Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES
Although Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders are both Jewish boys who had lived in the same neighborhood in Williamsburg since their childhoods, their paths had never crossed until they played against each other in a baseball game. Reb Saunders, Danny's father, is the rabbi for a sect of Russian Hasidic Jews. The Hasidic Jews are extremely orthodox, following their customs faithfully. The men wear black skullcaps, full beards, and long ear locks (side curls). The Hasidic children attend their own parochial school, away from the other neighborhood children. In class they study the Talmud and their Jewish faith and tradition in the morning; in the afternoon, they follow a normal American secular curriculum. Danny Saunders attends the small Hasidic "yeshiva" (school).
David Malter is an instructor in a different "yeshiva," the one that Reuven attends. It is a much more liberal school that emphasizes a normal American secular curriculum; as a result, it is looked down upon by other more traditional Jewish students and their parents. The school is also criticized for conducting its lessons in Hebrew, a situation that the Hasidic Jews consider blasphemous, for Hebrew is the language of the Lord.
Danny and Reuven play baseball for opposing teams. Reuven's coach is Mr. Galanter, and Danny's coach is a rabbi. When the game between the two teams begins, Reuven's team feels quite certain that they will be victorious, believing a rabbi to be an unlikely coach. In truth, none of the gangly young men play baseball very well. They invariably fail to hit the ball and are put out easily.
Reuven's team is taunted by their opponents. They shout, "Burn in hell, you apikorsim!" The slanderous word is meant to be a slur against Jews who do not wear side curls and beards. Frustrated by the taunts and the fact that his team is not winning, Davey Cantor, one of Reuven's friends on his team, suggests to Reuven that they cheat to win. Reuven, however, dismisses the suggestion even though he is also feeling frustrated.
The rabbi's team is determined to win, especially Danny. When he comes up to bat, he hits the ball so solidly that it almost knocks down Schwartzie, the pitcher. Reuven's team bounces back and is close to victory. Then Danny comes up to bat again. He hits the ball with such venomous force that it hits Reuven on the head and shatters his glasses, injuring his left eye. Even though his vision is blurred, Reuven is certain that Danny is maliciously grinning at him, which angers the boy.
Danny's team wins the game, and Reuven is taken to the hospital by Mr. Galanter to have his eye checked.
This opening chapter is largely introductory. The time of the book, during and after World War II, is clearly established. The author also explains much about Williamsburg and the Eastern European Jewish communities that have developed there. He then discusses the ways of the Hasidic Jews, the sect to which Danny belongs, and compares them to the more liberal Jewish sects, to which Reuven belongs. He also begins to develop the two main characters, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter. Additionally, he establishes Reuven as the first person narrator of the story.
Potok clearly establishes the fact that there is a rivalry amongst the Jews who live in Williamsburg. On the block where Reuven lives, there are three clusters of Jewish inhabitants, each with its own form of Jewish faith, ranging from orthodox to liberal. Each Jewish sect feels it is better than the others. The Hasidic Jews, who are extremely traditional, feel that they are more righteous than everyone else; but there is a division even amongst this sect. One Hasidic sect drinks tea from samovars and speaks in Russian Yiddish; another sect from Southern Poland wears black hats, black coats, black beards, and ear locks.
Although Reuven and Danny are both young Jewish men, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Danny's upbringing is very orthodox; he attends a parochial school that is taught in Yiddish and that emphasizes the tenets of the traditional Jewish faith. Reuven's upbringing is much more liberal. He attends a school that is more secular. His father, an instructor at the "yeshiva" that Reuven attends, gives his son much more physical and intellectual space than Danny enjoys. Because the two boys attend different schools and come from very different backgrounds, they have never met, even though they both live in Jewish neighborhoods in Williamsburg.
The competition between the Jewish sects is even seen on the baseball field. When Danny's team, appropriately coached by a rabbi, plays Reuven's team, they call them names and shout slurs about Reuven and the others not being orthodox. The insults heighten the rivalry, and both teams desperately want to be victorious to prove their prowess. Just when it seems that Reuven's team will win the big match, Danny comes up to bat and solidly hits the ball. It strikes Reuven on the head, breaking his glasses and injuring his left eye. As he leaves the field, Reuven is certain that Danny is laughing at him, which angers Reuven. At the end of the chapter, the reader is made to wonder if Danny intentionally and savagely hit Reuven with the ball.