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The Chosen | Themes



The Chosen is a book about friendship. Danny and Reuven are unlikely friends; they are openly suspicious of each other upon first meeting. Their friendship reads like a traditional love story: they meet, find stunning commonalities, endure both support and approbation from their families, break up, and are finally reunited. Although there is no suggestion of romantic love, the boys' friendship is so fundamental to their beings that Potok uses the imagery of romantic love: Reuven lays on his chaise and thinks of Danny; Reuven shivers when he hears Danny's voice; Reuven reminisces about their times together.

A true friendship, based on love, is difficult. Reuven feels Danny's pain and Danny celebrates Reuven's successes over his own. Their responsibilities to each other transcend their religious identities; Reuven studies Talmud with the Hasidim and Danny sympathizes with the Zionists. Because they are both so religious, the rhythm of their friendship echoes the rhythms of Judaism. They meet on Shabbat to study together, and they walk and talk together. They meet in the mornings by Reuven's synagogue, a place that is foundational to his sense of being, and go to school together, where they are both immersed in text. In the library, they study secular texts together. Danny explains Freud to Reuven, and Reuven questions him. Later, Reuven teaches Danny to model his experiments mathematically, and Danny questions him.

Religion plays a big part in the boys' friendship, and the friendship itself has religious undertones at its core. Reb Saunders believes that the Master of the Universe sent him the Malters just as Danny feels the need to rebel. With David Malter recommending books for Danny, he won't forget his roots. With Reuven Malter, a good soul looking out for Danny's soul, Danny will be less tempted to venture further astray. For Reb Saunders, the friendship is the result of divine intervention. For David Malter, who believes in human agency, the friendship between the two boys is a choice, but a choice grounded in Talmudic instruction. When he tells Reuven that the Talmud says a man must do two things for himself—choose a teacher and choose a friend—he lets Reuven know just how important friendship is. With a Talmudic injunction, friendship is to be prioritized. In the Malters, Danny has chosen both a teacher (David), and a friend (Reuven).

Both families allow the boys to prioritize their friendship. To allow Danny to have a friend outside of his Hasidic sect is nothing short of remarkable for the dogmatic Reb Saunders. And Reuven is treated as family—until the rift. He lives with Danny when his father is ill. He sits by Reb Saunders studying Talmud. Reb has another son and many followers, yet it is Reuven who sits by his side. Reuven is always the sole non-Hasid at family celebrations, or on Shabbat at Reb Saunders's shul (synagogue). David Malter also honors the bond between the two boys. Initially, he exhorts Reuven to be a friend to Danny, recognizing the loneliness and isolation Danny feels. When Reuven is angry and upset with Reb Saunders, it is David—no fan of the Hasidim—who patiently explains why Reb Saunders acts the way he does. And it is David who makes Reuven understand that he has been an irresponsible friend to both Danny and Reb Saunders when he ignores Reb's invitations to talk. As he has in his approach to the friendship, David turns to the Talmud to let Reuven know he is has acted poorly towards his friend and his father.

Finally, the boys really like each other. They enjoy being together despite their disparate ways of seeing the world. They have no model for this friendship; Reb Saunders does not appear to have any friends, and David Malter mentions one friend, briefly. They invent their friendship as they go along, and that is what powers the narrative. Because of this, the story has universality. The Chosen is a book about two Orthodox Jewish boys growing into men, but its wide and sustained appeal is, in part, because it is a story of the tenacity and optimism of a true friendship.

Father-Son Relationships

The Chosen, a story of friendship, is also the story of family. As the narrative contains no female voices, the primary family relationship is between father and son. Potok, versed in Freud, has Danny reading Freud in its original tongue.

An initial reading of Reb Saunders indicates that he does not protect his son. He isolates him from his family by treating him differently; his child-rearing methods don't allow Danny to go to him when he is frightened or sick; and he ensures that Danny will feel lonely even in his safest space, home. Reb's understanding of the world and the Jewish place in the world also doesn't give Danny the optimism to see beauty or find happiness. Reuven describes Reb as cruel and sadistic; nowhere does he counter that with "kind and supportive." Finally, Reb Saunders, so harsh and unyielding in his beliefs, separates Danny from the person he needs most in the world, his friend Reuven.

But looking backwards from Reb Saunders's statement, "For a long time I have known," it becomes apparent that he has—in his own possibly misguided way—protected his son. By allowing him to field a softball team in the first place, he is giving his son permission to see the way other Jewish teams play and communicate. Danny is afraid of losing. He cannot see that his father, who is both a great scholar and a man who has seen his own children murdered, might realize that when fielding a team of boys who spend 10 hours a day devoted to study, defeat is a possibility. The team is a gift to Danny. Consistent with the gift of the softball team, Reb allows Danny to meet David Malter surreptitiously in the library. Knowing that David is a man of conscience and follower of the Commandments, Reb provides his son with a guide to the secular world. In this, Danny is protected from himself. And in encouraging the friendship with Reuven, Reb gives Danny the best protection he can; Reuven protects his soul. Reuven asks the searching questions about reconciling Freud with Talmud. Reuven encourages Danny to see past his deification of Freud and give experimental psychology a chance. Reuven supports Danny by both keeping his secrets and knowing when to tell them.

As the narrative reaches its climax and then its denouement, it is clear Reb Saunders has acted out of love for his son and for God. He may have acted unforgivably, and Danny may be recovering from his childhood for years to come, but ultimately, Danny begins his new life knowing he is loved.

Potok is fond of parallels, and parallel to the relationship between Danny and his father is the relationship between Reuven and his father. David Malter is by in many ways the opposite of Reb Saunders. He is kind and generous to his son. If the overwhelming motif of the Saunders household is silence, in the Malter household, it is talk. David talks to his son and enjoys it. He is a teacher and brings that persona home, helping Reuven understand his own history and the history of the Hasidim, teaching him new methods of Talmud study, patiently and generously. He views himself as an agent for change; he will not, he tells Reuven, wait for the Messiah to save the Jews. Rather, through his work, he will bring the Messiah.

However, when it comes to protection, David fails to protect his health, and thus, fails to protect his son. Although David is modeling the behavior of an active and engaged citizen, of an agent of change, he is ruining himself in the process. After his second heart attack, arguably caused by the stresses to his body that his work entails, David leaves Reuven entirely alone. Reuven is left with no father and no friend. His family consists solely of his housekeeper, with whom he cannot communicate.

The father/son relationships in The Chosen are bound to the title of the novel. Fathers cannot be chosen like friends or teachers. It is in the choices the boys make, however, that their fathers' love becomes most apparent. David Malter would like his son to become a mathematician and teach at a university. There he can become a part of the rationalism of the secular world; he trusts Reuven enough to know that he will retain his Jewish identity wherever he ventures. When Reuven opts instead for the rabbinate, David Malter is supportive and loving, never voicing disappointment. He sees the urgent need for good rabbis and teachers to revitalize American Jewry, and is confident his son will be a fine addition to the rabbinate. Like Danny, Reuven will begin his new life knowing he is loved.

The choices of both boys run counter to the desires of their fathers. Reuven, the son of a rationalist, chooses to become a man of God, and Danny, the son of a mystic, or Kabbalist, decides to become a man of science.

Out of love, Reb Saunders does what his father has done before him. He chooses his second son to become tzaddik, releasing the first from the responsibility. Allowing Danny the freedom to choose his own path, one that precludes him from remaining fully a Hasid, is Reb Saunders's ultimate expression of love.

Religion Versus Secularism

Potok, in his response to criticism, states that the backbone of The Chosen is the conflict between faith and secular humanism, which he calls paganism. Potok himself had to reconcile the contradictions between faith and secularity; he chose to occupy a middle place. Daniel Walden calls him a "zwischenmensch," or middle person. For Potok, "a theology that is not related to a pattern of behavior is trivial." He goes on to say that a pattern of behavior that is not linked to a system of thought is religious robotry. Potok, while sympathetic to the Hasidic community, does not abide by fanaticism, or by behavior that is not thoughtful and considered. He imbues David Malter with the same balanced approach to his religion. David Malter, like Potok, lives in the middle space, or is a middle person. His respect for his tradition is evident in his work and in his bearing, while at the same time he accepts change. He is guided by rational, scientific principles, even in his reading of the Talmud. In his prayer however, David Malter uses no book—he prays from his heart. His theology and behavior are linked; he feels deeply and acts accordingly.

It is difficult to live in the middle space, in the midst of cultural confrontation. Tradition is comfortable, and a belief that the Master of the Universe guides all human events negates the need for any action other than devotion. For Potok, this is robotry. On the other hand, pure secular humanism denies the existence of a higher set of moral principles by which to guide one's behavior.

In The Chosen, Danny chooses to embrace the secular, particularly Freud. However, with the guidance of David Malter first, and Professor Appleman later, he is able to find a space that holds Freud's genius in place, but does not deify him. Reuven articulates the centrality of this tension to the narrative, when he asks Danny how a person can study Talmud and study Freud.

The Holocaust is a true test of faith for all of the characters. Reb Saunders believes the centrality of the Jewish experience is suffering; the death of so many is one more example of Jewish suffering in the earthly realm. He confronts his faith only once, when he asks God how he allowed this to happen. Ultimately though, he accepts it as the will of God.

David Malter struggles tremendously with the Holocaust. However, he neither questions his faith, nor believes that the suffering is God's will. Rather, he strives to give meaning to the deaths in a modern world. For him, meaning will come with the realization of a Jewish homeland, guided by secular principles rather than religious law.

That the struggle between faith and secularity is done in the safety of Williamsburg, Brooklyn is significant. There is some safety in Williamsburg in 1944; it is insular and protected. Other Jewish authors who struggle with the same cultural confrontations have their characters living and interacting in largely non-Jewish worlds. While Danny's struggle is no less intense, the secular models of living to which he is exposed are those of modern Orthodox Jews.

Questions for Themes

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