“The Chosen” is a 1967 novel written by Chaim Potok. The novel revolves around the main character, Reuven Malter and his friendship with a boy named Danny Saunders. Both boys are Orthodox Jews who live in Brooklyn, New York during the mid-1940’s. Danny’s father is a Hasidic religious leader called a tzaddik. When Danny and Reuven first meet in high school, they are on opposing teams in a softball game and dislike each other for the rivalry. However, their friendship begins to grow after Reuven ends up in the hospital from getting hit with the ball during the game.
Reuven and Danny enjoy speaking about their religion and the Jewish text, the Talmud especially. However, Danny wishes to be a psychologist and struggles with how to tell his father this. After the war ends, the community is shocked to learn about the treatment of European Jews in concentration camps and Reuven’s father becomes intent on preserving the religion by creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A plan that Danny’s father opposes. Thus, the two boys are no longer allowed to be friends.
Two years pass between them in silence until their father’s put aside their differences and they are allowed to speak again. Danny seeks Reuven’s help in telling his father that he intends to attend a secular college and become a psychologist and the book ends with Danny going off to study at Columbia University.
The novel was adapted into a movie in 1981 and an off-Broadway musical in 1988. It was later adapted into play by the author himself in 1999. A sequel to the book that deals with Reuven’s young adult years was published in 1969.
In an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York two boys named Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter live. The book is narrated by Reuven, who explains in the beginning that if it had not been for the Jewish sports leagues that were created in the area schools shortly before the end of World War II, he and Danny might never have met.
Reuven attends an Orthodox high school, or yeshiva while Danny attends a Hasidic school. One June day, the two schools teams played a softball game against one another. Reuven worries that the other team will be fierce but when he sees them arrive in their religious clothes he feels that they will not be a threat. Reuven does notice one particularly good player whom his friend tells him is Danny Saunders, the son of Reb Saunders.
On the field, Reuven congratulates Danny for a good play and is offended when Danny replies rudely. The game becomes somewhat of a personal competition between the two boys that ends in Danny hitting a ball that smacks Reuven in the face and breaks his glasses. Reuven is taken to the hospital for symptoms of a concussion. Once he gets there, the doctors begin to worry that one of his eyes has been damaged. Before long, Reuven suffers some dizziness and faints.
Reuven awakes in the hospitals eye ward next to a former boxer named Tony who refers to his injury as a “clop” and a young boy named Billy who was blinded in a car accident. Reuven tells the boy to call him “Bobby” since his English name is Robert. Reuven’s father, David visits and tells Reuven that the doctor has operated on his eye. David tries to reassure him, but reveals that the doctor is worried that he will be blind in his left eye, as the scar tissue may have grown over the pupil. He tells Reuven that Danny’s father, Reb Saunders has been calling to ask how he is doing. At this news, Reuven gets angry and tells his father that Danny hit him no purpose. He also says that Danny called him an “apikorsim” a Jewish word for a skeptic.
Mr. Malter brings Reuven a radio and tells him that he should listen to the war coverage as well as his prayer book and tefillin, a Jewish box containing Hebrew scrolls. Reuven notices that his father looks a bit ill himself and warns him to take care of himself while Reuven is in the hospital. Reuven awakes the next day to commotion. Tony tells him that it is D Day and that the allies have landed in France. Reuven prays for the allies all morning and Tony asks him why he is so religious. Reuven reveals that he plans to be a rabbi one day.
Later that day, Reuven wakes to see a strange figure at the end of his bed and realizes that it is Danny Saunders. Danny’s attempts to apologize are dismissed by Reuven, although Reuven feels bad for doing so. Later, Reuven’s father returns and scolds him for dismissing Danny’s apology.
The following day, Danny returns, and Reuven apologizes for not accepting his apology the day before. Danny sits on Reuven’s bed and confesses that he was so angry during the ball game that he wanted to kill him but he isn’t sure why he felt that way.
Reuven compliments Danny on his playing again and Danny says that he is only allowed to practice after he completes his daily required reading of the Talmud, a Jewish religious book. He is required by his parents to memorize four pages a day, but Danny says that as he has a photographic memory, this isn’t that difficult for him.
As his father is a leader in the Hasidic community, Danny is expected to take his place when he grows up but he confesses to Reuven that he is more interested in studying to be a psychologist. Reuven says that he is interested in becoming a rabbi although his father would rather he become a mathematician. After a long talk where the boys get along, Danny leaves and promises to return the next day.
The next day, Reuven finds out that the doctor is going to examine his eye again that Friday and that afterward he will probably be allowed to go home. Reuven tells his father about Danny’s visit. His father encourages him to befriend Danny saying, “A Greek philosopher said that two people who are true friends are like two bodies with one soul.” That night, Reuven wakes to hear Tony moaning in pain and is alarmed to find that the curtain around his bed has been drawn. Danny comes for a visit again the next day and Reuven takes him in the hall to talk. The two boys have another long conversation about their lives. Danny tells Reuven that his father, Reb has a belief in silence. Basically, his father only allows himself to speak directly to Danny when they are studying the Talmud and the Torah. Danny says that he reads many non-religious books from evolutionists that his father would not approve of.
He tells Reuven that there is a nice man in the library that recommends the books to him. While they are talking, Reuven’s father comes to visit and Danny is astounded to see that David is the man who has been recommending books to him in the library. Danny thanks him for his recommendations and agrees to visit their house on Saturday after Reuven gets home from the hospital. The next morning, the curtain is pulled back around Tony’s bed and Reuven discovers that the boxer had to have his eye removed. The doctor examines Reuven. He tells him that he thinks his eye will be fine, which Reuven is delighted to hear.
Reuven and his father return home to greet their Russian housekeeper, Manya, who has made a meal for them. That evening, Reuven’s father explains to him a bit about Danny’s families Hasidic religion and the differences between it and his own sect of Judaism. He explains that Hasidic Judaism is more mystical and based in spirituality than their own, more legal sect.
The Hasidic communities are led by a tzaddik who serves as a link between the community and God. Danny’s father, Reb is a tzaddik and he is set to inherit this title. But Mr. Malter knows that Danny is interested in psychology and evolution and that he is a brilliant child that reads all types of literature. He encourages Reuven to befriend Danny again and then apologizes for the long talk before Reuven goes up to bed.
The next day is Saturday and Reuven wakes from a nap to find Danny standing over him again. Danny offers to walk him over to his own house so that Reuven can meet his father. As they walk, Reuven explains that his mother died when he was a baby and the boys find out that they were born only two days apart. Danny has two younger siblings. He tells Reuven that his father saved members of their community by bringing them to American after the first world war.
Danny brings Reuven to his father’s Shul, or synagogue and they are met with a crowd of caftan-wearing Hasids. The crowd parts at Danny’s approach. He tells Reuven that his family lives on the two top floors of the building. Two men in the crowd ask Danny to settle an argument that they are having a passage in the Talmud and Danny interprets it from memory. When Reb comes downstairs, the room goes quiet. Danny introduces Reuven to his father and Reb says that he is interested in getting to know him as he is the son of David Malter.
After a service in the Shul, Reb, Danny, Reuven and some other men sit down for a Shabbat meal where Reb gives a speech about the Talmud. After his speech, he asks Danny if he noticed any mistakes in his attributions and Danny corrects him a few times. This starts a quiz between them that pleases the crowd to watch.
Reuven realizes that Reb made the mistakes in his speech deliberately so that he could test Danny. Reb turns to Reuven and asks if he noticed any mistakes and Reuven, terrified to be asked such a question by a tzaddik, hesitantly points out one. Reb and Danny are gratified to see that Reuven knows his Talmud, too. Reb is pleased by the boys friendship and on the walk home, Danny and Reuven are happy to realize that they plan on attending the same Jewish college after high school.
The following Monday, Reuven returns to school and his friends are all impressed by his wounded eye. He meets Danny in the public library after school and sits quietly while the other boy reads aloud from a book about the history of Judaism. Danny is alarmed to find that the book considers tzaddiks to be con artists, who took advantage of their followers in order to start the sect during a vulnerable time for the religion. Reuven tells him to ignore this book.
Later, Reuven’s father worries that recommending books to Danny without Reb’s knowledge may have been unethical, but he realizes that Danny can’t be stopped from reading secular books. He intends to help Danny understand the psychological books through a religious perspective through discussions.
One day while Reuven is visiting Danny’s house, Reb reveals to Reuven in private that he knows about Danny’s public library visits. Reb asks Reuven to tell him exactly what Danny has been reading as he cannot speak to his son except for on matters of the Talmud. Reuven hesitantly reveals some of what Danny has been reading and later confesses to Danny who is surprisingly, relieved to find out that he doesn’t have to keep his library visits secret anymore. Since Danny was ten years old, his father has only talked to him on matters of the Talmud. Reb believes that through this strict silence, Danny will learn to search his own soul for answers. However, Danny isn’t sure if he agrees with this parenting method. Reuven realizes that Reb is using him as a go between to talk to Danny.
Reuven visits the doctor again and is told that his eye is fully healed. He asks about the little boy, Billy and discovers that Billy’s latest surgery was unsuccessful and that he has been transferred to a hospital in Albany.
Summer arrives and Reuven and Danny begin spending every day together studying the Talmud, reading books at the library and playing softball. Reb continues to talk with the boys about the Talmud but does not ask Reuven any more questions about Danny. Reuven and his father follow the war progress in the newspapers and Danny begins learning German so that he can read the works of Sigmund Freud. When the school year begins again, Reuven is elected class president and he and Danny are only able to meet on Shabbat afternoons, once a week.
One afternoon in April of 1945, Reuven learns that President Roosevelt has died. He is devastated to learn this, as the president was a personal hero of his and he had always thought of him as being immortal somehow. Shortly after this, Reuven catches a flu that lasts for a few weeks. It is during this time that the news of the war ending in Europe reaches America.
When the American Jews learn of the concentration camps and the horrors of the Holocaust, they are shocked and saddened. This revelation puts a damper on the news of the war ending in the boy’s community. The next Shabbat, when Danny and Reuven meet with Reb, he talks about how saddened he is by the stories of what happened to the European Jews and wonders how God could let something like that happen. He concludes that it must be a part of God’s plan, a conclusion that neither Reuven or his father are happy with. Reuven’s father tells him that Hitler has created a huge dent in the preservation of their race and it is up to American Jews to preserve their religion and identities now.
Later that year, as school is ending, Reuven’s father suffers a heart attack. Reb invites Reuven to come and live with his family while his father is in the hospital and Reuven moves into Danny’s room. Though Danny’s family treat Reuven well, the mood in the house is not always chipper as Reb seems to be going through something and often breaks down into tears with no provocation.
When Reuven visits his father in the hospital, Mr. Malter reveals that he now supports the need to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This sect of Judaism is called “Zionism”. Reuven raises this topic during a conversation with Reb and the man surprises him by becoming enraged and calling it sacrilegious. He says that a Jewish homeland existing before the return of the Messiah is wrong. Danny tells Reuven not to tell his father that Mr. Malter is a Zionist now, as Reb will throw him out of the house. Reuven’s father continues to recover over the summer and that fall, both of the boys start attending Hirsch College, a Jewish school.
Danny flourishes at school right away, as most of the studies revolve around the Talmud. He is alarmed to discover that the psychology division of the school is lacking and that the head of it, Professor Appleman, only focuses on experimental psychology and criticizes Freud. Mr. Malter continues to support the Zionist cause and begins speaking at rallies, but his health begins to decline again. He tells his son that he cannot stop working as he is trying to do something he deems meaningful with his life before he leaves the earth. Reuven tells his father that he desires to become a rabbi and Mr. Malter approves of this decision but tells him that he will have to do a lot to educate people about the Holocaust.
Mr. Malter delivers a speech about Zionism at a rally in Madison Square Garden and afterward Danny confesses to Reuven that Reb has forbidden him from speaking to him again. Reuven is distressed by this and complains about Reb’s fanaticism to his father, who reminds him that devoted religious men like Reb kept Judaism alive while their ancestors were in exile.
For the rest of the school year, Danny and Reuven are not allowed to speak to one another. Over the summer, violence breaks out in Palestine, and Mr. Malter increases his influence in the Zionist community.
When the second year of college starts, Reuven discovers that he and Danny have a class together on the Talmud. Reb begins stepping up his anti-Zionist activities and this elevates the tension between the Zionists and the anti-Zionists at the college. A fist fight breaks out one day and Reuven only barely manages to get away without getting hurt.
The United Nations votes yes on establishing a Jewish State and Mr. Malter works non-stop in support of this decision. He works himself to the point that he collapses during Reuven’s winter break and has a second heart attack. Though Danny is still unable to speak to Reuven, he touches his hand in a gesture of support and sympathy. Reuven is forced to live in his house alone while his father recovers in the hospital. He covers the silence of the house by diving into his Talmud studies with new vigor. This helps him excel in school and he manages to bond with the professor in the difficult Talmud class that he shares with Danny.
Reuven’s father is released from the hospital in March. Danny continues to refuse to speak to him, and he begins to accept his former friend’s silence. Mr. Malter tells Reuven that he was supposed to attend the Zionist General Council meeting in Palestine, but that he cannot go following his heart attack. That May, the State of Israel is created and Reuven and his father are overjoyed. However, sensing the opportunity, the Arabs attack the new nation and a recent graduate of the college is killed during the fight.
The college holds a memorial and the anti-Zionist activities die out afterward. Reuven continues to succeed at college and starts his third year by choosing philosophy as his major. Mr. Malter resumes his teaching and his Zionist activities. Reb, however, begins to stop his anti-Zionist activities. One day, out of the blue Danny comes up to Reuven and asks for help with his math.
Danny and Reuven have not spoken for two years at this point. As a result of the former silence, they talk endlessly about what has transpired and Reuven tells Danny that he is still furious at Reb for keeping them apart. He asks how he can bear the silence from his father and Danny says that he has gotten used to it. Danny and Reuven begin spending time together again and talking in class. Danny tells Reuven that he has begun to enjoy experimental psychology more and doesn’t enjoy Freud as much. However, he has decided to go into clinical psychology and has applied to a doctorate program. He hasn’t yet told his father.
That June, Danny’s sister gets married and Reuven attends. He sees Reb for the first time in two years and is surprised by how much the man seems to have aged. Reuven visits Danny’s house the following month and Reb asks why he has not been visiting to study the Talmud. Reuven, who is still mad at Reb, merely says that he has been studying with his own father. Reb asks if he would come over one Saturday afternoon to study and Reuven says that he will try although he does not intend to.
Reuven finds that Reb’s inability to apologize for separating he and Danny makes him dislike the old man even more. That fall, Danny and Reuven begin their last year of school. After Reuven makes an offhand remark about silence, Danny confesses to him that he has begun to hear silence in a different way, as if it is speaking to him.
Danny’s brother becomes ill and is taken to the hospital. Danny panics at this, as he was counting on his brother to take over the tzaddik dynasty after he leaves to study psychology. Reuven urges Danny to tell his father that he is applying to secular universities. Mr. Malter talks to Danny about the situation and tells him to carefully consider all that this decision is going to entail, including the fact that he is going to have to break off the pre-arranged marriage that was set up from his birth.
Danny gets accepted to Harvard, Columbia and Berkeley colleges and he realizes that his father must have seen the acceptance letters in the mail, though he does not say anything to him. Danny tells Reuven that his father is asking for him to come over for another Talmud session. For the next few months, Reb continues to drop hints that he wants Reuven to come over thought Reuven continues to ignore the request. Eventually, Mr. Malter hears of this and becomes angry with his son for ignoring Reb. Reuven agrees to go over to the Saunders’ house for Passover the following Sunday.
That day, Reuven visits Reb and Danny. Everything in the Saunders’ house looks the same as he remembered expect for Reb, who looks old and ill. Reb greets Reuven and makes small talk. Reuven tells Reb that he is intending to become a rabbi and this makes Reb stiffen, remarking that he and Danny will have to go “different ways”. Danny is shocked, as he realizes that his father knows about his plans to not become a rabbi. Reb continues to talk to his son through Reuven and explains that he raised Danny with the code of silence because he saw early on that Danny was incredibly bright but worried that he did not have as much soul as he did intelligence.
Reb says that his brother died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz after turning his back on the Jewish faith to pursue more intellectual endeavors.
He says that the soul can only be redeemed by having knowledge of the suffering in the world. Reb believed that keeping his silence with Danny would teach him compassion and to truly feel the suffering of others. He was also raised this way by his father and believes that it is a major part of learning to be a tzaddik.
He believed that this would make Danny’s soul that of a tzaddik but that it would most likely drive him away from wanting to be a rabbi. He ends by telling Reuven that he and his father have been a blessing to the family as they have good souls. He believes that they saved Danny from rebelling. He knows now this Danny has the soul of a tzaddik and that he will be a tzaddik for the world not matter what he chooses to do with his life.
Finally, Reb turns to Danny and asks him if he will shave of his traditional beard and earlocks before graduate school. Danny nods. He asks if he will continue to observe the Ten Commandments and Danny nods again. His voice breaking, Reb asks Danny to forgive him for the silence that he imposed between them and shuffles out of the room. Danny bursts into tears and Reuven comforts him. Danny walks Reuven home in silence. At home, Reuven tells his father what happened.
A few weeks later, Reb announces to his followers that Danny is leaving to study psychology and that the inheritance of the tzaddikate is transferring to his brother. Both boys graduate from Hirsch college and Danny shaves of his beard and earlocks. One night, he comes to the Malter’s house to say goodbye as he is moving to Manhattan to attend Columbia University. Danny tells Reuven that he and his father now speak to each other all the time and Mr. Malter asks if Danny plans to raise his own son in silence in the future. Danny says that he will, unless he can think of another way to teach his son to have the soul of a tzaddik. He promises to return on Saturdays to study with Reuven and Reuven watches his friend walk away.
Reuven Malter – the main character of the novel. Reuven is a teenage boy living in New York City with his father. He and his father are also Modern Orthodox Jews who observe the religion but are not Hasidic. Reuven is a smart, conscientious boy who enjoys mathematics and logical puzzles. Reuven believes that his father probably wants him to be a mathematician when he grows up but he really wishes to be a rabbi.
Though Danny’s story his arguably the main point of the novel, Reuven is the narrator through which we view it. Reuven’s relationship with Danny is a true friendship. Though they dislike each other at first because of their school rivalries, after they get to know each other the boys become inseparable.
During the period where their father’s are angry at each other and keeping them apart, Reuven’s narration is mournful and depressed by his absence from his friend. Reuven’s religion is close to his heart as well and he seems to come to accept and practice Zionism as his father does. When Reuven learns that the State of Israel has been created he is overjoyed and cries.
At the end of the novel, Reuven plans to move forward with becoming a rabbi and continue to see Danny as much as he can.
Danny Saunders – Reuven’s best friend. Danny is a Hasidic Jew who is the son of a tzaddik and expected to continue on the families tradition of becoming a tzaddik when his father dies. Danny is religious, however he is more interested in becoming a psychologist than a rabbi. He is also a brilliant boy, with a photographic memory and amazing perception and logical thinking skills. Danny automatically excels in every class in school and gets accepted into three of the countries top universities.
The problem of how to tell his father that he intends to become a psychologist instead of a tzaddik is the central point and climax of the novel. In the end, the decision becomes easy as Danny’s father reveals that he has known for a while and accepted the decision.
Reb Saunders – Danny’s father. Reb is a Rabbinic sage and a tzaddik from a long line of tzaddiks in his family. He is the spiritual leader and rabbi for his Hasidic community. During World War I, he moves his congregation to the United States from Russia at great personal risk, and for this, the people respect him even more.
Reb is against the idea of Zionism and the Jewish nation-state but after Israel is created he seems to give up the fight against it, either because of old age or simple acceptance. Reb raises Danny in a strict code of silence, only speaking directly to his son when he is talking about the Talmud. He does this because he feels that although Danny is clearly brilliant, he must have enough soul to compensate for this intelligence. He feels that keeping Danny in silence will teach him to observe the suffering of others, even though he knows this will most likely drive Danny away from becoming a tzaddik. At the end of the novel, he apologizes for the silence for most of Danny’s life and accepts his son’s desire to become a psychologist.
David Malter – Reuven’s father. David is a Talmudic scholar and a schoolteacher who becomes interested in the idea of Zionism after learning about the Holocaust in the wake of the second world war ending. He begins speaking at rallies for the cause and is considered a heretic by the Hasidic people in his community. The stress of his activism takes a toll on David and he suffers two heart attacks in the novel, recovering from both. David is a good and supportive father to Reuven which makes for an obvious comparison for the father-son relationship between Danny and Reb.
Chaim Potok Biography
Chaim Potok was born on February 17th, 1929 in Buffalo, New York. Chaim was his Hebrew name, his English name being Herman Harold. Both of Potok’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and he was the oldest of four children. All of his siblings either became rabbis or married them.
Chaim was raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition and decided to become a writer after reading the novel “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh. At the age of 16, he began writing fiction and made his first submission to a magazine the following year.
At the age of 20, he was published in the literary magazine at Yeshiva University, and the next year he graduated with a BA in English Literature. After school, Potok went on to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary of American and was later made a Conservative rabbi. He was then appointed as the director of a fellowship program for youths.
Potok met his wife, Adena Sara Mosevitzsky at a camp in Ojai, California while working with the youth program and the two married on June 8th, 1958, going on to have three children together.
Potok received a masters degree in English Literature in the 1950’s and then enlisted in the US Army to serve as a Chaplin. He was sent to South Korea during the Korean War where he served for two years. After the war was over, Potok became a faculty member at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, California. A year later he began graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1963, he traveled to Israel for one year where he wrote his doctoral dissertation and began working on a novel. In 1964, after moving back to New York, he became the editor of ‘Conservative Judaism’ a Jewish magazine. He became the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society and received a doctorate in Philosophy. In 1967, he finished his novel and published it. “The Chosen” was critically praised and was nominated for the National Book Award. Two years later, Potok wrote a sequel called ‘The Promise’ which was published in 1969.
Potok went on to publish 17 more works of fiction and non-fiction in his life time and working with the Jewish Publication Society. During the 1970’s, he spent time translating the Hebrew Bible into English. Also during this time, Potok moved to Jerusalem with his family, returning to the States in 1977.
In 1981, “The Chosen” was adapted into a movie that won an award at the World Film Festival. It was also adapted into a stage play that Potok wrote himself with the help of Aaron Posner. The play premiered in 1999. He continued to write and publish novels throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
In 2001, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Potok died the following year on July 23rd, 2002 at the age of 73.