The Chosen – Chapter 1

Summary: Chapter 1

I stood in that room for a long time,
watching the sunlight and listening to the sounds on the street outside.
I stood there, tasting the room and the sunlight and the sounds,
and thinking of the long hospital war
(See Important Quotations Explained)

The narrator, Reuven Malter, describes the neighborhood
in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he has lived for the first fifteen
years of his life. Reuven’s neighborhood is populated by Orthodox
Jews, including some Hasidic sects. All the children attend yeshivas—Jewish
parochial schools—in the area. Reuven then mentions Danny Saunders,
a Hasidic friend. Danny and Reuven grew up five blocks away from
each other. However, Reuven explains, the two never met because
Danny’s Hasidic community kept to itself, remaining fiercely loyal
to its own synagogue and customs. Reuven notes that he probably
would never have met Danny if not for the competitive Jewish sports
leagues created during World War II.
One June afternoon, Reuven’s Orthodox Jewish high school softball
team plays a game against Danny’s Hasidic team. As Reuven’s team
warms up, his enthusiastic and martial coach, Mr. Galanter, shouts
out instructions and encouragements. Meanwhile, Reuven’s friend,
Davey Cantor, warns Reuven that their opponents, students at a very
religious yeshiva, are “murderers.” When the yeshiva boys arrive
dressed in their traditional religious garb, Reuven doubts that
they will pose a serious challenge.
The rabbi accompanying the yeshiva team insists that
his boys practice for five minutes on the field before the game
begins, and Mr. Galanter reluctantly agrees. Reuven notices one
particularly strong batter on the yeshiva team, whom Davey identifies
as Danny Saunders, the son of Reb Saunders.
Just before the game begins, the rabbi and
coach of Danny’s team tells his boys to “remember why and for whom
we play.” The Hasidic team bats first, and Reuven takes his position
at second base. After the first two hitters are retired, the third,
a bullish boy named Dov Shlomowitz, smacks a line drive. On his
way around the base path, Dov charges into Reuven, knocking him down.
Danny Saunders bats next, and hits the ball directly at the pitcher’s
head, forcing the pitcher to dive off the mound. Danny makes it
safely to second base, and between batters, Reuven congratulates
Danny on his hit. Danny identifies Reuven as the son of David Malter,
who writes articles on the Talmud. He tells Reuven, “We’re going
to kill you apikorsim this afternoon.” Reuven, struck by Danny’s
rudeness, sarcastically tells him to rub his tzitzit—traditional
fringe—for good luck.
The next time Danny is up at bat, he again smacks the
ball over the pitcher’s head, but Reuven makes a remarkable leaping
catch. By the top half of the fifth and final inning, Reuven’s team
is leading five to three. Reuven takes over as pitcher and baffles
the first hitter he faces, Dov Shlomowitz, with his wicked curveball.
Danny bats next and rings up two strikes as Reuven’s curve dives
below Danny’s swing. Reuven then pitches two balls, but by Reuven’s
fifth pitch, Danny adjusts to the diving action of the curve. He
deliberately swings low and crushes a line drive back toward the
mound. Reuven brings his glove to his face to catch the ball, but
it hits the tip of his glove and bounces back onto his glasses,
shattering them. While lying on the ground, Reuven imagines he sees
Danny smiling at the injury. Reuven sits out for the rest of the
game and watches his team lose eight to seven. After the game, Mr.
Galanter calls a cab to take him to the hospital.
Analysis: Chapter 1
Potok focuses on a handful of motifs and themes
in The Chosen, carefully weaving them throughout
the entire novel. The world of the novel is a carefully controlled,
patiently manipulative, and exclusive environment, much like the
Jewish communities of Williamsburg in which Danny and Reuven grow
up. Both the novel and Williamsburg communities operate as self-contained environments,
within which Potok carefully selects and highlights particular details.
All of the novel’s themes, which develop as the novel
progresses, are introduced in this first chapter. The first of these
themes involves complementary and contrasting pairs of characters
and ideas. The Chosen is constructed around a seemingly
endless series of these pairs, the most obvious of which is Reuven
and Danny. While the two boys’ individual situations contrast with
one another, the boys also parallel each other in many ways. Each
is the star of his softball team, and each makes an intelligent
adjustment within the game—Reuven to catch Danny’s line drive, Danny
to hit Reuven’s curveball—that proves crucial to the game’s outcome.
The most obvious trait shared by Reuven and Danny is their Judaism.
Both boys are clearly devoted to their religion, and they wear clothing
that marks them as observant Jews in the eyes of mainstream American
society.
However, Danny, who is Hasidic, is part of
a very different sect of Judaism than Reuven, who is Orthodox. Danny’s
earlocks and beard differentiate him from Reuven, who is clean-shaven. As
the game progresses, Reuven and Danny come into conflict about their
differing beliefs, to the point where the game itself becomes a
kind of holy war. The warlike game parallels World War II, during
which the novel is set. This parallel introduces the boys’ relationship
to the larger world around them, another important connection in
the book. Mr. Galanter’s constant use of military metaphors makes
this relationship between the game and the war explicit, as does
the boys’ own perception that the game has become a battle of epic
proportions.
At the same time, many facets of the game highlight its
difference and separation from mainstream American life. It is a
softball game, not a baseball game, played on blacktop, not on grass.
Overall, the image of skullcapped youths playing baseball is unusual
and strange. Throughout the book, the characters struggle to figure
out how to reconcile their Jewish faith and tradition with modern American
society. In general, the novel isolates its characters, so that all
the characters, though they may come into conflict with one another,
seem isolated as a group from mainstream American life.
The characters’ isolation relates to the idea that Jews
are “the chosen people,” a community set apart from the rest of
the world. Despite Danny and Reuven’s religious differences, each
must deal with the fact that, by virtue of his birth, he belongs
to the Jewish tradition. As Jews, both Reuven and Danny must deal
with -religious commitments and responsibilities that most children
their age do not have to encounter. The image of the all-Jewish
softball game, foreign to most American readers, highlights the
fact that both boys share a culture that is struggling to find its
place in America.
Finally, this chapter introduces the motifs of vision
and suffering. Acts of seeing, watching, perceiving, and reading
are important in novel. When Reuven is hit in the eye with a ball,
his vision and his perception of the world are placed in serious
jeopardy. Significantly, Danny’s relationship with Reuven begins
as a result of pain that Danny inflicts upon Reuven. Suffering is
a general motif in Jewish tradition and literature, and its full
significance within The Chosen becomes more apparent
as the novel progresses.