously, but he has to do it in secret, because his father would not approve of the books he selects (or are selected for him). His situation is made more critical because of the burden of expectation that the Hasidic sect, and his father, place on him. He will inherit the position of leader of the sect, but it is already plain that he cannot restrict himself to their narrow beliefs. Reuven does not fully understand Danny’s situation yet, but his father does. He senses Danny’s loneliness, and this is why he insists that Reuven makes a friend of him.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 5-6
Reuven arrives home, which is the first floor of a three-story townhouse. Manya, their Russian housekeeper, cooks him a massive lunch. After the meal, Reuven walks around the apartment, refamiliarizing himself with it. He feels as if he is seeing it for the first time. Although he spent only five days in the hospital, so much has changed for him in that short time.
In the evening, Reuven asks his father about Danny. Malter gives him a long explanation, that begins with the tragic history of the Jews in Poland, since that was where Hasidism originated. At the end of the sixteenth century, there were many Jews in Poland, and it was a center of learning for all European Jews. But because the Jews helped the nobility, including collecting taxes, they engendered hostility from the oppressed classes in Poland. For a decade, beginning in 1648, the Polish peasants and the Cossacks (members of the Greek Orthodox Church) rose up against the Polish nobles and the Jews. About 100,000 Jews were killed. Many Jews believed that the catastrophe meant that the Messiah would soon be coming. A man named Shabbtai Zvi appeared, and many believed he was the Messiah, but he turned out to be a fraud. By the eighteenth century, Jewish life in Poland had deteriorated and it was no longer a center of learning. Jewish scholars held empty discussions over minute points in the Talmud that had no relevance to the world. It was also a time of great superstition, and any Jew who claimed to be able to chase away demons and spirits was revered as a saint. Then a man named Israel appeared, who came to be known as a wise and holy man. Speaking to people in simple language that they could understand, he preached a religion of the heart, that did not depend on Talmudic studies. He emphasizes that there is a spark of God within everyone, and it can be reached by prayer, by being happy, and by loving all people. This was the origin of Hasidism, which spread to half of European Jewry by the end of the eighteenth century. Each Hasidic community had its own leader, the tzaddik, whom the people followed blindly, believing him to be the link between themselves and God.
In the nineteenth century, according to what Malter tells his son, Hasidism began to degenerate. Many of the tzaddikim became corrupt, and exploited their people. Some Hasidic sects became very narrow in their outlook, emphasizing study of the Talmud, and banning the reading of secular literature. These customs and beliefs have stayed the same until the present, although Malter adds that not all Hasidic communities are identical. He tells Reuven that Reb Saunders, Danny’s father, is a great tzaddik, with a reputation for brilliance and compassion. He also has praise for Danny, saying that he too has a brilliant mind. Because he lives in a free country, it should be no surprise that he is breaking his father’s rules and reading forbidden books. Malter explains that Danny is lonely because he has no one to talk to, and that is why Reuven should be his friend. Reuven reflects again, this time directly to his father, about how much things have changed in such a short time.
Chapter 5-6 – Analysis
Reuven has learned much since the baseball game. Through his encounter with Danny, he has learned not to judge people on external appearances, realizing the truth of his father’s words, “People are not always what they seem to be,” in chapter 4. He has learned to be thankful for good health and vision, things he never thought much about before. In a sense, his eye injury has opened his eyes to the world. In the hospital, he has also learned about suffering in the world: ten-year-old Billy has lost his mother and may be permanently blind; Mr. Savo has lost an eye; six-year-old Mickey has been in the hospital most of his life. Reuven has learned to be aware of the sufferings of others.
Chapter 6 shows how David Malter, as a modern Orthodox Jew who values education, approaches knowledge. He values historical evidence, and tries to make objective judgements based on the evidence. He teaches his son through lectures, which is quite different from the way Reb Saunders carries out his teaching mission, as later chapters will show.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 7
The next morning, Reuven and his father go to their synagogue for a prayer service. Reuven is still thinking of Mr. Savo and Billy. After lunch at home, Malter goes out to see a colleague, and Reuven snoozes on the porch for several hours. His rest is interrupted by Danny, who announces that his father wants to meet Reuven. As they walk the five blocks together to Danny’s home, Danny tells Reuven about his father, who had been born in Russia and inherited the leadership of his Hasidic sect when he was twenty-one. During the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, his wife and two children were murdered by Cossacks. He was injured and left for dead, but was nursed back to health first by a Russian peasant and then by a Jewish family. The following spring he told his people they were abandoning Russia and would emigrate to America. His people followed his lead without question.
As they reach the area where the Hasidic community lives, Reuven notices that everyone in the streets speaks in Yiddish, and the men wear the black caftans of the sect. Reuven feels out of place and regrets that he agreed to meet Danny’s father. He is also surprised when a large group of Hasidic men on the street stand aside respectfully when Danny passes. As the son of the rabbi and future leader of the sect, Danny is already a revered figure.
They arrive at the Hasidic synagogue, which is in a brownstone house similar to the one Reuven lives in. Men are coming and going into the synagogue. Some chat with one another; others sit and study the scriptures or Talmud. Reuven sees Dov Shlomowitz, the boy who had run into him and knocked him down during the baseball game. Danny leads Reuven to the front row where they sit down. Soon the synagogue is full. Everyone speaks in Yiddish. Reuven notices that some people are staring at him, and he feels very alone.
The noise ceases, and Danny’s father arrives. He is tall, with a long black beard. His eight-year-old son follows him. Danny introduces his father to Reuven. Saunders greets him in Yiddish, but Reuven, whose Yiddish is poor, replies in English.
During the service, Reb Saunders stands with his back to the congregation, swaying back and forth. After the service, the congregants sit around at tables. Reb Saunders sits at a table with mainly older men, as well as Danny and Reuven and Danny’s brother. They eat. After that, prayers are sung. Reuven is familiar with most of the melodies, and he starts to relax and feel at ease. After Grace is sung, everyone waits for what is to come next. Then Reb Saunders begins to preach, in a singsong kind of chant. He explicates the words of Rabban Gamaliel and other Talmudic authorities, and emphasizes how important it is for Jews to study the Torah. He uses a method called gematriya to explicate his points. In gematriya, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet is assigned a number, so every Hebrew word has a numerical value. Reb Saunders uses this esoteric system with great ingenuity, and Reuven, who is brilliant at math, enjoys it. When Reb Saunders has finished speaking, Reuven assumes that the Evening Service will start, but instead, Reb Saunders turns to Danny and asks him if he has anything to say. Danny points out that his father made an error during his sermon, attributing one quotation to the wrong rabbi. Danny provides the correct attribution. Reuven is bewildered by this. Reb Saunders then starts to ask Danny questions about other Talmud texts, and Reuven realizes that this is a regular event, in which Saunders quizzes his son about his religious knowledge. Danny is so brilliant in his answers that the public quiz seems more like a contest between equals. Danny knows all the texts and all the commentaries on them. Reuven is amazed at the feats of memory that are on display.
When the session is over, Reb Saunders, although he is pleased with the range of his son’s knowledge, rebukes him over one matter. Apparently, the mistakes Reb Saunders makes in his sermons are deliberate ones. He points out to Danny that he spotted the first one but then stopped listening, and missed the next one. Saunders, who is aware that Reuven is good at math, turns to Reuven and asks him if he has anything to say. After a little prodding, Reuven points out that one of the gematria was wrong. He gives the details, and Saunders expresses satisfaction.
After the service, Reb Saunders tells Reuven that he approves of his friendship with Danny. Although he does not agree with the articles that Reuven’s father writes, he acknowledges that David Malter is a great scholar and an observer of the Commandments.
After Saunders, leaves, Reuven and Danny are left alone in the synagogue. Reuven has noticed that apart from the Talmud sessions, Saunders did not speak to Danny. Danny walks Reuven part of the way home. He explains that the Talmud contest is a family tradition, and that his father only makes mistakes he knows his son will spot.
Reuven is delighted when he learns that he and Danny will be going to the same college, Hirsch College, which has some of the finest Talmudists in the United States on its faculty. Danny says he plans to major in psychology.
At home, Reuven tells his father about what happened at the synagogue. Malter thinks that gematriya is nonsense, and can be used to prove anything. When Reuven says he finds Reb Saunders hard to understand, Malter tells him that Saunders is a great man, and great men are hard to understand. He carries a burden because he is a leader of his people.
Chapter 7 – Analysis
This chapter introduces Reb Saunders directly for the first time. Earlier chapters have referred to him several times, and Reuven thinks he sounds like a tyrant. But the actual portrait of him is more complex. Certainly, he is the unquestioned leader of his people and his manner can be intimidating, but as Reuven notices, he can also be kind and gentle.
Saunders delivers his exhortation at the synagogue with great fire and passion. This is quite different from the more calm, rational approach of David Malter. Saunders appeals to the emotions of his audience, and his teaching is spiced with the mysticism of numerology, again in contrast to the rationalism of Malter.
Saunders’ sermon is important because it shows the Hasidic attitude to the world, which is in marked contrast to that exhibited by the Malter family. Saunders regards the world as something to be avoided, something that is hateful toward the Jews: “The world kills us! The world flays our skin from our bodies and throws us to the flames! The world laughs at Torah!” He also explains what he regards as the sacred purpose of the Jews; they are commanded by God to study the Torah. This reveals the concept of the Jews as the Chosen People, which is reflected in the title of the novel.
These beliefs explain the inward-looking nature of the Hasidic sect. They do not want anything to do with the corrupt secular, non-Jewish world.
But Reuven does not agree with the idea that the world is contaminated. As an Orthodox Jew he is also conservative, but based on what he has been taught by his father, he is more open to the world. As he puts it, the world includes such positive figures as Franklin Roosevelt (who was the American president during the time the story is set) and Albert Einstein. Unlike the Hasidic Jews, Reuven does not scorn the world of politics and science.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 8
Reuven returns to school the next morning and finds that he is treated as a hero for his performance in the baseball game. In the afternoon he meets Danny in the large public library. Danny is on the third floor, reading, and Reuven at first does not want to disturb him. Since he is not allowed to read, he reviews by heart some of the symbolic logic he has been studying. Then Danny comes over to him. He explains that he has been reading a passage from a book by Graetz, a great nineteenth century scholar, called History of the Jews. The book presents Hasidism in an unfavorable light, calling it “vulgar and disgusting.” Danny is reading it because Reuven’s father suggested that he should read about Jewish history. But he does not like the image that this book gives of himself, as a Hasid. He then talks to Danny about his interest in psychology, particularly dreams and the unconscious. He has learned that the unconscious contains repressed fears and hatreds, and these are sometimes expressed in symbolic fashion in dreams. He is teaching himself German so he can read the works of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in the original language.
The subject of Danny’s brother comes up. He is not in good health, because of some problem with his blood chemistry. He has to avoid strenuous study or exercise.
After they have gone home, Reuven asks his father whether Graetz was right in his view of Hasidism. Malter says he was biased and his sources were not accurate. He adds that there is enough to dislike about Hasidism without exaggerating its faults.
A week later, Malter expresses his doubts about whether it was ethical for him to give Danny books to read behind his father’s back. He justifies it by saying that Danny was going to read anyway, so it is better if he has some guidance from an adult. He plans to give Danny other books in psychology so that he will learn that Freud’s views are not the only ones available.
The two boys meet again on Shabbat afternoon to study Talmud with Reb Saunders. At Danny’s house, Reuven meets Danny’s mother and sister. Then he goes to Reb Saunders’ study. The rabbi has a Talmudic text open, and reads from it, and Danny and Reuven take turns explaining it. Then Danny and his father take over, and a battle between father and son develops, as they fight over each passage. Reuven sits quietly, watching and listening. It seems like a battle between equals, and the father loses almost as often as the son. Eventually, Reuven joins in. He often resolves contradictions with references to grammar, which his father has taught him.
Reb Saunders sends Danny away to bring some tea. While he and Reuven are alone, the rabbi reveals that he is aware of the fact that Danny reads for hours in the public library, and he wants Reuven to tell him what Danny reads. He also knows that Reuven’s father has been recommending books for Danny. Reuven is panic-stricken. He does not know what to do. He decides he must tell the whole story, although he does not mention that Danny is learning German and planning to read Freud. Saunders is clearly distressed by this news that Danny is reading the work of Darwin and others. But he does not intend to try to stop him. He talks about the pain of raising children.
When Danny returns, he guesses that something important has been said in his absence, but Reb Saunders carries on as if nothing has happened.
When Danny and Reuven walk home after afternoon and evening services, Reuven tells his friend what happened between him and his father that afternoon. Danny regrets that his father did not ask him, instead of Reuven, but he says that his father never talks to him other than during Talmud study. Reuven does not understand why this should be, and he asks his father about it. Malter seems to understand something about this strange silence between father and son, but he does not explain it to Reuven.
Chapter 8 – Analysis
Danny is understandably troubled by what he reads in Graetz’s History of the Jews. It is the first time he has encountered a negative view of Hasidism, or a view delivered from outside the sect, using the objective study of historical evidence. It is equally clear why Reb Saunders should be concerned about the scientific and other modern books that Danny is reading. The theory of evolution espoused by Charles Darwin had in the nineteenth century produced a dichotomy between science and faith that had been widening ever since. The implication of Darwin’s work was that humans have no special place in the universe. They have evolved from lesser life forms by a process of natural selection. This is a challenge to the religious world view of Christians and Jews alike, which sees man as specially created by God and as qualitatively different from the rest of creation. Similarly, the theories of Freud attempt to explain human behavior in terms of subconscious forces and desires, without reference to God. It is as if the subconscious has replaced God as the supreme power that must be acknowledged and understood.
Reb Saunders’ pain and fear at the thought that his son may be led astray from his mission as the future leader of the sect is conveyed in his poignant words to Reuven, “You will not make a goy out of my son?” Goy means Gentile, a non-Jewish person. The rabbi fears that his son may embrace the world like a goy-the very world that, according to the doctrine he preaches, should be shunned because it is hostile to the Jews.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 9-10
Dr. Snydman tells Reuven that his eye has healed perfectly. Reuven takes his final exams and looks forward to the summer vacation. He calls Billy’s home to inquire after Billy, and Billy’s father tells him that the operation was not successful. Billy is permanently blind, and Reuven is upset by this news.
During the first month of the summer, Danny and Reuven are together almost every day. They both still study Talmud with their fathers, and Danny still goes to the public library to read, where he is often joined by Reuven and his father. On Shabbat afternoons, Reuven goes to Danny’s house, where he, Danny and Reb Saunders do battle again over the Talmud. Reuven and his father continue to follow the news of the war in Europe, and Danny begins to read Freud in German. He finds it difficult, but he persists, while Reuven continues to read up on his favorite subject, mathematics. Meanwhile, Danny gets frustrated by the difficulty of Freud’s work, until he hits on a new idea of approaching it. He now studies Freud like he studies Talmud, going very slowly, sentence by sentence, using a dictionary of psychological terms as an aid, just as he uses a commentary to understand Talmud.
During August, Reuven goes away with his father to stay in their cottage, so he and Danny do not meet. Instead, Reuven gives him two books about contemporary Judaism to read. Reuven returns home the day after Labor Day, and he and Danny meet the next day in the library.
Chapter 9-10 – Analysis
Reuven’s discovery that Billy is permanently blind is a reminder to him of the suffering in the world. More important, it is a reminder of the fact of innocent suffering. Reuven recalls what Mr. Savo used to say in the hospital: “Crazy world. Cockeyed.” Throughout the novel, Reuven never directly questions his religious faith; he never seems to doubt the wisdom or beneficence of God, and yet in this moment, the suggestion is that he is deeply troubled by the question of why things happen as they do. The clue to Reuven’s thoughts lies in the image of the spider and the fly that is described in great detail at the end of the chapter. The spider traps the fly in its web, and the fly struggles to escape. But it cannot do so until Reuven takes pity on it and intervenes by blowing on the web, which frees the fly. What is the point of the extended image? Perhaps in Reuven’s mind the helpless fly is like humanity, caught in the web of life, for good or ill, and unable to free itself. It suggests that in this mood of near despair, Reuven is trying to cope with the idea that life may lack sense and meaning.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 11-12
The new school year begins. Reuven is involved in schoolwork and student politics and gradually sees less of Danny. World War II moves slowly to its conclusion. Reuven follows the news keenly, but Danny is not so interested. In March, 1945, American troops cross the Rhine and it is clear that the war is nearly at an end. In April, during a meeting of the student council, Reuven hears the news that President Roosevelt has died. Reuven is deeply upset and can barely believe the news. It is as if God has died. There is grief all around him at the death of the president, and Malter speaks of the hope that Roosevelt had brought to the country during the Depression of the 1930s. Reuven thinks that Roosevelt’s death is as senseless as Billy’s blindness. He cries for a long time. He does not see Danny, as first Danny is ill, and then Reuven gets flu and has to stay in bed. His father is also sick with severe flu.
When the war in Europe ends in May, news filters through of the German concentration camps in which six million Jews perished. Malter is grief-stricken, and Reuven is so stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy that he cannot grasp it.
The next Shabbat afternoon, Reuven visits Danny. Reb Saunders speaks bitterly of the brutality of the world. But he says that it is the will of God, and they must accept it. Reuven does not find this attitude satisfactory, and nor does his father. Malter says that they must take active steps to try to create meaning out of the tragedy of the Holocaust. They must rebuild Jewry in America, otherwise, the Jews will die as people.
At the end of June, Malter suffers a heart attack, and Reb Saunders invites Reuven to live in his house while Malter recovers.
Danny is accepted by everyone in the Saunders’ household, and he and Danny do everything together, studying Talmud and going to the library, and visiting Reuven’s father in the hospital. Reuven notices that Reb Saunders is often tired and brooding, as if he is carrying a weight of suffering. Reuven also notices that apart from Talmud study, Danny and his father never communicate with each other. Danny continues to read Freud, although Freud’s insight into the nature of man upsets him because, as he puts it, Freud “tore man from God . . . and married him off to Satan.” Danny explains Freud to Reuven, who is also upset by it, because Freud contradicts everything he has ever learned.
Meanwhile, in the hospital, David Malter speaks continually of the responsibility of American Jews to train teachers and rabbis in the wake of the destruction of European Jewry. He also speaks of the need to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Reuven mentions the latter idea to Reb Saunders, and Saunders is furious. He loathes the idea of a Jewish state founded by secular Jews, whom he refers to as goyim and apikorism. Danny tells Reuven never to mention it in his father’s presence again.
In late July, Danny hints to Reuven that he may ask his younger brother to succeed his father as head of the Hasidic sect. That way, he could escape being pushed into a role he does not want, but he would not be breaking the family dynasty. Of course, he has not told his father yet. Reuven shows some interest in Danny’s pretty sister, but Danny tells him that his father promised her to one of his followers when she was two years old.
In September, 1945, both Reuven and Danny enter Hirsch College.
Chapter 11-12 – Analysis
World War II, which up to now has been in the background of the story, now takes center stage. The Holocaust, in which six million Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, was the defining event in twentieth century Jewish history. In the novel, the Holocaust also brings the question of innocent suffering to the fore. How can such an event be reconciled with the existence of a loving God and a just universe? Reuven can make no sense of it at all.
Nor can he understand the death of President Roosevelt. He links this event to the blindness of Billy; they are both “empty of meaning.” In the next chapter, his father will attempt to explain to him how meaning can emerge from tragic events.
Reb Saunders and David Malter-the Hasid and the Orthodox-react very differently to the news of the Holocaust. Reb Saunders says that it is the will of God and must be accepted. This is in keeping with his inward-looking philosophy. He believes that the world is evil, and hostile to the Jews. So the solution to the latest catastrophe is to shun the world even more. But Malter has a completely different attitude. He believes that a man must act in the world in order to change it. It is this attitude, as the later chapters will show, that lead to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 13
Danny is miserable in his studies at college because the syllabus covers experimental psychology rather than psychoanalysis. The chairman of the department, Professor Nathan Appleman, dislikes psychoanalysis because he thinks it is not scientific. In contrast, Reuven is enjoying his studies, which consist of Talmud studies from nine in the morning to three in the afternoon, followed by a normal college curriculum for the remainder of the day.
However, despite his dissatisfaction, Danny’s prowess in Talmud studies becomes recognized by everyone in the Talmud Department. He is placed in the highest class, studying with Rav Gershenson, a renowned scholar. He has also become leader of the few Hasidic students on campus.
Reuven and Danny discuss Freud. Danny complains about Professor Appleman, who wants to establish psychology as a science, through the use of experimentation. If something can’t be tested under laboratory conditions, as Freudian theory cannot, then it has to be regarded as being dogmatic. Reuven agrees with this, but Danny claims that psychoanalysis is a scientific tool for understanding the human mind, and a much more effective one than the study of rats that are reported in his experimental psychology textbook.
Meanwhile, David Malter has become heavily involved in the Zionist cause, which is promoting the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. He dislikes British policy in the region (the British still rule Palestine at this time), but he also abhors the violence of the Jewish terrorist groups who are fighting against British rule. Malter is not in good health, and he overworks, but he tells Reuven that the work he is doing for Zionism is important to him, and gives his life meaning. As they talk, Reuven confirms to his father that he intends to become a rabbi.
Reuven goes to the college library and looks up some books on experimental psychology. He finds that they either ignore psychoanalysis or speak disparagingly of it. But he is sympathetic to their point of view, since he cannot see how a science of psychology can be built except on the basis of laboratory experiments.
In the second semester of college, Danny reports to Reuven that he has talked to Professor Appleman about Freud. Appleman acknowledged that Freud was a genius, but argued that his approach was based on his own limited experience. Freud’s theory of behavior had also been based on abnormal cases. Danny respects the professor, and is reconciled to studying experimental psychology, although he says he does not expect to enjoy it. Reuven coaches him in mathematics.
At the college, Zionism is a heated issue, with the college split between the majority, who support the establishment of a Jewish state, and a minority, including the Hasidim, who oppose it. The disputes are bitter, and on one occasion, almost lead to a fistfight.
Meanwhile, David Malter addresses a huge Zionist rally at Madison Square Garden. But Danny’s father reads a newspaper report of Malter’s speech at the rally, and bans Danny from seeing Reuven. If Danny disobeys, his father will remove him from the college and send him out of town for his rabbinic ordination. He would not have a college education and would not receive a degree. Reuven is bitter, and cannot understand why Reb Saunders would allow Danny to read Freud, but now breaks up their friendship over Zionism. He calls him a fanatic, but his father refuses to condemn the rabbi, saying that the fanaticism of men like Reb Saunders kept the Jewish people alive during two thousand years of exile.
Chapter 13 – Analysis
This chapter shows how Danny’s encounter with modern secular thought, in the form of Freudian psychoanalysis, develops. He modifies his earlier enthusiasm, and no longer regards Freud as providing a definitive explanation of the workings of the human mind. But he still values Freud for his contribution to knowledge. In learning how to evaluate different approaches to knowledge, Danny is steadily making the transition from his narrow, faith-based Hasidic upbringing, to being at home in modern, scientific thought. It is not an easy journey for him.
Meanwhile, Reuven receives from his father advice about how to create meaning in life. In the previous chapter, Reuven was upset by a series of events-Billy’s blindness, President Roosevelt’s death, and the Holocaust-and felt there was no meaning in life. His father now explains that “meaning is not automatically given to life.” A man must work to give his life meaning, and this is no easy task. Malter himself has found meaning in the Holocaust by throwing all his energy into the Zionist cause. He does not care if all this frantic activity damages his health; he just knows that he has to do it.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 14
For the rest of the semester, Danny and Reuven do not speak to each other. This is extremely painful for Reuven, and his schoolwork suffers. He hates Reb Saunders. Saunders has organized a group called The League for a Religious Eretz Yisroel, which declares no Jewish homeland without the Torah as its center. Tensions at the college run high as Reuven takes his finals in June. During August, Reuven sees little of his father, who is involved in furious activity on behalf of Zionism. At the beginning of the fall semester, Reuven promises himself that he will forget all about Danny. But that proves difficult because Reuven has joined him in Rav Gershenson’s Talmud class, in which Danny is the star student. On one occasion, when Reuven excels in class, Danny responds with a smile, and this makes Reuven drop his anger at Danny.
Reuven goes to Madison Square Garden to hear his father speak at another rally. The Palestine issue is being debated at the United Nations. Both Malter and Reuven are overwhelmed with joy when the UN votes to establish a Jewish state. At college, Reb Saunders’s group distributes leaflets denouncing the UN vote. But in the face of Arab violence against the Jews in Palestine, the anti-Zionist forces fade away.
Malter has another heart attack and has to spend six weeks in the hospital. During January and February, Reuven lives alone. He increases his study of the Torah, preparing hard for when he gets called on in Rav Gershenson’s class. He uses his father’s method of trying to reconstruct an authentic text of a particularly difficult passage from the various versions that exist. But he knows Gershenson does not care for this method, and has no intention of using it in class.
Reuven is correct in his guess that Rav Gershenson will call on him to explain the exact passage he has been studying. It is a very difficult passage, and Reuven gives a lengthy and detailed response. He talks for an hour and a half without interruption. The next day, Rav Gershenson calls on him again, and he spends two hours explaining a seven-word passage. Reuven is called on again for the next two days, and he notes that Danny seems delighted with his explanations, even though Danny does not look directly at him.
After one particularly intense Talmud session in class, in which even Rav Gershenson admits that he cannot explain a particular text, Rav Gershenson asks to see Reuven in private. He asks Reuven how his father would have explained it, and Reuven tells him about the method Malter uses of reconstructing authentic texts where he thinks the existing text is wrong. Reuven then explains how he used that method to explicate the difficult passage that had stumped them all in class. Rav Gershenson says he is not against such methods, but asks Reuven never to use them in his class.
Chapter 14 – Analysis
In this chapter, Reuven is more alone than he has ever been. He sees little of his father, who is too involved in Zionist activities, and later has a heart attack. Reuven is also cut off from Danny, following Reb Saunders’s ban on their friendship. He now finds that the silence Reb Saunders imposes between himself and his son, applies to him, too, and he loathes it. “Silence was ugly,” he says, “it was black, it leered, it was cancerous, it was death. I hated it.” In this situation, Rav Gershenson becomes especially important. He is like a father figure to Reuven, and the contrast between the kindly scholar and the fanatical Reb Saunders is clear. But even Rav Gershenson makes use of silence in his teaching method, allowing long silences in the classroom when a student cannot answer a question. The students come to dread these silences, and Reuven is determined that when his turn comes, he will be able to respond fully. But later in the chapter, Reuven practices a silence of his own. He almost gives way to his desire to shout abuse at the anti-Zionist students, but manages to restrain himself. For weeks after this, he “was grateful for the silence,” because the anti-Zionist forces at the college fade away without him having to do anything. He learns that sometimes, silence is the best way of responding to a situation.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 15-16
David Malter returns from the hospital in March. He is still weak and can undertake no activity. He has to rest for months. There is still turmoil in Palestine, and Reuven volunteers for the Zionist Youth Group at college, helping load uniforms, helmets and other supplies onto a truck in a warehouse in Brooklyn. The supplies will be sent to Palestine to aid the Jews. Malter tells his son that he had been invited to attend the Zionist General Council meeting in Palestine in the summer, but because of his ill-health he will not be able to go.
In the second week of May, 1948, the state of Israel is created, followed by the Arab war to destroy it. A graduate of Reuven’s college is killed in the fighting.
In September, Malter resumes teaching, and Reuven enters his third year of college. Danny comes up to talk to him, and says the ban on his seeing Reuven has been lifted. Since the state of Israel has been established, Reb Saunders has decided it is a dead issue. Danny and Reuven begin once more to spend a lot of time together. It turns out that Danny has begun to enjoy his study of experimental psychology, and wants to become a clinical psychologist, applying his knowledge and working with people. He talks about pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University. Reuven meets Reb Saunders again at the wedding of Danny’s sister, and again a month later, in Saunders’s study. Saunders speaks warmly to him, but Reuven cannot get over his dislike of the man.
Chapter 15-16 – Analysis
In the two years that have elapsed since they last spoke, Danny and Reuven have matured and discovered their paths in life. Danny has made his peace with the scientific method, and Reuven has decided to become a rabbi. It does not take long for them to overcome the memory of the long, enforced silence between them. But for Reuven, silence is still an issue. He does not understand Reb Saunders’ refusal to talk to his son, which he regards as “crazy and sadistic.” He asks his father about it, but Malter does not give him an answer, other than to say that a father can bring up his child any way he chooses. By repeatedly bringing the issue of Saunders’s silence to the reader’s attention, Potok prepares the way for the climactic final chapter, in which Reb Saunders explains himself.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 17
Reuven mentions to Danny that he is now dating every Saturday night, and advises him to get a girlfriend too because that will make him less melancholy. Danny replies that according to Hasidic custom, a wife has already been chosen for him.
Reuven attends the bar mitzvah celebration of Danny’s younger brother, Levi. But when Levi, whose health is delicate, is taken ill, Reuven worries. He knows that Danny plans to break away from his father and refuse to inherit the position of head of the Hasidic sect. But if Levi is unable to take over the position, the family dynasty would be destroyed, and this would make it much harder for Danny to follow through on what he really wants to do. Reuven tells his father about the situation, and Malter says he knew that Danny would make a break with his father. He asks Reuven to talk to Danny and get him to think about how he is going to explain this to his father. Malter explains to Reuven about the Hasidic practice of raising a child in silence, as Danny has been raised. He does not approve of such a practice.
Danny applies to three universities for a fellowship in psychology, but does not tell his father. Malter has a talk with him about his situation, telling him he must think carefully about what he will say to his father.
Danny is accepted by all three universities, and he decides to go to Columbia. He is afraid to tell his father. In the spring, Danny tells Reuven that his father wants to see him on Passover. Reuven realizes that Reb Saunders wants to talk to him about Danny, since he does not talk to his son directly.
Chapter 17 – Analysis
Potok continues to keep the role of silence in the forefront as he builds up to the final scene. Danny tells Reuven that it is possible to listen to silence, and learn from it: “It has a quality and dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.” He also says that sometimes he can hear the pain of the world in the silence. The significance of this will be disclosed in the final chapter.
In this chapter, Reuven lets slip that he has begun dating, and he recommends that Danny acquire a girlfriend. This brief mention of the opposite sex serves to remind the reader of the very small role played by women in the novel. Reuven’s mother is dead, and Reb Saunders’s wife is only briefly mentioned. Reuven seems briefly attracted to Danny’s sister, but that interest is closed off by Danny’s comment that she has been promised to someone else. The Chosen is therefore a novel almost exclusively about boys and men, and relationships between them. This is in keeping with the tradition of Judaism, which places a strong emphasis on the male role.
The Chosen Summary – Chapter 18
Reuven visits Danny and visits Reb Saunders in his study. In response to Saunders’s question, Reuven tells him he plans to become a rabbi. Saunders responds that Reuven and Danny are therefore going in different directions. He says that he knows what Danny’s plans are. Then he addresses Reuven at length, although Reuven knows he is really speaking to Danny. Reb Saunders talks about what a curse it is to have a brilliant son. Danny is all mind and no soul, whereas what Reb Saunders thinks he needed was a son with heart and compassion. He recalls his brother, who was similarly endowed with a powerful mind, but was indifferent to the suffering of others. He died during World War II, in a gas chamber in Auschwitz.
Reb Saunders continues, telling Reuven about how he was raised by his father. His father taught him about the suffering of the Jews, but later taught him only with silence. Through not speaking to him, he forced him to look into himself and to find his own strength. The idea was that a person learns about the pain of others by suffering his own pain. Later, his father told him that a tzaddik (a Hasidic leader) must know how to suffer for his people. When he raised Danny, he wanted to find a way that he could teach his son, who was so brilliant, about pain, so that he would want to take on the sufferings of another. He did this through withdrawing from him, teaching through silence, so that Danny would find answers for himself. Reb Saunders says he can allow Danny to become a psychologist, because he has learned from suffering and will be a tzaddik even though not a leader of the sect. He also asks Reuven’s forgiveness for his anger at David Malter’s Zionism.
After Reb Saunders finishes speaking, he leaves the room. Danny cries, and Reuven cries, too. Later, in the evening, they walk together through the streets. When Reuven returns home, he talks with his father, who says that a man has a right to raise his son in his own way.
In June, Reb Saunders announces to his congregation that his son intends to study psychology. The announcement is greeted with astonishment. Later that month, both Danny and Reuven graduate. In September, Danny visits Reuven to say goodbye. He is moving to a room he has rented near Columbia. It transpires that Danny and his father talk to each other now. Danny also says that if he has a son, he will also raise him in silence, if he cannot find a better way.
Chapter 18 – Analysis
In his final speech, Reb Saunders comes across as a more compassionate and human figure than perhaps might have been expected. His attitude is softer than it has been in the past. He asks his son for forgiveness, and admits that he is not wise. He accepts that Danny must go his own way. He also makes a tacit acknowledgement of the demands of the secular world when he says that Danny “will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik.” This is an acknowledgement of the importance of psychology and psychiatry in a modern world that no longer looks exclusively to religion for moral guidance and intellectual understanding. It is hard to imagine the Reb Saunders of the earlier part of the book making such a statement, so like Danny and Reuven, he has evolved during the course of the novel. And Danny reveals that although his father’s method of teaching through silence has been hard, he has gained something from it.