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The Chosen | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Chosen is broken into three books: in Book 1, Reuven and Danny become friends; in Book 2, their friendship deepens as they progress through high school; and in Book 3, Reuven and Danny attend the same college.

The novel has 18 chapters, a number with particular significance in Jewish mysticism. In the numerical tradition of gematriya, which figures prominently in The Chosen, alphabetic characters are used as stand-ins for numbers. The eighth and tenth letters of the Hebrew alphabet, chet and yud, together make up the word chai, or life. Ending the book with the 18th chapter is a reference to optimism; life continues.

Book 1

The Chosen takes place nearly entirely in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Williamsburg in 1944 has a large population of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. The Hasidic Jews, who are ultra-Orthodox, live in communities that are led by a tzaddik, or spiritual leader. They speak Yiddish; Hebrew is only used for sacred texts. English is used little, if at all. The Hasidim dress, eat, and comport themselves very much like they did in Europe, before they immigrated to America. Within Williamsburg, there are many small communities of Hasidim, each with its own synagogue and rebbe (rabbi).

It is June 1944 and the United States is in the midst of World War II. Reuven Malter is 15 years old. He is an Orthodox Jewish boy who attends a Jewish parochial school called a yeshiva. Reuven's yeshiva is more secular than many; it is attended by the sons of immigrants who want to retain their faith yet emancipate themselves, as Reuven says, from the "fenced-off ghetto mentality typical of the other Jewish parochial schools in Brooklyn." At Reuven's yeshiva, the classes are taught in Hebrew and English, rather than Yiddish and English. His yeshiva offers more secular courses than the Hasidic yeshivas. The Hasidic yeshivas offer the bare minimum of secular courses allowed by the state. At both schools, mornings are spent studying Jewish sacred texts, specifically the Talmud, a 63-book text, usually broken into 18 volumes. The text contains civil, religious, and ethical laws based on oral teaching and interpretation and passed down through the generations. The laws are called the Mishnah, and the commentary on—or interpretation—of the laws is called the Gemara. The Talmud is both the Mishnah and the Gemara.

The yeshivas compete in an interscholastic softball league; the games are of crucial importance to the boys. Playing softball proves that Jews can be athletes and can compete on the fields even though they spend hours daily studying sacred texts. In wartime, this feels especially important to the boys.

Reuven's team of modern Orthodox Jewish boys meets a team from a Hasidic yeshiva. The boys on the other team play hard and dirty. Danny Saunders, the community leader's son, plays both well and hard. He is the leader of his team. Reuven, who plays both second base and pitcher, has a confrontation with Danny at second base; Danny calls him an apikoros, or a Jew who has deserted his faith. This is a huge insult. The game becomes uglier; the Hasidic team's coach—a disinterested young rabbi—does nothing to dissuade his team from their ugly play or their Yiddish taunts. Mr. Galanter, Reuven's coach, coaches his team with war metaphors, hinting at his feelings of insecurity at being stateside rather than fighting. Reuven relieves the pitcher and pitches to Danny. Danny hits a line drive straight at him, and Reuven does not duck. The ball hits him in the glove, but bounces and shatters his glasses. After the game, Mr. Galanter rushes Reuven to the hospital. The tension increases when, in the elevator, Reuven asks why the fluorescent light has changed colors. A piece of glass has lodged in his eye and Reuven requires surgery.

Reuven wakes up in the hospital, his eye bandaged, and learns that he has had surgery and slept for a day. He must stay in the ward for a week. In the hospital, Reuven meets Tony Savo, a retired prizefighter, and Billy Merrit, a little boy who has lost his sight in a car accident that killed his mother. Reuven's father, David, comes to visit and says that Reb Saunders's son Danny is very sorry; Reb Saunders has called him to apologize. David Malter tells his son that Danny is going to visit. Reuven tells his father about Danny's anger toward him and his threat to kill him. Reuven is consumed with anger. David Malter listens thoughtfully and reminds Reuven that an apology must be honored by listening. David Malter tells Reuven that he is not to read, which for Reuven is terribly difficult and confirms Reuven's fears that scar tissue could grow over his lens, rendering him blind in one eye.

The next day, David Malter brings Reuven a radio so that he can listen to war news. D day occurs while Reuven is in the hospital, and he, Mr. Savo, and Billy listen to the radio together. Danny comes to visit, admitting to Reuven that, in the moment, he wanted to kill him, but he is sorry now. Reuven lashes out, asking him if he is happy to have blinded him. Danny leaves, chastened, and Reuven begins feels terribly guilty; he did not really allow Danny to apologize.

Danny comes back the next day and is surprised to find Reuven more receptive to the visit. The two boys began to converse, deeply and thoughtfully. Danny describes his photographic memory and his ability to study two pages (blatt) of Talmud every morning; this seems insurmountable to Reuven, who may study a page or even just a few lines in a day. Each boy is surprised by the other, and by the end of the day they have become friends. Reuven is confused by Danny's description of his relationship with his father, however. While Reuven and his father talk about everything, as well as study the Talmud together, Danny's father only speaks to him when they are studying. Danny admits that it took weeks to get up the courage to ask his father to allow the yeshiva to form a ball team.

As they continue to talk, Reuven is taken by Danny's fluency in English; he was under the impression that only Yiddish is spoken in Danny's community. But Danny is bright and committed enough that mastering English—just like mastering softball—is methodically practiced. Danny tells Reuven that he had to win the ball game for his father, and Reuven really begins to understand that Danny's relationship with his father is nothing like Reuven's relationship with his own father.

David Malter comes to visit his son. He reminds Reuven that the Talmud teaches that everyone should find a teacher and a friend. He tells Reuven that Danny needs a friend and that he hopes Reuven will be that friend.

Night comes again, and Reuven goes to sleep. He is awakened in the night by a commotion around Mr. Savo's bed. It seems that simply tossing a ball back to a little boy in the hospital has reinjured his eye. The nurse insists Reuven go back to bed. When he wakes up, he finds the curtains still drawn around Mr. Savo's bed, and grows increasingly anxious about his new friend.

Danny comes back to the hospital, and he and Reuven talk about the books he is reading; there is a kind, intellectual stranger in the library who has been recommending books and then discussing them with him. The boys talk about their futures; Danny's is mapped out for him; he will become the tzaddik, the absolute head of his religious community, like his father. Danny is very interested in psychology; he wonders about his place in the universe and how unknown the human mind remains. Reuven's father would like him to become a mathematician, as Reuven is good at and loves math, particularly symbolic logic, but Reuven is entertaining ideas of becoming a rabbi.

While the boys are talking, David Malter gets off the elevator. He is coming to visit Reuven after a day at work teaching the Talmud at Reuven's school. Danny is astonished to find that David, Reuven's father, is the mysterious man in the library. Reuven is surprised that his abba, or father, never told him about Danny, but David insists that wasn't his secret to tell. Nor had Mr. Malter let Danny know that he knew who he was; he was aware of Danny's identity days after they met, but continued to allow him the anonymity that he needed to read secular texts.

David Malter is thrilled to tell Reuven that he will be home for Shabbat; he is going to pick him up from the hospital after he teaches his classes on Friday. Danny promises to come over on Shabbat, Saturday. On the day Reuven leaves, both Mr. Savo and Billy have surgery. Mr. Savo's eye cannot be saved, which saddens and terrifies Reuven, who is still awaiting word on whether scar tissue will permanently block his vision. He does not learn whether Billy's operation is a success until much later.

Book 2

Reuven goes home and is welcomed by the housekeeper, Manya, who makes him a huge lunch. Reuven sees everything anew—the photographs on the wall of the founders of Zionism, the war maps, his picture of Albert Einstein. His father goes to work in his study and Reuven, marveling at the brightness and beauty of the world, sits on the back porch.

The Malters share a quiet Shabbat evening. David gives his son a lesson on the history of Hasidism, the Hasidic movement in Judaism. He also tells him of Solomon Maimon, a man with a brilliant mind like Danny's—a philosopher that was never left in peace and died alone, apart from his community. David Malter once again tells Reuven how much Danny needs a friend. Reuven can't believe that less than a week ago, a baseball game changed his life. David comments that it is a tragedy that Reuven's mother is not alive to see what a son she has.

The next day, Reuven and his father go to their synagogue for Shabbat. They come home for lunch and Danny comes over. Reuven and Danny walk back to Danny's house. On the walk back, Danny explains that his father, although he may seem tyrannical, is really a great man. Reb Saunders was the second son of a tzaddik, but his brother left to study and was not heard from again. Reb Saunders got his rabbinic ordination at 17 and began to lead his community in his early twenties. Violence against Jews in Russia escalated around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Reb Saunders's wife and young children were murdered. He was left for dead and found by some kind peasants who took him in. When his community learned he was alive, they nursed him back to health. As soon as he was healthy enough, he led the community out of Russia where they continually faced threats. He settled in Williamsburg, remarried, and started a family. His community of Hasidim would follow him anywhere; they believe he saved them and that he has a close relationship with God. Reuven is nervous about meeting Reb Saunders, knowing that he doesn't talk to Danny. His reputation as a Talmudist, or an expert in the Talmud, reaches farther than his congregation.

Reb Saunders's synagogue is part of the same brownstone in which the family resides. The street is similar to Reuven's, except darker and in disrepair. No English is heard; the community speaks only Yiddish. Reuven is pushed roughly out of the way by a man attempting to avoid contact with a woman. Upon walking up to the crowded synagogue, the crowd parts for Danny and looks at him reverently. Reuven feels uncomfortable, as if all eyes are upon him; he is dressed differently, in more typical American clothing. Danny, like the other Hasidim, is wearing a caftan and a tall hat. The men all wear earlocks (or payots) with short hair.

Two elderly men ask Danny to clarify a point of Talmud for them; they had been arguing over an interpretation. From memory, Danny recites the passage and the commentary. Danny tells them that they are both correct; two separate commentaries say two different things. Reuven is astounded that Danny is afforded this respect as a 15-year-old boy.

Reuven and Danny sit by Reb Saunders and eat lunch. Reuven is still uncomfortable. When lunch is over, Reb Saunders gives a stirring sermon, claiming that "the world flays our skin from our bodies." Reuven is unused to this type of fiery speech. As Reb continues to speak, Reuven studies Danny's face. Reb then launches into gematriya—or numerology. When he stops, he looks at Danny. To Reuven's astonishment, Danny tells his father he's made a mistake and corrects him. Reb Saunders is pleased; Danny has passed the test. Then he asks Reuven about the gematriya. Reuven, who is good at math, points out a mistake that Reb Saunders made in his calculation. Reuven, too, has passed a test. He feels much more comfortable now; some of the men are looking at him approvingly.

At the end of the evening, after watching Danny and his father studying the Talmud and taking part in the evening service that ends Shabbat, Reuven goes home. On the way, Danny and Reuven discover they'll be attending the same university. It is a Jewish school where they can earn a BA and a rabbinic ordination.

The boys agree to meet at the public library, although Reuven is still prohibited from reading. Reuven is surprised by Danny's choice of reading material. Danny is reading a history of the Jews and is particularly upset by the portrayal of the Hasidim. He is eager to study psychology, to understand the unknowable human mind. Danny is attempting to read Freud and is teaching himself German. Danny admits he does not want to be a rabbi and hopes that his brother, Levi, who has some sort of blood disorder, will take over.

On Monday, Reuven gets a good report from the doctor and can return to school. He enjoys finishing the term and taking his exams.

The boys continue to spend Shabbat together. Reuven feels more comfortable with Reb Saunders and in the synagogue. On Saturdays, he goes to Danny's to study the Talmud with Danny and his father. The little tests are just for show in the synagogue; in private when they study, Danny and his father get into pitched arguments, and emotions run high. Reb is always happy when Danny makes a fine point. One Saturday, Reb sends Danny down for tea and asks Reuven about Danny's reading habits in the library. Reuven is surprised that Reb knows about the reading but feels it is duty to tell him the truth about Danny's reading, with the exception of the Jewish history book and the German language-learning. Reuven feels bad that he betrayed Danny's confidence. Danny understands. He wishes he could have a conversation with his father.

Reuven calls Billy, the little boy from the hospital, and his father sadly tells him that Billy's operation has not been successful.

School lets out and the boys spend time together in the summer, studying, reading, and talking. Reuven and his father go away for the month of August and when they return home, school begins again.

Both boys have academic commitments and Reuven has social commitments; he is the student council president. A flu epidemic forces Danny and Reuven apart for months; both boys and their families are hit with the flu. Meanwhile, in the spring of 1945, the war in Europe comes to an end and the devastation of the European Jewish community is finally widely reported. David Malter is thrown into a deep depression. Reb Saunders believes it is God's will. David has a heart attack within days of learning about the real numbers of Jews and others murdered in the Holocaust. Reb invites Reuven to stay with them until his father recovers.

Reb Saunders is burdened by the knowledge of the Holocaust and frequently appears to be crying. Danny and Reuven spend their days praying, studying the Talmud, going to the library, and visiting Reuven's father in the hospital. After dinner, evenings are spent reading or studying the Talmud with Reb. Reuven is still struck by Danny and his father's relationship; Reb only speaks to Danny when they study together.

David Malter spends his time in the hospital surrounded by news about European Jewry. He tells Reuven there is a great need for teachers and rabbis in the United States. The Holocaust makes David an even more avid Zionist; he believes Jews must take a hold of their futures and that a Jewish homeland is necessary.

Reb Saunders is opposed to the idea of a Jewish homeland. A secular Jewish state to him is apostasy or an abandonment of religion, a renunciation of faith. At breakfast one morning, he yells at Reuven for even suggesting that "some people" think a Jewish state is a necessity. Reuven does not let on that "some people" include his father. By lunchtime, Reb Saunders is fine, but Reuven is still shaken.

Danny and Reuven spend time in the library—Danny reading Freud, Reuven studying math. Danny is increasingly feeling trapped by the idea of succeeding his father as tzaddik. Danny tells Reuven he believes his brother could become tzaddik, leaving a path for him to study psychology openly. Danny tells Reuven he will need to have him there when he tells his father. Reuven tries to get Danny to talk about his sister instead; Reuven thinks she is attractive. Danny says she is promised to a Hasidic follower of his father's and has been since she was two years old. She will marry when she turns 18.

David Malter recovers, and he and Reuven once more travel upstate for the month of August.

Book 3

Danny and Reuven begin attending Hirsch College together. Danny is miserable; he is frustrated by the psychology department's emphasis on experimental, rather than Freudian, psychology. Reuven suggests that Danny talk to his professor. Danny comes to understand that his professor is leery of Freudian methodology. He comes to accept the need for experimental psychology, and Reuven tutors him in the math he needs to excel. Meanwhile, Danny is excelling at his Talmudic studies; he studies with Talmud scholar Rav Gershenson, in the highest-level class.

The rift among Jewish communities about the formation of the state of Israel comes to a head at Hirsch College. There is a tremendous amount of anger and passion on both sides. Reuven is a Zionist, like his father. Danny does not side with the Hasidim but rather remains silent on the issue. David Malter becomes a leader in the American Zionist movement. He gives an impassioned and newsworthy speech at Madison Square Garden. When Reb Saunders reads of the speech, he forbids Danny to have any contact with the Malters.

Danny and Reuven have no contact for months; Reuven feels great hatred for Reb Saunders, who will not budge on this issue. The United Nations agrees to a partitioned state—one Arab, one Jewish—and David Malter throws himself into his Zionist work. He exhausts himself and has a second heart attack. Reuven is alone in his apartment as his father recovers, unlike after his father's first heart attack when he lived with the Saunders. Reuven is moved into Rav Gershenson's class. He prepares his answers carefully, using the textual analysis his father employs to study the Talmud. Rav Gershenson must admit that Reuven's methods, while not his own, are sound. It is difficult for the boys to be in class together, but Danny brushes Reuven's hand in a gesture of support, and the boys, while still not speaking, are both comforted.

As the formation of Israel becomes a reality, the anti-Zionist sentiment of the Hasidim eases a bit. Danny is allowed to speak to Reuven again; it has been two years since the boys spoke. Reuven once again helps Danny with his math. Although he is still very angry, Reuven is once again invited to the Saunders' home. Reb Saunders is noticeably older and more haggard; he has reacted physically—just like David Malter—to the news of the world. Reb asks Reuven why he never comes for Shabbat anymore. Reuven is still very angry at Reb, although he does not say so.

Reuven affirms his commitment to becoming a rabbi, and Danny applies to doctoral programs in psychology. David Malter advises Danny to speak to his father. While he can remain an observant Jew, he cannot study psychology as a Hasid. When David hears from Reuven that Reb wonders why he doesn't come over on Shabbat anymore, he insists Reuven go to him on Passover.

Danny realizes his father must know about his applications. The acceptance letters begin arriving at his home, but his father says nothing.

Reuven goes to visit Reb Saunders on Passover. Reb tells Reuven that he has known all along of Danny's interest in psychology and says that Levi will be the next tzaddik. He explains to Reuven why he has raised Danny in silence. Danny is so brilliant that it would be easy for him to cloak himself in intellectualism and never understand human suffering. By teaching Danny compassion through pain, he feels like he is ensuring Danny will be a tzaddik for the world, rather than just his small sect of Hasidic Jews. Reb asks for forgiveness. He asks Danny if he will shave his beard and earlocks, and Danny nods yes. Reb cries, while Danny and Reuven shed tears of their own.

Reb Saunders announces to his congregation that Danny will study psychology at Columbia and that Levi will become the next tzaddik.

Danny and Reuven graduate. Reuven is on the path to the rabbinate and Danny is off to Columbia. He goes to the Malters' house to say good-bye. David Malter asks him if he will raise his own son in silence. Danny says he will, unless he can find a better way.

The Chosen Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Danny and Reuven become unlikely friends.

Rising Action

2 The friendship between Danny and Reuven deepens.

3 David has a heart attack; Reuven moves in with the Saunders.

4 David and Reb clash over Zionism.

5 Danny realizes he doesn't have to become a tzaddik.

6 The boys enter college.

7 Reb forbids Danny from talking to Reuven.

8 David has another heart attack.

9 Israel becomes a state—a debated topic amid Jewish scholars.

10 Reb allows the boys to talk again.

Climax

11 Reb tells Danny through Reuven he can be a psychologist.

Falling Action

12 Reb explains why he raised Danny in silence.

13 The boys graduate.

14 Danny enters Columbia University; Reuven attends ordination.

Resolution

15 Danny visits the Malters; he has shaved his beard.

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