Summary and Analysis
Book 2: Chapters 8-10
Danny meets Reuven at the library and reads from Heinrich Graetz's History of the Jews, a history book that is uncomplimentary (and not totally accurate, Mr. Malter later tells Reuven) about Hasidic Judaism. Danny tells Reuven that the picture of Hasidim in Graetz's account is totally alien to what he knows but is distressing nonetheless. Danny then launches into a discussion of psychology, talking about the unconscious, about dreams, and about Sigmund Freud, a pioneer in the field of psychology, known as the father of psychoanalysis.
Later in the evening, Reuven mentions to his father that Danny reads a lot of Freud. Impressed, Mr. Malter says that he feels a little guilty about giving Danny books behind his father's back but does so because Danny would have sought these books eventually anyway.
At the Saunders' house, Reb Saunders, Danny, and Reuven study Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) on Shabbat. While Danny is downstairs getting some tea for them, the Reb talks to Reuven about Danny.
Reb Saunders says that he knows that Danny has been going to the library and wants Reuven to tell him what Danny has been reading. In a very moving speech about Danny, Reb Saunders says that his son is his most precious possession.
Reuven realizes that he has to tell Reb Saunders how Danny met his father and what books Mr. Malter has suggested that Danny read, and he does so. (However, he does not tell the Reb that Danny is teaching himself German, that he plans to read Freud, and that he has read some books on Hasidism.) Reb Saunders is shocked and bewildered at these revelations. He laments to God that he has a brilliant son, but does he have to be so brilliant?
After the meeting with Reb Saunders, Reuven tells Danny that he told his father everything, and Danny replies that his father would have found out about it all anyway. He says that Reb Saunders and he do not talk — except during study time, his father is mostly silent toward him.
Back home, Reuven tells his father about Danny being raised in silence. Neither Reuven nor his father can understand why Reb and Danny cannot communicate with each other.
When Reuven returns to school for the first time after the ball-game accident, his classmates treat him as a hero. Potok again emphasizes Reuven's new outlook on life and his newfound awareness of the world around him. Reuven comments, "So many things had happened, and everything looked so different." Later, when he visits Danny in the public library, Reuven sees things he's never before taken the time to notice, including the murals on the library's interior walls. What catches his attention the most is a mural depicting Homer, whose eyes seem "glazed, almost without pupils, as if the artist had been trying to show that he had been blind." Reuven's comments about Homer's blind-looking eyes recall the time Reuven spent in the hospital and the concern he has for Billy, the young blind boy with whom he shared a room. Reuven no longer takes his eyesight — and, by extension, his life and the people in it — for granted, as he did before the ballgame.
Reuven and Danny's conversation in the public library centers around Danny's reading Hasidic history and learning German so that he can study Freud's original writings on psychology. After reading Graetz's History of the Jews, Danny is horrified that Graetz contends that Hasidic Jews are drunkards. Although he knows that Graetz is wrong about this contention, he internalizes the negative picture of Hasidism that Graetz paints in the book. When Reuven counters that Graetz's writing is only one version and therefore not to be trusted completely, Danny ignores Reuven's comment. Reuven narrates about Danny, "I had the feeling he was talking more to himself than to me." Later, when Reuven summarizes his conversation with Danny for his father, Mr. Malter is especially saddened by Danny's choice of subject. "The unconscious and dreams," Mr. Malter contemplates. "And Freud. At the age of fifteen." Here, Mr. Malter is concerned that, although Danny has the intellect to study Freud's theories of psychology, Danny does not have the emotional maturity necessary to accept or reject valid arguments concerning both Hasidism and Freudian psychology. As Mr. Malter says after Reuven and Danny meet again at the library, "Freud is not God in psychology."
Reuven's second visit to Danny's house to study with Danny and Reb Saunders allows Reuven to describe the living quarters on the brownstone's second and third floors. The family, except for Danny, live on the second floor; Danny's bedroom is on the third floor, along with his father's study. Reuven notes that the walls and ceilings of the brownstone's second and third floors are white, without any pictures hanging on them. The stark setting's lack of personal touches such as family photographs parallels Danny's growing up in silence — the lack of a shared, personal language with his father.
The Talmudic discussion between Danny and his father is heated and confrontational, to the point that Reuven thinks that they might physically hit each other. However, their arguing is also ritualistic in that each knows the strategies of the other in discussing the Talmud; these sessions occur regularly. Reuven, finally understanding that the contest between father and son is friendly yet competitive, notes "an ease about them, an intimacy." He also realizes that Reb Saunders is most proud of and happy with Danny when Danny bests his father concerning Talmudic interpretation. Ironically, then, Reb Saunders demonstrates the love he feels for his son by challenging him about Talmudic meaning rather than affectionately showing his love in a more traditional fashion, as Mr. Malter does with Reuven.
Reb Saunders reveals even more about himself when he discusses with Reuven the affection that he has for his son while Danny is downstairs getting tea. Because Reb Saunders believes that his son should be raised in silence except when discussing the Talmud or religious topics, he has never told Danny that he loves him. Acknowledging that he is well aware that Danny is reading secular material but that he will not — cannot — talk to Danny about it, he says to Reuven, "My son is my most precious possession. I have nothing in the world compared to my son." What is most baffling at this point in the novel is why Reb Saunders will not tell his son that he loves him, why he will not even talk to his son except about religion.
Walking back home with Danny following his visit with Reb Saunders, Reuven asks Danny why his father does not speak to him. Danny is as perplexed about his father's refusal as is Reuven: "My father believes in silence . . . . He told me to stop running tohim every time I had a problem."
Once Reuven returns home and speaks to his father about Danny's father's silence, Reuven gains a better understanding of why Reb Saunders wanted to speak to him alone, without Danny in the room. Mr. Malter explains to Reuven that Reb Saunders spoke to Reuven knowing that Reuven would then speak to Danny. In this way, Reb Saunders has spoken to his son. However, Potok leaves unanswered as yet why Reb Saunders deals with his son in silence. Reb Saunders cannot talk openly with Danny, but Mr. Malter has open, warm communication with Reuven. Potok again shows us the different worlds in which Reuven and Danny live. Yet they are capable of a nurturing friendship.
The brief Chapter 9 centers on Reuven's calling Billy Merrit, the boy with whom he shared a hospital room, and learning from Billy's father that the surgery performed on Billy's eyes was unsuccessful. Billy probably will be blind for the rest of his life.
Despondent over the news about Billy, Reuven wanders aimlessly about the apartment. Note the many references to Reuven's heightened senses. For example, his hands feel very cold, he sees sunlight hitting the leaves of an ailanthus tree — nicknamed the tree of heaven — outside a window and smells its "musty odor," and he hears a fly buzzing. The incident in which he frees the fly from the spider web perhaps suggests Reuven's emotional reaction upon learning Billy's fate. Billy cannot do anything to change his sightless condition. Reuven, emotionally upset about the lack of control that Billy has over his future, assures that the tiniest of creatures does have a future, at least a temporary one. Freeing the fly from the spider web is Reuven's metaphorical attempt to free Billy of his blindness, which, of course, he knows he cannot.
The war news that opens Chapter 10 reminds us of the historical situation that serves as a background to the novel. Reuven and his father diligently follow the news; Danny is too caught up in studying the Talmud to pay attention to world events.
Danny has difficulty learning German in order to read Freud in the original because of the various meanings that German words can have. He frets over one text's translation of a German word compared to another text's translation of the same word. What Danny wants most is for a word to have only one meaning. His outlook on life is based solely on everything being either right or wrong, with no middle ground for compromise. This world view contrasts with Mr. Malter's view, "That is the way the world is." Mr. Malter accepts that things in the world are not usually completely right or completely wrong; Danny does not.
Danny's breakthrough in reading Freud occurs when he realizes that Freud has to be studied, not simply read. He applies the methods he uses to study the Talmud to learning Freud. Although this breakthrough may seem insignificant, it demonstrates that Danny is maturing beyond a wholly religious outlook on life. He is now able to use the knowledge he gains through studying religious topics and apply it to more secular areas of study.
Chapter 10 ends on a somber tone. The summer is over, and Reuven and his father return to the city from their summer vacation; Danny has spent the entire summer studying the Talmud and Freud. Although Reuven and Danny promise each other that they will get together to discuss their summer activities, school begins, and neither one has free time. To a great extent, the end of the chapter foreshadows the boys' separation at the end of the novel.
ionic columns A feature of Greek architecture, an Ionic column is grooved and set on a base.
conjunction in logic, a statement that is true if and only if each of its parts is true.
disjunction in logic, two statements joined with the word or.
equivalence in logic, a relationship between two statements such that either both are true or neither is.
deductive a system of reasoning that works on the premise of "if A, then B" to find the relationships between premises.
draw nigh approach; come near.
pilgrimage a journey to a sacred place.
allusions indirect references.
gall insulting boldness.
goy a Jewish colloquial term for a non-Jew.
Sanhedrin (San head rin) a book in the Talmud.
Avodah Zarah a book in the Talmud dealing with idolatry and superstitions.
Baba Bathra a book in the Talmud.
Rashi a medieval commentator on the Torah and the Talmud.
Cassell's a brand of comprehensive language dictionaries, available in French, Spanish, German, and other languages. Danny uses the German one to assist him in reading Freud.
La-Haye-du-Prits a city in France.
panzer a World War II German tank.
Vire a river in northwestern France.
St.-L a community in northwestern France.
lodgment area the place where soldiers spend the night.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) American novelist.