by Chaim Potok
Where It All Goes Down
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York; June, 1944 - September 1949
Right away we're offered an intriguing and perhaps surprising vision of America in this novel. As the brilliant characters devour information, their understanding of the setting deepens, and so does ours. Aside from massive doses of study, two factors most impact this deepened understanding of place, home, and the world: immigration and World War II.
Let’s hit immigration first. When lots of people from lots of places converge in a single place – say, the New York area – a rapid exchange of ideas is bound to go down. These rapid exchanges can create conflict on many levels. In The Chosen, we see this mostly in the relationship between Danny and the Reb. The Reb doesn’t want America, or the rest of the world, to hurt Danny. Yet, Danny wants to open his arms to America and the world. In the end, as their understanding of where they are in space and time increases, father and son, after generous helpings of turmoil, reach a compromise which opens their eyes even more. Also, Danny is kind of migrating, too – from the shelter of his father’s home to the home he must make for himself as an adult.
Now, let’s look at how World War II impacts the setting. The war and the events leading up to it are part of what caused the massive waves of immigration The Chosen describes. But, most of the action in The Chosen happens after the war ends. During the war, lots of information isn’t public. After the war, all that information becomes public – including the fact that six million Jews were murdered in Europe. Both Reb Saunders and David Malter feel responsible to their communities for these deaths, and both men become passionately embroiled over whether or not a Jewish homeland should be created in Palestine.
Because they have opposing views on the matter, the fathers’ politics helps place Europe and Palestine firmly in their sons’ imaginations. Not that they weren’t already interested – think of all the war maps on Reuven’s walls, and Danny probably has a map of the world in his head. As such, the larger world becomes a sort of peripheral setting that draws the characters out of the isolation of their neighborhoods, and forces them to see where they are in more detail.