55 pages 1 hour read

Chaim Potok

The Chosen

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1967

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Summary and Study Guide


Rabbi Chaim Potok published The Chosen in 1967, and the book became a National Book Award finalist and established Potok as an influential Jewish writer. Born in Brooklyn and raised by Hasidic parents, Potok’s historical novel arguably links to parts of his personal life, as it follows two Jewish best friends, Reuven and Danny, and emphasizes Danny’s rocky relationship with his Hasidic father. The book centers on themes like Judaism and the Quest for Knowledge, Silence and Communication, and The Intricacies of Friendship. Potok published a sequel, The Promise, in 1969. In 1981, The Chosen became a movie, and in 1988, it briefly became a Broadway musical.

The page numbers in this study guide refer to the 2016 Simon & Schuster e-book edition.

Content Warning: The Chosen features traumas linked to the Holocaust and a father-son relationship that appears psychologically abusive.

Plot Summary

Reuven and Danny are Jewish teens living in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Danny’s family practices a strict kind of Judaism: They’re Hasidic, and Danny’s dad, Reb Saunders, is the tzaddik (the powerful leader) of his Hasidic sect. As Reb Saunders’s oldest son, Danny will replace him someday. Reuven and his dad, David Malter, are less conservative, and Malter wants Reuven to be a mathematician, but Reuven wants to be a rabbi. Malter teaches at Reuven’s yeshiva (Jewish school), which is more secular than Danny’s yeshiva.

The yeshivas face off in softball, and the game turns into a war, with Danny’s school feeling like they’re better Jews than Reuven’s school because they’re more observant. Danny says he wants to kill Reuven’s team, and when Reuven takes over as pitcher, Danny hits Reuven in the face, breaking his glasses and sending him to the hospital to remove a piece of glass from his eye.

As he recovers in the hospital, Reuven keeps up with current World War II events. The Allies (mainly the United States, Russia, England, and France) are battling the Axis (primarily Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan), and the Allies are gaining momentum. The D-Day invasion has come, and the Nazis don’t have much of a chance.

Danny visits Reuven in the hospital, but Reuven angrily dismisses him. Once Reuven’s dad arrives and tells Reuven to forgive Danny and make him his friend, Reuven and Danny become best friends, and Danny opens up about his life.

Though Danny looks like a Hasid and is in line to become a tzaddik, he doesn’t talk like a Hasid. Studying the Talmud (a massive collection of guidelines and Torah commentaries by ancient Jewish leaders) bores him. After he finishes his Jewish studies, he goes to the public library and reads secular books, including ones by the American novelist Ernest Hemingway and the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Every week, Danny reads seven or eight books, and if he didn’t have to be a tzaddik, he’d be a psychologist.

Malter tells his son that he is very bright, but Danny has a once-in-a-lifetime mind. To help his son understand Danny’s situation, Malter gives Reuven a mini-history of Hasidism. Some Hasidic leaders are admirable, but others are corrupt. Malter tells Reuven that Reb Saunders is a fine tzaddik, but Reuven isn’t sure. Reb Saunders only speaks to his son about the Talmud. The rest of the time, he gives Danny silence. Reuven thinks he’s oppressive and cruel.

Reuven goes to Danny’s house to meet Reb Saunders. The first floor is a synagogue, and Danny’s family lives on the upper two floors. Saunders gives a derasha (sermon) for Danny, Reuven, and his followers. He emphasizes the importance of studying the Torah. A Jew must do it day and night—it produces the presence of God. In his sermon, he purposely includes errors for Danny and Reuven to call out. The “public quizzing” adds to Reuven’s negative opinion of Reb Saunders.

The war ends––news of the Holocaust reaches Reuven’s world, and his dad feverishly reads about how the Nazis systematically killed around six million Jews. Malter writes articles, teaches, and becomes a fierce Zionist. To give the genocide meaning, he thinks the Jews must create a homeland in Palestine. His intensity jeopardizes his health, and it worries Reuven.

Reuven and Danny go to Hirsch College—the only American yeshiva that gives students a secular college education. Danny wants to learn about Freud, but the head of the psychology department is not a Freudian and prefers experimental psychology. Danny doesn’t like the latter, and Reuven and Danny fight about Freud before Danny relents and gives experimental psychology a chance.

Reb Saunders and the Hasids are staunch anti-Zionists. The Torah says there can only be a Jewish homeland when the Messiah arrives, and the Messiah isn't here, so the creation of Israel counters God. The Hasids think the six million Jews died because of God’s mysterious will, not for a Jewish state. Malter and the Zionists don’t think they can wait for a Messiah. If Jews want to survive and prosper, they need Israel. The rift over Israel compels Reb Saunders to forbid Danny from staying friends with Reuven—though, at school, they express their bond through smiles and touching hands.

As Israel becomes inevitable, the anti-Zionists become less vocal, and Danny and Reuven can talk again. Danny applies to graduate schools for psychology, but he fears telling his dad about his plans. Reuven talks to his dad about Danny’s trepidation, and then Malter advises Danny on how to confront his dad.

Danny and Reuven face Reb Saunders together, and he explains his parenting. He didn’t want a son with a brilliant mind and a lackluster soul, but he didn’t know how to teach his son about pain, suffering, and the knotty feelings that make up the soul. He thought silence was best. Words can be deceptive, but silence stays true to the heart and soul. He admits that a wiser father may have found a better approach, but he’s not that wise. Reb Saunders asks for forgiveness, and then he sets Danny free to pursue his dream.