The Chosen is a pretty straightforward book, with a lot of fun things to talk about. But, unless you are well versed in Jewish tradition, you might find some words and terms confusing. So, if you get confused while you are reading, or if you want to get oriented right away, be sure and check out Shmoop’s "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." There, you will find a handy toolbox of definitions, historical facts, and helpful links that will orient you and help you through potentially confusing moments. Now, on to The Chosen:
The narrator (we learn his name in just a minute, so hold tight!) tells us that he’s lived right around the corner from Danny for fifteen years (don’t worry – it’s only the first sentence of the book, we aren’t supposed to know who Danny is yet), but that he and Danny had never met, nor heard of one another.
The rest of the book is the story of how the narrator and Danny meet when they are fifteen, and what happens to them afterwards.
Most of the people on Danny’s block are Danny’s father’s "followers." He’s a Hasidic rabbi (though, in the novel, this is sometimes spelled Hassidic or Chasidic). He and his followers are Russian Jews.
When Russian Jews drink tea, says the narrator, they put a sugar cube between their teeth and suck the tea through it. (Here’s a neat diagram of a Russian tea-pot, a samovar).
They wear traditional Russian clothing, eat traditional Russian food, and practice traditional Russian ways. And they are totally loyal to Danny’s dad.
On the block next to Danny’s lives another Hasidic "sect" from Poland, with their own rabbi. The men wear traditional Jewish garb.
Their Rabbi is a direct descendant of Ba’al Shem Tov, the rabbi who founded Hasidim in the 1700s. (Here’s a link for more information.)
There are several other Hasidic sects living in the neighborhood where the narrator and Danny live. Each one has its own synagogue (also called a temple), its own rabbi, and its own particular tradition.
On Shabbat and other holy days, members of the various sects can be seen about the neighborhood, happy to enjoy prayer and forget the hard work they do all week to put food on the table and pay the bills.
Danny and the narrator live in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. (See Shmoop’s "Setting" for more on this neighborhood.)
In addition to Jewish people, there are people from Ireland, Germany, and a few from Spain living in Williamsburg.
The majority of the neighborhood stores are operated by non-Jewish people, or gentiles, though some are owned by Hasidic or Orthodox Jews. (Nowadays, there is a distinction between Hasidic and Orthodox, but in the book, both mean a Jew who strictly follows the traditions of his or her sect.)
They can be seen working in the stores wearing their traditional clothing.
Orthodox Jewish boys go to school at a yeshiva, or a "Jewish parochial school." (Don’t ask about the Jewish girls, because the book doesn’t give any information about them.)
They attend classes Monday through Thursday between approximately 8am and 5pm, but get out early on Fridays to prepare for Shabbat.
The Jewish boys have to get both a Jewish education, and an "English" education (because this is America), and both kinds of studies are provided in the yeshiva.
The Chosen doesn’t describe what comprises the English part of the curriculum, but the Jewish part consists of studying the Torah and Talmud. (If you aren’t sure what Torah and Talmud are, now would be a good time to check out Shmoop’s "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory.")
Knowing your Talmud is what yeshiva is all about, as you will see when we get further into the novel.
Danny goes to his father’s yeshiva, and the narrator goes to one in Crown Heights, where the narrator’s own father teaches.
The narrator’s yeshiva is sort of considered a Yeshiva Light by the other yeshivas’ standards, because it provides more English classes and the Jewish classes are taught in Hebrew instead of Yiddish. (Patience, Shmoopsters, patience. We have to wait a little while to find out why this is a big deal.)
The students in the narrator’s yeshiva are children of Jewish immigrants who think the other yeshivas are too secluded and isolated.
The narrator thinks that he and Danny might never have met if the U.S. hadn’t entered World War II (and this tells us that the novel is set somewhere after December 7, 1941, the date the U.S. entered the war).
See, some yeshiva teachers wanted to prove that, even though Jewish kids study so much, they are still "physically" fit. So, the different yeshivas organized their students into sports leagues, and they played against each other in a variety of sports.
The narrator is a member of his school’s softball team, and, "on a Sunday afternoon in early June," the narrator meets his team at his school for a game.
Their coach is Mr. Galanter, who is about thirty and doesn’t seem to be Jewish, though it’s not entirely clear. He is wearing a skullcap, which many Jewish men wear all the time, but he might just be wearing it for his job.
He works in the public school, but coaches at the yeshiva for extra cash. He always uses war metaphors when talking about playing ball.
The narrator tells us that Mr. Galanter drills into him the belief that "athletics" and "physical fitness" are an important show of patriotism that will help the war effort. He’s made the narrator’s team into the number one team in its varsity league.
All the students wonder why Mr. Galanter isn’t fighting in the war.
During his two years of playing softball, the narrator has gotten good at playing second base and pitching.
(Did you catch that about the two years? That means we are probably in 1944.)
They are scheduled to play the winner of another neighborhood league, and that team has a reputation for playing some mean and nasty ball.
The narrator and his teammates are excited. They want to please Mr. Galanter, because they like him.
The rabbis who coach some of the other yeshiva teams think that playing ball has nothing to do with Judaism, and that it’s part of a plot by "assimilationists" to corrupt young Jewish minds.
But, the students themselves love it, and, for them, playing well has become almost as important as doing well in their Talmudic studies.
Baseball has become a mark of patriotism for them, proof that they are loyal Americans.
Mr. Galanter encourages them in their warm-up, and the narrator walks off to adjust his glasses.
He describes how he bends the earpieces of his glasses just before the game so that they cut into the skin above his ears painfully. He does this to keep his glasses from falling off.
The narrator’s teammate, Davey Cantor, comes up and watches the narrator. He calls the narrator Reuven, so now our narrator has a name!
Davey tells Reuven that the members of the team they’ll play are "murderers." He says they play like it’s a "holy war."
According to gossip, their rabbi, Reb Saunders (reb = rabbi), thinks they will bring disgrace on their yeshiva if they lose.
The fifteen boys from the other team enter the yard, dressed in black and white. They wear skullcaps and have short hair, but full side curls (here's an example).
A few have started to grow a beard.
Under their white sweaters and shirts they are wearing this.
No, Reuven doesn’t have X-ray vision; he just knows they are wearing "the traditional undergarment." Also, he can see the fringes hanging out from under their clothes. (Those are called tzitzit. The tzitzit are not part of the garment, but are rather tied to it.)
Reuven’s team doesn’t have a uniform, and some of his team members wear the undergarment, but no one on his team wears the tzitzit where they can be seen. But all members of both teams wear black skullcaps.
They don’t look like murderers to Reuven.
Mr. Galanter walks over to their coach, who is a rabbi, and Reuven wonders why they got a rabbi, instead of a regular coach.
The rabbi tells Mr. Galanter that his team wants to practice before they play. Galanter protests, but the rabbi insists. He promises it will only take five minutes.
Now, the rabbi wants him to get his team off the field!
Galanter agrees again (such a nice guy), and his team clears out.
Galanter is relieved. He thinks this is a team full of lightweights. Reuven wonders again why Galanter isn’t in the war.
When Davey Cantor comes by, Reuven teases him about calling the team murderers, and Davey tells him he’ll see what he means soon enough.
He points out Danny Saunders, the Reb Saunders’s son, and says he’s the main one to watch out for. Reuven has heard of the Reb from his father, who thinks Hasidic rabbis are too extreme and too controlling of their communities.
After five minutes, the other team hasn’t stopped warming up, so Galanter alerts the rabbi, who is reading, but promptly stops the warm-up.
Danny Saunders gets close to Reuven. He’s tall, with chiseled features, big lips, blue eyes, and some sandy colored facial hair.
When Davey comes over, Reuven tells him the other players are a bunch of snobs.
Davey starts calling them murderers again, and Reuven thinks he’s exaggerating, which hurts Davey’s feelings.
Reuven still thinks it’s some kind of joke. Murderous Hasidic baseball players? Sounds ridiculous to us, too.
The game ensues. The Hasidic team wins the "choosing," (remember what this book is called?) and decide to bat first.
Reuven is feeling good about the whole thing.
Reuven’s friend Schwartzie is pitching. He’s doing OK, at first.
He strikes out a skinny kid and Reuven watches Danny go over to the kid and give him a talking to, after which the kid looks completely ashamed.
The next batter is also a skinny kid. He hits the third pitch, but Reuven catches the ball, which means, just in case you don’t know anything about baseball, that his team is winning.
So, the Hasidic team sends in another guy, the size of a bear. He misses the first pitch, but slams the second one, runs and charges into Reuven at second base just as Reuven is about to touch the ball, and then lands safe on third base.
The umpire rules the play safe, saying that Reuven was in the other kid’s way.
Mr. Galanter asks Reuven if he’s OK, and we learn that Reuven’s last name is Malter.
Now, Danny Saunders steps up to bat. Poor Schwartzie is so nervous he can’t pitch right, giving the Hasidic team much laughter and pleasure.
Then, Schwartzie hands Danny the ball, and Reuven can tell by Danny’s stance that he plans to hit the ball right back to the pitcher, which he does, and ends up safe on second base, with Reuven.
Time is called, and Schwartzie says the ball could have "killed" him. It’s beginning to look like they are a team of murderers.
Schwartzie decides to continue pitching and Galanter spouts a bunch of war analogies.
Reuven tells Schwartzie to stop handing them balls.
Silly Reuven still doesn’t get that the other team is really a pack of murderers!
Back on base, Reuven compliments Danny on his swing, but asks him if he always tries to hit the pitcher.
Danny says, "You’re Reuven Malter." Reuven confirms this, wondering how Danny knows his name. Then, Danny asks him if his dad is David Malter, the guy who writes articles on Talmud, which Reuven also confirms.
Now, Danny says something creepy. He says, "I told my team we were going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon."
(As you might guess from the context, apikorsim basically means a heretic of some sort, though we get a more precise definition in just a moment.)
To make it creepier, Danny’s tone is "flat" when he says this, and Reuven grows cold. Trying to act casual, he tells Danny to "rub [his] tzitzit for good luck."
The next batter hits on the third pitch, but the first baseman drops the ball, and Danny makes it to third.
Lots of cheering ensues, from the Hasidic team, of course, who all flock around Danny.
Mr. Galanter says that it’s time to unleash the "heavy artillery" and "barrage them."
Davey Cantor tries to get Reuven to admit he was right, that these guys really are murderers, but Reuven admits only that they know how to hit.
He learns that the guy that ran into him is named Dov Schlomowitz. They note that his name suits him because "dov" means "bear" in Hebrew.
According to Davey, Dov’s dad is an even bigger bear, and is a "shamashim" or bodyguard for Reb Saunders.
When Reuven expresses wonder at the Reb having bodyguards, Davey expresses amazement that Reuven doesn’t know this information. He says the bodyguards protect the Reb "from his own popularity."
The game continues, with both sides playing hard.
Reuven and Danny both seem to be leading their respective teams and antagonizing each other.
Reuven’s at third base, and he takes off his painful glasses, but puts them on again quickly because Schwartzie has begun his pitch.
Now, we peer into Reuven’s mind for a moment as he ponders Danny’s creepy words, and here we get a definition of "apikorsim." According to him, it is a Jew who denies the principles of Judaism, like a Jew who doesn’t believe in God, or doesn’t believe the dead will be resurrected when the Messiah appears.
People like Reb Saunders, according to Reuven, take it further, and apikorsim is any Jew who reads secular literature and doesn’t adhere strictly to traditions, including the visible tzitzit and the side curls.
Reuven thinks about how he is apikorsim to Danny, and starts counting all the reasons. One of them is the whole Hebrew-versus-Yiddish debate we’ve patiently waited to find out about.
It’s pretty simple.
According to Reuven, the Hasidim believe that to use Hebrew, which is the holy language, in a mundane classroom, even to study Jewish subjects, is a huge sin against God. (We can infer David’s side of the argument: students learn about Hebrew texts better if such texts are taught in Hebrew.)
He’s also apikorsim because his school teaches more English subjects than necessary, wasting time that could be spent on studying Jewish subjects.
Reuven’s father has told Reuven that he doesn’t have problems with their beliefs, just their insistence that their beliefs are the only right ones.
Reuven wonders how these guys learned to play ball this way, if they were supposed to be spending all their time studying.
And, then, he starts getting really pissed off, and he realizes that the game really is a war, and he gets more pissed off, and, before you know it, all that angers turns into hate, which he directs at Danny Saunders.
Reuven is done ruminating, and many of the Hasidic players are screaming at his team in Yiddish, "Burn in hell, you apikorsim!"
Things intensify even more, and Reuven hurts his wrist but keeps on playing.
Eventually, Reuven is pitcher, and Danny steps up to bat.
They toy with one another from those positions, and, at one point, Danny is staring at Reuven with a creepy grin.
Then, when he’s waiting for Reuven’s pitch to him, the grin disappears.
Reuven is exhausted and his wrist is aching, so he wants to finish things up. He throws a fastball, and Danny hits it. Guess where? Yep. Right into Reuven’s face. It bounces off the glove and hits Reuven in the glasses, which fly from his face.
Danny is safe on first.
Reuven thinks it was so fast there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Time is called, and everybody run to Reuven, who’s all messed up, with an awful pain in his left eye. He can’t see Danny, but imagines him still grinning menacingly.
He claims to be fine, but everything is very blurry and sounds funny. Reuven waits on the bench, watching his team lose, blurrily. The pain in his eyes is so bad he starts crying.
At the end of the game, Mr. Galanter sees that Reuven is really bad off and calls a cab. Perhaps folks weren’t as quick to call an ambulance as they are now.