by Chaim Potok
Reb Isaac Saunders
Reb Saunders is an extremely complex, but almost larger-than-life character. He saved his entire Russian community from probable destruction by bringing them to America – after losing his wife and children, and being left for dead himself. Danny, his brother, sister, and mother make up the Reb’s second family. Considering what happened to his first family in Russia, it’s no big surprise he’s so overprotective and controlling.
In some ways, the Reb represents the conflict between old-world values and new-world values. While he knows that America is the literal salvation for himself and his followers, he doesn’t really trust America to protect Danny from harm. He also doesn’t know quite how to preserve the old-world values he holds dear while embracing what America has to offer to his people.
The Reb is also the character that Reuven, our narrator, understands the least, which is perhaps why Reuven judges him so harshly. Reuven never stops judging him, even after the Reb gives Danny everything he wants – and apologizes in tears no less – for the methods he used to teach his son about silence and suffering. Even though Danny and David constantly explain, Reuven doesn’t understand the depths of the Reb’s suffering – from his past life in Russia, from the news of the Holocaust, or from his relationship with his son. Since Reuven can’t see that, he can’t step inside the Reb’s shoes.
The question is, can we? The novel doesn’t try to tell us what to think about Reb Saunders. Some readers might brush him off as a religious fanatic and a cruel, domineering father. Others might identify with his struggle to raise his son how he thinks best. Some might be moved by Reb Saunders’s tears of apology; others might think that he abused Danny and that his apology can’t possibly make up for it. Like Reuven, you probably aren’t sure how we feel about Reb Saunders by the end of the novel. Which is a good thing. It means that The Chosen is accomplishing a big goal. It helps us try to see beyond the surface of things and people, and into the deeper meanings.