The Chosen – Chapters 11–12

Summary: Chapter 11
That school year, Reuven is elected president of his class.
Although he and Danny still meet regularly on Shabbat afternoons,
they never get around to discussing Freud. In the winter, the Germans
launch a major offensive; everyone is preoccupied with the events
of the war and with keeping track of American casualties. After
several exciting rumors that the war is nearing an end, Danny catches
the flu and is bedridden for a week.
On a Thursday afternoon in April, Reuven learns that
President Roosevelt has passed away. The news devastates Reuven.
He had thought of FDR as being immortal, and he compares hearing
the news of his death to hearing that God died. He returns home
to listen to the radio with his teary-eyed father. Less than a week
after Roosevelt’s death, Reuven comes home from school with a high fever
and is bedridden for ten days. That May, Reb Saunders and Reuven’s
father also become sick. They are both seriously ill when the world
learns that the War in Europe has ended.
At first everyone is joyous following the
news of the surrender, but then the terrible reports of the German
concentration camps shock and sadden the Jewish community. David
Malter breaks down in tears, and Reuven is overwhelmed by the stories
of destruction and devastation. Danny’s father talks wistfully of
the Jewish world in Europe and of the brutal persecution Jews have experienced
throughout history. The next Shabbat, Danny and Reuven meet with
Danny’s father, but they do not study Talmud. Instead, Reb Saunders
speaks mournfully about European Jewry and questions how God could
let such terrible things happen. Reb Saunders’s conclusion, that
everything must be a part of God’s will, is an answer neither Reuven
nor his father can accept. David Malter tells Reuven that it is
up to Jews in America to preserve Jewish tradition, now that Hitler
has destroyed most Jewish culture in Europe.
After Reuven’s final exams that year, his father suffers
a heart attack. In the first few frightening days following the
episode, Reuven is cared for by Manya, the Malters’ housekeeper,
but soon Reb Saunders invites Reuven to live with him while Reuven’s
father recovers in the hospital. On the first day of July, Reuven
moves into Danny’s room.
Summary: Chapter 12
The Saunderses treat Reuven like a member of
the family. Danny’s mother constantly heaps food on his plate, and
Danny’s sister jokingly teases the boys, calling them David and
Jonathan, the inseparable biblical pair. Levi Saunders, Danny’s
brother, floats around the house, sickly and silent. Most perplexing, Danny’s
father broods constantly and occasionally breaks into tears for
no apparent reason.
Danny and Reuven spend all their time together. They finally have
the discussions they were unable to have during the busy school
year. Danny patiently explains Freud to Reuven, and Reuven is astounded
by the depth of Danny’s knowledge and by the unsettling nature of
Freud’s theories.
During Reuven’s visits to his father in the hospital,
Mr. Malter speaks passionately about the need to build a Jewish
homeland in Palestine. One morning, Reuven raises the topic of Zionism
with Reb Saunders. Reb Saunders flies into a rage and screams that
the activities of the secular Zionists are sacrilegious because
it is profane to build a Jewish home in Israel before the arrival
of the Messiah. Danny tells Reuven that if Reb Saunders knew of
David Malter’s Zionist beliefs, he would throw Reuven out of the
house. Reuven never mentions the topic again in front of Reb Saunders,
and Reb Saunders seems to forget the incident.
A few weeks later, while Reuven and Danny
are studying in the library together, Danny confesses that one of
the main reasons he worries about his brother Levi’s health is that
he wants Levi to take over his father’s Hasidic dynasty so that
he himself can study psychology. Danny remarks that the day he breaks
this news to his father, he will need to have Reuven nearby for
support. Reuven tries to change the subject by coyly mentioning Danny’s
sister. Danny quietly and peremptorily informs his friend that his
sister was promised in marriage at the age of two, and the subject
is never discussed between them again.
In August, Reuven and his father again go to their cottage
near Peekskill, where his father recovers from his illness. That
month, the United States drops atomic bombs on Japan, and the war
with Japan ends. That fall, Reuven and Danny enter Hirsch College,
and Danny begins to wear glasses.
Analysis: Chapters 11–12
In Chapter 11, Potok alternates
between personal and historical tragedies, showing suffering to
exist on both an individual and a societal level. The news of the
German offensive is followed by news of Levi’s illness. As the war
in Europe intensifies, Danny falls sick with the flu. Roosevelt’s
death is followed by Reuven’s fever, and David Malter’s and Reb
Saunders’s illnesses. Then the terrible revelation of the concentration
camps is followed by David Malter’s heart attack. Although the historical
tragedies do not directly cause the characters’ illnesses, Potok
links historical events to plot developments to demonstrate that
World War II is not merely a backdrop for the novel, but an integral
force in its characters’ lives.
Following the news of President Roosevelt’s death, Reuven directly
states one of the novel’s themes for the first time. He makes a
connection between Roosevelt’s death and Billy’s blindness, saying
that both events are “senseless” and “empty of meaning.” Later in
the chapter, the discovery of the concentration camps exponentially
amplifies this feeling that the world is full of senseless suffering.
The news of the Holocaust leads Reuven—as well as all other Jews—to
question faith and religion.
Each of the novel’s characters reacts differently to
the challenge the Holocaust poses to believing in an all-knowing,
ever-present God. Upon learning of the concentration camps, both
David Malter and Reb Saunders weep for the loss of millions of European
Jews. However, Reb Saunders accepts the Holocaust as God’s will
and, according to a strict and conservative interpretation of Jewish
tradition, feels that Jews must wait for the Messiah to come to
lead them to the Promised Land. Mr. Malter, on the other hand, argues
that Jews cannot wait for God any longer; they must rebuild Jewry
in America and found a Jewish state in Palestine. Although both
men are deeply and profoundly pained by the mass extermination of
the Jewish people, their political responses are radically different.
Reb Saunders looks to Jewish tradition and its prophecy for comfort, while
David Malter would rather create a new homeland than wait for the
promises of a tradition—a tradition that the horror of the Holocaust
calls into question.
In Chapter 12, Reuven’s experience
of living with the Malter family deepens his and our perception
of Reb Saunders as a character. He relates that Reb Saunders randomly
bursts into tears and walks as though there is “some kind of enormous
burden on his shoulders.” These mysterious moments suggest that
Reb Saunders isn’t as certain of his beliefs and actions as he appears
to be.
Both Reuven and Danny share the burden of being Jews,
of being part of the “chosen people” by virtue of their birth. In
Danny’s conversation with Reuven about feeling “trapped,” Danny
discusses how he also feels the burden of being chosen to succeed
his father. He asks Reuven if he knows what it is like to feel trapped,
and Reuven replies, somewhat hesitantly, that he does not. That
Danny feels such a greater burden than Reuven suggests that the
novel is more about conflict between fathers and sons than about
conflict with religion and tradition. Such a perspective, however,
is too simple, because Danny’s problems with his father stem largely
from issues of religion and tradition.