Potok, Chaim

The Chosen

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The Chosen Summary

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Set in the 1940s in Brooklyn, New York, Chaim Potok’s historical fiction novel The Chosen (1967) follows two best friends as they grow from teenagers to young men, learning to balance their dreams, their religion, and the expectations of their fathers. Potok received an Orthodox Jewish education but was inspired to become an author after reading Brideshead Revisited as a teenager. He authored several books, including a sequel to The Chosen titled The Promise. The Chosen has been adapted into a television movie and a stage play.

It is 1944 in Brooklyn, New York. The story is narrated by Reuven Malter, a smart fifteen-year-old with a talent for mathematics. Reuven’s modern orthodox Jewish school is playing a baseball game against a Hasidic Jewish school, and it is clear that only one boy on the other team has any talent—Danny Saunders. During one play, Reuven pitches, and Danny hits the ball up the middle. It strikes Reuven in the glasses, sending him to the hospital.

When Danny arrives at the hospital to apologize, Reuven, still furious, sends him away. David, Reuven’s father, scolds him for this, and when Danny returns to the hospital for a second try at apologizing, Reuven forgives him. Soon they become friends. Reuven shares that his father wants him to use his talent for mathematics to become a professor, but what he really wants is to be a rabbi.

Danny has a photogenic memory and is startlingly intelligent. He yearns to become a psychologist, but Hasidic tradition proclaims that he must succeed his father, Isaac, as Rabbi. Isaac never speaks to Danny except when they study the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism. In fact, the Talmud is all that Isaac permits Danny to study, so Danny sneaks to the library to read literature and books about Sigmund Freud.

Danny shares with Reuven that he reads books recommended to him by a man at the library—Reuven’s father, David. David explains that a mind like Danny’s only comes along once in a generation and that his brilliance should be applied to secular studies. Danny begins spending time with the Malters, and together with David and Reuven, he reads, studies, and discusses religion. Reuven also visits the Saunders house, and while Danny is out of the room, Isaac reveals to Reuven that he knows Danny sneaks to the library. He will not stop him because he knows he needs to give his son some freedom. However, he still refuses to speak to Danny.

The next year brings World War II; news of the Holocaust sends the Jewish community into shock and mourning. When David suffers a heart attack, Reuven stays at the Saunders house. One night, Reuven suggests the establishment of a Jewish state as an answer against further tragedies like the Holocaust. This sends Isaac into a tirade against Zionism.

Together, Danny and Reuven attend Samson Raphael Hirsch College and Seminary. Reuven works up the courage to tell David that he wants to be a rabbi, not a professor; David supports his son’s decision. Meanwhile, Danny struggles in his classes because the psychology department is focused on experiments and mathematics, weak areas for Danny.

Things get worse for Danny when David gives a speech on Zionism, and Isaac forbids Danny from having any contact with the Malters. Without his best friend, Danny begins to fail his classes. During this time, David has another heart attack. With his father recovering and his best friend gone, Reuven applies himself even more towards his studies and finds great success. Eventually, Isaac releases his ban on Danny’s association with the Malters, and the friends reconcile.

As the years pass and the boys near their college graduation, Danny applies to Columbia, Harvard, and Berkeley; he is accepted to all three. He knows his father still believes he will succeed him as a rabbi, but he also suspects he has seen the acceptance letters. Yet, as always, his father will not speak to him.

Finally, Reuven and Danny are called to a meeting with Isaac. Isaac explains that he has indeed seen the acceptance letters, so he knows Danny will not succeed him as a rabbi. Instead, the role will fall to Danny’s younger brother, Levi. Isaac reveals that he raised Danny in silence because he feared his son’s incredible intelligence would lead him to be compassionless. By raising him in silence, he hoped that Danny would grow to find his own strength, but it was his relationship with the Malters that helped Danny gain the courage to follow his dreams. He does not mind that Danny will not be a rabbi because he has grown to be a righteous and compassionate man.

Danny cuts his payot (his beard and sideburns), and Reuven sees him off to graduate school. They shake hands, confident in the strength of their friendship.