by Chaim Potok
The Chosen Summary
How It All Goes Down
The Chosen is divided into three books, all narrated by Reuven Malter in the past tense. It begins with a description of the novel’s primary setting, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, a predominantly immigrant neighborhood where Danny Saunders, our hero, and Reuven live with their respective fathers. For his education, Danny goes to his father’s yeshiva (a kind of religious school which focuses on study of the Torah and Talmud), which focuses much more on religious studies than Reuven’s school. Reuven’s father’s yeshiva provides more of a balance between Jewish and secular education.
We move to the baseball field at Reuven’s school on a Sunday afternoon in June 1944. It turns out that Reuven’s school baseball team is playing Danny’s school baseball team, and that’s how they meet. And it’s not pretty. Danny and his teammates seem to want to fight World War II right there. And they think that Reuven’s team is the enemy. Danny tells Reuven he wants to kill him, and when he steps up to bat, he hits the ball into Reuven’s eye, shattering Reuven’s glasses. Reuven sits out while Danny’s team wins the game. Then, he starts to realize he has a real problem with his eye.
Reuven is rushed to the hospital. The doctors confirm that there is indeed something wrong. Everybody freaks out when Reuven starts seeing the colors of the rainbow in a fluorescent light, and, then, all the light goes away.
He wakes up in the eye ward of the hospital, where he meets Frank Savo, a prizefighter with an eye injury, and Billy Merrit, a young boy who was blinded in a car accident. Reuven’s father, David Malter, shows up and Reuven learns that his eye had glass in it, and that he had an operation. So long as the eye heals properly, Reuven will be OK. In the meantime, he isn’t allowed to read. This, for him, is practically a fate worse than death. David also tells Reuven that Danny is coming to apologize to him. But, when Danny shows up, Reuven explodes and drives him away.
David gets on Reuven’s case about being a jerk, reminding him that when somebody apologizes, you have to listen. Then, he gives Reuven a radio so he can listen to the news of World War II while he recovers. Reuven wakes the next morning to shouts. A loud radio is broadcasting news of D-Day, or the Invasion of Normandy.
Danny comes to visit him that day. He says that during the baseball game, he did imagine killing Reuven, but he also thought Reuven would duck from the ball. Reuven admits that he didn’t duck because he didn’t want to look like a coward.
With the confessions out of the way, the boys start to get to know each other better. Reuven is surprised to learn that Danny has a photographic memory, and that he doesn’t want to inherit the position of Reb Saunders, his father, as leader of his community. He wants to study psychology. Danny is surprised to learn that Reuven does want to be a rabbi, even though he’s totally awesome at math.
Danny also reveals that he’s been sneaking around the public library reading secular (non-religious) books behind his father’s back. Apparently, a mysterious man has been suggesting books for him to read. Reuven is amazed by everything Danny tells him, but is most surprised to learn that Danny and Reb Saunders never talk, unless it’s about Talmud (check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more information about this).
When David, Reuven's father, shows up one day while boys are talking, both are surprised to learn that David is the mysterious library man. Reuven doesn’t understand how his father kept the information from him, but isn’t mad. David explains that it was Danny’s secret to tell, not his. Then, David gives Reuven the good news that he’s taking him out of the eye ward on Friday. Just before Reuven is released from the hospital, both Frank and Billy, the other patients Reuven met, have eye operations. Frank loses one of his eyes, and Reuven doesn’t learn whether Billy’s sight was restored until later in the novel.
That Friday, Reuven goes home, where he lives with his father and their housekeeper, Manya. He feels like he’s been gone for a long time in a dark place. Now, everything looks brilliant and new. He can’t believe how much his life has changed in less than a week, and he’s super-excited about his friendship with Danny.
That night, his father talks to him for a long time. He describes the tragic history of Jews in Poland since the thirteenth century, as well as the birth of Hasidism, the kind of Judaism practiced by Reb Saunders. (Learn more about Hasidism in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.") He also tells him about Solomon Maimon, who, like Danny, was born with a mind so brilliant the world only sees one like him in every generation. That’s why he’s been giving Danny books to read, to help Danny’s mind.
The next day, Reuven goes to Danny’s house and meets the Reb. Before he gets there, Danny tells him that the Reb had another family in Poland. That family was killed during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Reb was left for dead, but recovered from a bullet to the chest and led his community to America. In the synagogue, Reuven feels like all eyes are upon him, but he participates in a variety of prayer services, a meal, and a debate between father and son. He even uses his math skills to solve a difficult puzzle, and thus wins the Reb’s stamp of approval. When Danny walks Reuven home, the boys learn that they will be going to the same Jewish college.
The boys get deeper into their friendship, often meeting at the library or at Reuven’s house. Reuven tries to contact Billy, and learns from Billy’s dad that the little boy’s operation was unsuccessful – Billy is still blind. One Saturday, Reuven goes over to Danny’s house to study Talmud with him and his dad. When the Reb sends Danny down for tea, he gives Reuven the third-degree and asks him which books Danny is reading. Reuven feels like he has to tell the Reb – though he leaves out the ones that might cause total panic. Later, Reuven confesses to Danny, and Danny isn’t surprised or angry. He only wishes his dad had asked him instead.
Things go on like this for some time. Reuven and Danny study their brilliant heads off, and find time to hang out here and there. Danny continues to read secular books and still plans to study psychology, but has no idea how to get out of his inherited position as community leader. Danny's only hope is that the Reb will let his younger son take Danny's place instead. But the kid is always sick and picking his nose, so we don’t hold out much hope.
After World War II ends, everything changes – Reb Saunders and David Malter both react with extreme passion to the news that six million Jews have died. The Reb is in deep mourning and David has a heart attack, which causes Reuven to move in with Danny for a while. When David gets out of the hospital, he starts fighting for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Reb thinks the very idea is sacrilege. When David makes his views know at a big rally, the Reb forbids Danny and Reuven to have any contact.
Things get very lonely for our heroes, who are now in college, and when David suffers a second heart attack, Reuven lives all alone. When Israel does become a state, the pressure is released and the Reb relents, letting the two friends see each other again. But that doesn’t solve Danny’s problems – all of which are father-related. The Reb still won’t talk to him about anything but Talmud, and he still hasn’t told the Reb that he’s turning his back on his inheritance in favor of getting a doctorate in psychology.
Luckily, the Reb solves the problems himself. On Passover in 1949, the Reb gives Danny his blessing to pursue his dreams, and he explains the mysterious reasoning behind his silence. He was afraid that Danny was so smart that he would become too immersed in study and cut himself off from the rest of humankind. Only through his father’s silence would Danny learn to feel. The Reb is far from sure that he did the right thing, but at least Danny’s struggle is over. He has the freedom to pursue his dreams, and he finally has his father to talk to.