Summary and Analysis
Book 2: Chapters 11-12
Reb Saunders, Danny, and Reuven learn that a major German offensive has been repelled in the Battle of the Bulge and that the Allies apparently will win the war. Americans, along with the rest of the world, mourn the murder of millions of Jews slaughtered by Hitler. Reb Saunders speaks of the European Jews he had known who are probably dead, of the brutality of the world, of his years in Russia with Cossack bands looting and plundering, and now, of the monstrosity of Hitler and the Nazis.
Reuven and his father discuss Reb Saunders' opinion that the Holocaust must be the result of divine will. Mr. Malter disagrees and says that because millions of Jews were murdered needlessly, they cannot wait for the Messiah to come or for other help in creating a Jewish state. Jews must do the work themselves.
Mr. Malter suffers a heart attack. During his convalescence at the hospital, Danny and his family invite Reuven to stay at their house, and he accepts. Danny and Reuven spend much time at the library, especially discussing the ideas of Freud. Reuven thinks that Freud's theories are hardly complimentary to a religious person, so he finds it odd that Danny seems to have accepted Freud's ideas. To Reuven, Talmudic ideals and Freudian ideas cannot coexist. However, when he tells this to Danny, Danny says nothing and goes back to his reading.
One morning during breakfast in the Saunders' house, Reuven says that a lot of people are saying that it is time for Palestine (the current state of Israel) to become a Jewish homeland and not only a place where pious Jews go do die. Reb Saunders becomes enraged at Reuven and leaves the table, visibly upset. Later, Danny tells Reuven not to talk about a Jewish state in front of his father, who takes God and Torah very seriously. A secular Jewish state to the Reb is a sacrilege, a violation of the Torah.
The beginning of Chapter 11 continues the somber tone of Chapter 10. School begins for Reuven and Danny, and they are too busy with schoolwork to talk in person, although they talk often on the telephone. Reuven says that he and Danny never get to discuss Danny's reading Freud, a comment he also made in Chapter 10. All Reuven knows is that Danny's reading has upset Danny. Without someone with whom to discuss what he's studying, Danny apparently is becoming depressed and retreating even further from the secular world than before he and Reuven became friends. For example, when Reuven calls Danny following the end of the Battle of the Bulge, in January 1945, and asks him what he thinks about the battle, Danny answers "vaguely" and immediately wants to know when he and Reuven can get together.
President Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945, has a deep emotional effect on Reuven, as it does on everyone in his community. Ironically, Roosevelt's death, sad though it is, also has a positive effect on Reuven, although whether or not he is aware of this positive effect is questionable: He matures as a character because he is forced to deal with grief. By equating Roosevelt's death with Billy's blindness, he finally is able to give a name to his feeling concerning Billy's blindness, a feeling that he has struggled to name since learning that Billy will be blind forever: senselessness. Reuven muses about the president's death, "It was senseless, as — I held my breath, feeling myself shiver with fear — as Billy's blindness was senseless. That was it. It was as senseless, as empty of meaning, as Billy's blindness." The sentence "That was it" in this quoted passage signifies Reuven's growth as a character. He now understands something about himself that he did not recognize before.
One of the greatest contrasts between Reb Saunders and David Malter in the novel is their individual reactions on learning of the inconceivable number of Jews killed in the German concentration camps during World War II. "How the world makes us suffer," Reb Saunders says to Reuven and Danny. "It is the will of God. We must accept the will of God." Because the horror of the deaths is incomprehensible to Reb Saunders, he concludes that the killings are God's will; if God had not let the Holocaust happen, it wouldn't have. He can do nothing but accept that this is God's will. David Malter's reaction is as emotionally strong as Reb Saunders', but he assumes an active role in defining what should now happen following the mass killings. When Reuven tells his father about Reb Saunders' comments concerning God's will, Mr. Malter responds, "We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves . . . . It will have meaning only if we give it meaning." Because Mr. Malter believes that Jews should interact with the secular world, we expect him to take an active role in Jewish world affairs. Likewise, because Reb Saunders' philosophy of life is completely grounded in Hasidism, we expect him to insulate himself within his religion and leave world affairs to the will of God.
Chapter 11 ends in a somber tone, as did Chapter 10. David Malter suffers a heart attack, and Reuven temporarily moves in with Danny's family while his father recuperates.
Reuven's stay with Danny's family allows us to gain a better insight into the Saunders family. Reb Saunders is both physically and emotionally devastated by the slaughter of millions of Jews during World War II. Dark circles form around his eyes, and he walks perpetually bent over. Reuven notes that Reb Saunders is "forever silent, withdrawn, his eyes turned inward, brooding, as if witnessing a sea of suffering he alone could see." Danny's father appears to be internalizing the suffering of his people. Reuven also is concerned that Danny and his father never communicate with each other, as if they are "physically incapable" of speaking warm words of affection.
Danny continues to struggle intellectually and emotionally with much of what he reads concerning Freud. He acknowledges Freud's knowledge of human nature, but he cannot reconcile within himself the less-than-flattering opinion Freud has of humanity, especially given the Holocaust. Reuven says of Freud's theory of human nature and Danny's attempts to understand it, "It tore man from God, as Danny put it, and married him off to Satan." Even Reuven is troubled by the relationship between Freud and religion. However, when he wants to discuss the subject, Danny refuses to do so, as if he alone carries the burden of reconciling Freud and God. Danny's internalizing this burden reminds us of Reb Saunders' carrying all the suffering of his people.
The issue of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine is as contentious a matter between David Malter and Reb Saunders as the Holocaust is. In his hospital bed, recuperating from his heart attack, Mr. Malter tells his son and Danny that Jews cannot wait for God to send a messiah to solve the world's — specifically the Jews' — problems. Jews must act now and establish a Jewish homeland. The only hope that Jews have rests on American Jewry. Reb Saunders, speaking to his family and Reuven one night at supper, emphatically disagrees with Mr. Malter's opinion, although he does not know that Mr. Malter has spoken to Reuven and Danny. Reb Saunders' position is that God — not Jews or any people, all of whom are sinful — is responsible for establishing a Jewish homeland. When God deems that the right time has come for such a homeland, a messiah will come and establish it.
Danny and Reuven's conversation in Chapter 12 concerning first Danny's brother, then Danny's sister, then Danny's father, and finally Danny himself foreshadows Danny's decision to reject the inherited position of leader of his Hasidic community at the end of the novel. Danny reveals very personal information that he has never revealed before to Reuven. For example, he says that he pities his younger brother. However, he is also dependent on his brother in that his future decision not to accept his inherited religious position will be easier to make knowing that his brother can assume the position. His comment that his sister is already promised in marriage stops any intention Reuven might have about dating her. Danny's trusting that his father's motives for demanding silence between them is ironic: Although Danny says that his father is a great man and therefore must have valid reasons not to speak to him, he also comments that his father is intellectually "trapped," which Danny refuses to become. He admires his father but does not want to live his life like him.
Battle of the Bulge a month-long battle (December 1944 to January 1945) in the Ardennes region of northeast France during which the Allies succeeded in holding off German troops and hastened the end of the war in Europe.
K'nigsberg the easternmost city of the German empire; after World War II, it became part of the Soviet Union and was renamed Kalingrad.
Breslau a city in Germany.
Rhine a river that runs through west-central Germany.
Remagen the German city where Allied troops crossed the Rhine River to capture Cologne near the end of World War II.
Sulfa a bacteria-inhibiting drug.
cerebral hemorrhage severe bleeding of the brain.
House of Commons one of two legislative bodies of the British government (the other is the House of Lords).
R. Anthony Eden (1897-1977) British statesman and prime minister (1955-57).
Wailing Wall the holiest place in the world for a religious Jew. The Wailing Wall is the last remnant of the Jewish temple that was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. Jews hold many types of religious services there.
Eretz Yisroel (Eh retz Yees rah ale) Hebrew for the land of Israel.
goyishkeit (goy ish kite) a Jewish colloquial word referring to the culture of a non-Jew.