Summary and Analysis
Reuven is happy to be home from the hospital and looks forward to resuming the observance of the Sabbath. He asks his father to explain Danny's particular sect of Judaism, Hasidism. To do that, Mr. Malter relates the history of the founding of Hasidism.
Finishing the story, Mr. Malter informs Reuven that Reb Saunders is a tzaddik with a reputation for brilliance and compassion. And just as Reb Saunders inherited the position from his father, so will the position go to Danny.
Mr. Malter tells Reuven that he has a brilliant mind but that Danny is a "phenomenon." He says that he is happy that Reuven and Danny have become friends. Because of his great intelligence, Danny is terribly torn and lonely. Their friendship cannot but help both of them.
Waking up from a nap one Saturday afternoon after Sabbath services, Reuven sees Danny standing before him. Danny says that his father, Reb Saunders, wants to meet Reuven, so they set off for Danny's synagogue, which is on the first floor of the Saunders family home. The boys exchange information about their families. Reuven tells Danny that his mother died soon after he was born. Danny has a younger brother and sister. He says that his family came from Russia and that the family name, Senders, was Americanized by immigration officials to Saunders.
At the synagogue, Danny introduces Reuven to his father, who asks how Reuven's eye is healing.
Reb Saunders leads the Sabbath service; then, after he and the male members of the congregation eat, he gives a sort of sermon, incorporating passages and commentary on the Talmud. Then, as in some Jewish households where the son is at a yeshiva and the father is a learned man, Reb Saunders quizzes his son on his knowledge of Jewish history and teachings, in what seems to Reuven to be a sort of contest. Reuven is drawn into the contest when Reb Saunders asks him to find the error in a mathematical aspect of his sermon.
Speaking to Reuven after the service, Reb Saunders compliments Mr. Malter as a great scholar, whose work, however, he does not agree with. He expresses pleasure that Danny and Reuven are friends.
In Chapter 5, Reuven seems to be reborn metaphorically when he returns home with his father from the hospital. He notices details that he never before took the time to recognize, including the hydrangea bush, which he calls a "snowball bush," in his front yard. He comments, "I had never really paid any attention to it before. Now it seemed suddenly luminous and alive." Walking through the apartment, he thinks to himself, "I had lived in it all my life, but I never really saw it until I went through it that Friday afternoon." Reuven's rediscovery of the objects and setting that, together, constitute his everyday life recalls his father's wise words while Reuven was still in the hospital: Fortune is best when we have experienced misfortune. This sudden clarity of vision also demonstrates that Reuven is beginning to open his eyes and become aware of the world outside of his own existence.
Potok devotes Chapter 6 to explaining the historical background of Hasidism, of which Danny and his father are members.
Notable in Mr. Malter's discussion of Jewish history is his explanation of pilpul — in his words, "empty, nonsensical arguments over minute points of the Talmud that have no relationship at all to the world." Because Mr. Malter is concerned with world events, we expect him to have an unfavorable opinion of pilpul. Likewise, because Reb Saunders is concerned not with secular ideas but only with Judaism, we expect him to be very familiar with and practice pilpul. (This expectation is confirmed in Chapter 7.)
Mr. Malter's history lesson in Chapter 6 also concerns Danny, whom Mr. Malter likens to a historical figure name Maimon. Maimon, eager for knowledge in addition to that contained in the Talmud, studied many world-famous philosophers. Mr. Malter says of him, "He wanted to know what was happening in the outside world." Comparing Danny to Maimon, Mr. Malter notes of Reuven's friend, "But he is a phenomenon. Once in a generation is a mind like that born." However, given his intellectual prowess, Danny is lonely, torn between what is expected of him and what he himself wants to do. Knowing that this conflict exists in Danny, Mr. Malter again commends Reuven for befriending Danny. Concluding his discussion with Reuven, Mr. Malter reaffirms his philosophical belief, "That is the way the world is."
Chapter 7 continues the history lesson from the preceding chapter. This time, however, Danny, not Mr. Malter, is Reuven's history teacher. Danny's father led his followers from Russia to the United States in 1918, following persecution by Russian Cossacks. Reb Saunders and his followers eventually settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where, in 1929, Danny and Reuven were born, two days apart, in the same hospital. Incredibly, Danny and Reuven live only five blocks from each other, yet they meet for the first time at the ballgame that begins the novel.
Accompanying Danny to his father's shul for religious service allows Reuven to experience a new world: Hasidism. Potok details the setting within Reb Saunders' home, and especially the first floor, which serves as the meeting place for the Reb and his followers. This room seems starkly bare. The walls and ceiling are painted white, the floor is bare wood, and light bulbs hanging from the ceiling are exposed, producing a "harsh light." We see the Hasidim celebrating the Sabbath and get an idea of Danny Saunders' world, a world devoted to God and the Torah. Danny is completely at home in this environment, even if he wants to extend his world to include studying the secular area of psychology. Understandably, Reuven is not comfortable in Danny's world. As Reuven says, "I just couldn't get it through my head that Danny had to go through something like that every week."
When Reb Saunders briefly meets Reuven in the hall for the first time, his concern about Reuven centers more on Reuven's father than on Reuven, as he asks, "You are the son of David Malter?" The more usual question would be, "Are you the son of David Malter?" Instead, Reb Saunders changes the order of the first two words, emphasizing his commanding presence and power and implying that he knows the answer already. Later in this brief encounter, Reb Saunders says, "A son of David Malter surely knows Hebrew." He knows of Reuven through Reuven's father, just like Mr. Malter knows of Danny through Danny's father.
Reb Saunders' speech following the meal after the religious service includes much history. His narration completes that started by Mr. Malter in Chapter 6 and continued by Danny toward the beginning of Chapter 7. In his speech, Reb Saunders includes teachings based on gematriya, in which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet designates a number, so that every Hebrew word has a numerical value. Reb Saunders also practices a form of pilpul with Danny, although Reuven realizes that "it wasn't really pilpul, they weren't twisting the texts out of shape, they seemed more interested in . . . straightforward knowledge and simple explanations." Then Reb Saunders asks Reuven his opinion of the gematriya, knowing that one example that he discussed was added incorrectly and trusting Reuven's mathematical abilities to decipher the correct numerical value. Here, Reb Saunders tests Reuven's intellectual abilities to reassure himself that Reuven will be a good, competent friend for Danny.
Reuven and his father's conversation about Reuven's visit to Danny's emphasizes once again Mr. Malter's philosophy of life, which is so different from Reb Saunders'. Speaking of Reb Saunders, Mr. Malter says, "It is a pity he occupies his mind only with Talmud . . . . But he lives only in his own world," cut off from the larger society that surrounds him. Mr. Malter expects that Danny, once he assumes his father's religious position, will behave as Danny's father does, shutting off his mind from the secular world. Danny and Reuven have become good friends, but they still live in different worlds. Ironically, Mr. Malter's expectations of Danny foreshadow the end of the novel, but in the opposite way. That is, Danny will not shut off his mind from the outside world.
row houses houses having common walls with the houses on either side; this type of housing is often found in older urban areas in the United States.
Herzl (Her tsul) Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), Austrian founder of a modern movement known as Zionism, whose goal was to create a Jewish state.
Bialik (Bee al lick) Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), a Jewish poet who had a decisive influence on the renaissance of the Hebrew language in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952) a Zionist leader and first president of the state of Israel.
ailanthus tree a tree with bitter-scented flowers, usually found in the tropics.
pilpul (pill pull) the dry, stale manner of Jewish study in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Europe that inspired the rise of Hasidism.
tallit (tal leet) a shawl used by Jews in prayer.
shofar (show far) an ancient ritual horn of Israel, used to announce important public events.
Beadle a minor church official in charge of ushering and keeping order during religious services.
Amulets objects or charms superstitiously worn to ward off evil.
Kaddish (Cad ish) the Jewish prayer for the departed.
Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77) Dutch Jewish philosopher.
Liebniz Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz (1646-1716), German mathematician.
Hume David Hume (1711-76),Scottish philosopher.
Immanual Kant (1724-1804) German philosopher.
caftan (calf tan) a long coat worn by the Hasidim.
Scythe an instrument with a long blade and long handle used for cutting grass.
Eternal Light a symbol in the synagogue that symbolizes the permanence of the Torah and the radiance of the Jewish faith.
gefilte fish (guh fill tuh) cakes or balls of seasoned fish.
Catechism a written record of religious beliefs, usually in a question-and-answer format.
Din overwhelming noise.
Ascribe credit with.
nu a Jewish colloquial expression meaning "so" or "so then" or "and then what?"
gematriya (gem ot ree ya) a sort of arithmetical amusement to disclose the hidden meaning of biblical or other text by determining the numerical equivalents of the Hebrew letters in a Hebrew word.
Mitnagdim (Meet nog dim) critics or opponents of the Hasidic way of life.
Secular not specifically religious.