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The Chosen

Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen is the story of the friendship between the Hasidic Jew, Danny Saunders, and the more liberal Jewish teenager, Reuven Malter, in Brooklyn during and after WWII. At the beginning of the novel, both are fifteen years old and live near one another, although they have never met because they go to different schools. The two boys meet during a softball game between their schools. During the game, Danny calls Reuven an apikoros, a Jew who denies the basic tenets of his faith, and the boys show outward hate for each other. Danny hits Reuven in the eye with the ball, and Reuven has to go to the hospital. While Reuven is in the hospital, Danny comes to visit him. They talk and become friends, discovering that despite their different beliefs, they are very similar. Reuven’s father encourages the friendship, recognizing Danny as an intellectual genius, and having the foresight to see that the boys will help each other understand their differences.

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Through their friendship, Reuven becomes very close to Danny’s family. Reuven discovers the strange relationship between Danny and his father; one of complete silence except for when studying the Talmud. Reuven does not understand this silence, as he and his father have a very close and open relationship. When he questions Danny about this silence, Danny replies that his father was raised in silence, and he will raise his own son in silence – it is part of his family’s destiny. Reuven also discovers that Danny is destined to inherit his father’s position of tzaddik, despite Danny’s wishes to study psychology.

At the end of WWII, the boys enter college together, where Danny pursues his desire to study psychology, without his father knowing. Reuven’s father becomes actively involved in Zionist activities, pushing for a Jewish state. This greatly upsets Danny’s father, as a Jewish state is against his beliefs. He forbids Danny and Reuven to talk to each other. Reuven becomes infuriated at Danny’s father, “hating his laws of silence.” However, after Israel becomes a Jewish state, Danny’s father once again allows the boys to talk to each other. The boys finish college, and Danny applies to several schools to continue his study in psychology. He realizes that his father knows of his plans, and is perplexed because his father has not mentioned it. One afternoon, Reuven goes to Danny’s house. Danny’s father talks to his son through Reuven, saying that he may never understand nor forgive him, but he may continue his education. He explains the reason for raising his son in silence. He says a man is born into the world with only a spark of goodness that is God, and all the rest is a shell of evil, even if that shell is intellectualism. He explains the importance of knowing pain in order to realize how frail and tiny we are compared to God. He says this is why he treats Danny the way he does.

The book ends with Danny and Reuven talking to Reuven’s father. Reuven’s father asks Danny if he will raise his son in silence. Danny says that he will unless he finds a better way, for it is all he knows.

The main literary element of this novel is the characters. The conflict of The Chosen revolves around them. They exist and interact. The plot shows them living their lives. Each character is unique; the reader truly knows each one.

One of these characters is Danny Saunders. Danny has the mind of a genius and is the chosen one to inherit a life he doesn’t want. He is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as the leader of his Hasidic sect. Yet his intellect cannot be satisfied by his instructions, which are almost primarily in religion. Instead he wishes to study psychology, despite the obvious conflict between the irreligious components of Freudianism, of which he is a great admirer, and his Hasidic belief. Therefore, Danny must face the conflict between his father’s wishes and his Hasidic background and the more secular life that he desires. Despite these conflicts, Danny never condemns his father for his cruel treatment, but rather thinks it necessary for his training as a tzaddik. It is all he knows.

Reuven Malter is another main character in The Chosen. He is Danny’s best friend and the narrator of the story. He is from a less orthodox religious background than his friend. Reuven serves as a line of communication between Danny and his father, who speaks to Danny only when they discuss the Talmud. Although Reuven respects Danny’s father, he greatly dislikes him because of his stern treatment of Danny and his later command that Danny be forbidden to have any contact with Reuven because of his Zionist views. Unlike Danny, Reuven was not raised “in silence,” and can therefore see the injustice of it.

Reb Saunders, a third character the reader gets to know, is Danny’s father. He is a tzaddik. He is a stern man who has suffered greatly, having fled from Russia during the Bolshevik revolution with his followers after the murder of his first wife and children. He retains an absolute conviction in his Hasidic beliefs. Although capable of kindness and compassion, shown in his treatment to Reuven and his other children, Reb Saunders treats his son harshly, never speaking to him.

The fourth main character of The Chosen is David Malter, Reuven’s father. In The Chosen, David serves mainly to offer historical perspective on Jewish culture and a broader viewpoint on Hasidism in order to contrast with Reb Saunders’ absolute conviction in his faith.

One of the main themes of this novel is the conflict within characters between secularism and religion. The most obvious way this is shown is between the friendship of Reuven, who has more flexible religious customs, and Danny, who comes from a very strict Hasidic background. This conflict also takes place internally within Danny Saunders, who must choose between a life devoted to intellectual study of psychology, which holds an irreligious view of human nature, and a life devoted strictly to the Hasidic religious traditions as a tzaddik.

This book tells specifically of the struggles of one group of Americans. By reading The Chosen, one learns about Jewish immigrants and their families, faced with the issue of a new country, a new culture, and new opportunities. Chaim Potok takes the struggle of Danny Saunders (choosing between a life devoted to intellectual study of psychology and a life devoted strictly to the Hasidic religious tradition as a tzaddik), and develops them as contrasting ideas. He takes religion as symbolic of history, tradition, and the old world, while secularism symbolizes the more modern and progressive aspects of society, along with a changing and broadening mentality. This was the struggle for Chaim Potok’s characters. This was the struggle for many real Jews during the 1940’s. This was the struggle of many immigrants to America.

Danny and Reuven’s friendship also displays their becoming more “Americanized.” During the softball game where the boys first meet, not only do they hate each other, but also their schools hate each other. Both teams believe that they are better. Reuven Malter’s team laughs at Danny Saunder’s team because of their very Orthodox dress, ear locks, and only being allowed to speak Yiddish. They laugh at them for not looking American. This shows some people’s negative attitude towards those who are “different.” On the other hand, Danny Saunder’s team thinks they are better because they have not fallen into the trap of conformity. They are proud of themselves for sticking to their religion and tradition. Therefore, when Danny and Reuven become friends, and their groups see them together, there is much confusion and anger. Eventually, however, they learn to accept the friendship. This friendship points ahead to America’s more accepting attitude. They learn to look past the differences in beliefs and customs, in order to see the similarities in personality and feelings.

At one point in The Chosen, Chaim Potok describes a fly that gets caught in a spider’s web. The fly manages to get its wings free, but in the process of trying to free the rest of its body, gets its wings caught in the web once again. The spider starts inching its way towards the fly, but before it makes its destination, Reuven, who had been watching, freed the fly from the web. He blew on the web, making it disintegrate, and the spider hung onto one thread and crawled away. Danny is the fly, stuck in the web of tradition and unable to free himself. However, with the help of Reuven and his father, Danny is able to escape from his chosen destiny so he may make his own. His father, the spider, climbs away on the single thread of hope, Danny’s younger but sickly brother.

Through the illustration of the spider web and the fly, as well as the whole novel, I learned that sometimes things look hopeless. People expect things from others against their will, don’t listen to what they want, and that person gets caught in a sticky, gooey web. Then, when things seem to be at their worst, someone or something can come along, unexpectedly blow on the web, and free the fly from its prison.

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