On a hot June afternoon in 1944, in Brooklyn, softball teams from two Orthodox Jewish parochial schools play against each other. The two teams have a rivalry based on their different religious beliefs.
Reuven (Roo ven) Malter, a Modern Orthodox Jew, narrates the story. His team, with their coach, Mr. Galanter, gets to the softball diamond first and practices while Mr. Galanter encourages them. Their opponents, a team of Hasidic (Hah see dick) Jews, arrive. Their coach insists that his team get five minutes of practice time, then he proceeds to sit on the bench and ignore the players while he reads a religious book in Yiddish.
Reuven reminds himself that his father, a Modern Orthodox scholar and teacher at a yeshiva, doesn't mind the differing beliefs of Hasidic Jews but does object to their self-righteousness and their belief that their congregation's leader, or tzaddik (sah dick), is the only arbiter of Jewish law. One such tzaddik is Reb Saunders, whose son, Danny, plays on the opposing team.
During the early, hard-fought innings, the Hasidic team is carried by the ability and determination of their leader, Danny. Danny has a way of hitting the ball very hard, right at the pitcher, whom he barely misses on his first hit. The next time Danny's team comes to bat, Reuven is the pitcher. Danny smashes a ball that hits Reuven in the eye, shattering his eyeglasses and causing him great pain. After the game ends, Reuven is rushed to the hospital.
Potok opens The Chosen by describing the setting and cultural background in which the novel takes place — an area in New York City called Williamsburg, which is heavily populated by Jews. Ironically, the streets of Williamsburg are not paved with gold, as alluded to in the mythical image of America; rather, they're paved with asphalt riddled with potholes. Even the sidewalks are "cracked squares of cement." This description reveals something about the social realities of many immigrant Jews, who came to America seeking economic opportunity but often struggled to make ends meet in their new country.
Culturally, the Jews are divided between ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews and Modern Orthodox Jews. For example, although all male Orthodox children attend yeshivas, some yeshivas (including Reuven Malter's) teach more English subjects than other yeshivas do (including Danny Saunders'). Language also separates the different Orthodox Jews: Reuven learns about Jewish subjects in Hebrew; Danny learns these subjects in Yiddish. By mentioning this language difference, Potok introduces the importance that lan-guage — or, in Danny's case, silence — plays in the novel.
Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter represent these two Orthodox Jewish sects: Hasidic Jews and Modern Orthodox Jews, respectively. Potok establishes the boys' religious rivalry by having each as the leader of his softball team. Interestingly, no matter what their religious differences, they can find common ground in the very American game of softball. Note that the boys' yeshivas introduced softball to the students as a way to demonstrate American patriotism: World War II is underway at the beginning of the novel. Reuven narrates the newfound importance placed on appearing American: "[T]o be counted a loyal American had become increasingly important to us these last years of the war."
In bringing Danny and Reuven before us, Potok sets the stage for their later religious and secular dialogues, in which the boys oftentimes differ over issues. Their different outlooks on life are symbolized in their manner of dress. Because Reuven and Danny are Orthodox Jews, they wear small, black skullcaps. However, the skullcap is the only outward similarity between their garments. All the boys on Danny's team wear the same outfits; Reuven and his team members have no set uniform.
In addition to their personal rivalry, Reuven and Danny represent their respective fathers, David Malter and Rabbi Isaac Saunders, who is introduced later in the novel, and their fathers' differing religious views. Reuven tells us that his father "had no love at all for Hasidic communities and their rabbinic overlords," of which Danny's father is one. Danny, speaking to Reuven at second base, asks, "Your father is David Malter, the one who writes articles on the Talmud?" When Reuven confirms that David Malter is his father, Danny promises that his team will "kill you apikorsim," a word originally used to describe a Jew who denied basic tenets of Judaism. That Reuven is struck by a ball off Danny's bat at the end of Chapter 1 is symbolic of their — and their fathers' — ideological battles.
Although The Chosen focuses on Danny Saunders' struggle to stand up to his father and renounce the leadership position that tradition dictates Danny inherit, Chapter 1 establishes Reuven's own personal struggle to accept Danny and the Hasidic religion that Danny and his father represent. Although Reuven would like to believe that he is more open-minded than Danny, he admits that he has never before had "personal contact" with members of Danny's religious sect. However, he has accepted his own father's critical views concerning Rabbi Saunders' "fanatic sense of righteousness." Reuven, like Danny, must first learn to think for himself and then form his own opinions rather than blindly accepting someone else's. His father, Danny, and Danny's father will help Reuven accomplish this growth.
Hasidic Jews (Hah see dick) descendants of Jews who founded the Jewish sect of Hasidism (Hah see dism) in eighteenth-century Europe. Hasidism suggests that it is possible to reach a close relationship with God through song and joy rather than only through more formal
avenues of prayer This philosophy of Hasidism was expounded by its leader and founder, Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name). In the novel, Hasidic philosophy is represented by Danny Saunders and his father, Rabbi (Reb) Saunders.
samovar an urn with a spigot used for heating water for tea; originated in Russia.
Shabbat another word for the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week reserved for rest and worship; for Jews, the Sabbath is on Saturday.
Yiddish The language of Eastern European Jews, Yiddish comes from German and Polish roots. Hasidic Jews prefer to use Yiddish as an everyday language, believing that the use of Hebrew, the original language of the Jewish people, is a holy tongue; to use Hebrew in an ordinary classroom would desecrate God's name. Reuven's Modern Orthodox sect, however, uses Hebrew in its classrooms.
Brownstones residential buildings made of reddish-brown sandstone, common in urban areas.
Spanish Civil War Starting as a military insurrection, this war lasted from 1936 until 1939, involved Italy and Germany on the side of the fascist insurrectionists, and brought General Francisco Franco to power.
skullcap a close-fitting, brimless cap worn by Orthodox Jewish men.
Earlocks hair grown long at the temples. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men obey the Torah precept that directs, "You shall not clip your hair at the temples or mar the edges of your beard. You shall not lacerate your bodies for the dead or tattoo any marks upon yourselves" (Leviticus 19:27-28).
yeshiva (yuh sheev ah) a school to which Orthodox Jews send their male children. Half of the academic day is spent on Jewish subjects, and the other half on secular subjects. In the novel, Reuven attends a yeshiva that offers more secular classes than Danny's yeshiva does. At times, this difference causes resentment in Danny, who thinks that Reuven is less observant of Jewish law.
Talmud (Tall mood) the oral law of Judaism, based on rabbis' interpretations of ambiguous laws in the Torah and on issues concerning a wide variety of topics in Jewish life. The oral law was written down in the first century A.D.
gentile a non-Jew.
Infield the baseball team members playing the shortstop and first, second, and third base positions.
assimilationist a person who believes in the inclusion of different racial and ethnic groups into mainstream culture.
tzizit (tsee seet) fringes that hang down from the Jewish prayer shawl and are intended to remind Jews of the necessity of observing Jewish law. The Torah states, "When you look upon it [tzizit], you will remember to do all the commands of the Lord" (Numbers 37:39). Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, such as the Hasidim, wear a prayer shawl under their clothes and leave the fringes visible over the waists of their trousers.
side-curls another term for earlocks, defined above.
momzer (mom zer) a colloquial word of derision.
apikorsim (ah pik or sim) a word of disfavor used by the ultra-Orthodox to refer to the Modern Orthodox.
Mincha Service an afternoon Jewish religious service.
Shamashim (plural of shamash) assistants at a Jewish religious service who perform a variety of functions.
shlepper a Yiddish word for a person who moves slowly or awkwardly.
Hasid a Hasidic Jew.