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The Importance of Relationships
A key theme in the novel is the importance of relationships. The book centers on the friendship of Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders. It is a relationship born out of diverse backgrounds. Though both boys are Jewish, Danny is Hasidic, and his family rigidly adheres to the traditions, customs, and beliefs presented in the Talmud. Reuven comes from a more liberal background; his father is a broad-minded, intelligent, and politically active professor. Despite their diversity, the two boys help one another greatly. Reuven longs to become a rabbi, and Danny helps him with the study of the Talmud since his own father is a rabbi. More importantly, Reuven and his father help Danny to come to terms with his life. His confusion is given direction by Mr. Malter, and his soul is given understanding and solace in Reuven's friendship.
The importance of a relationship between father and son is also depicted in the novel. Reuven, the only son of his widowed father, shares a warm, loving, and caring relationship with Mr. Malter. He is not afraid to talk to his father about any subject and knows that Mr. Malter will give him sound advice and comfort. In contrast, Danny feels he has no relationship with his own father. Since the rabbi is raising his son in silence, according to Hasidic tradition, Danny cannot discuss anything with him that is not related to the Talmud; as a result, he suffers from a sense of loneliness, isolation, and confusion, which the Malters help him to overcome. As Danny matures, however, he begins to understand his father's silence and even feels there are nuances and meanings within the quietness. As a result, when his father finally speaks to him and blesses his career choice, Danny can fully respond and appreciate all that his father has given him, in spite of the silence. He finally realizes that there has always been a relationship between Reb Saunders and himself.
The Difficulty of Growing Up
The novel is really a coming of age story of two young teenage boys who grow into early manhood during the course of the book. Life is not easy for either Reuven or Danny. Danny suffers from a silent father who expects him to become a rabbi himself. Reuven has no mother, for she died when he was very young, and his father suffers from poor health. Since both boys are Jewish and very bright, they do not have many friends; as a result, they need each other. Reuven and his father help Danny to accept who he is and learn about the secular world outside the Talmud; Danny and his father help Reuven to understand the Talmud and his religion. Both boys share their problems and concerns with each other and help one another with their studies. But even their close friendship is not smooth.
When the Zionist movement breaks out in America, Mr. Malter becomes an active spokesman in favor of the creation of the State of Israel. The conservative Rabbi Saunders disapproves of Malter's activism and forbids his son to remain friends with Reuven. Both boys are distraught over the separation; Reuven particularly suffers when his father again becomes very ill, and he has no close friend to comfort him. Danny can only look at him sympathetically and touch his hand in comfort. Both boys also struggle with their career choices. Ironically, Reuven wants to become a rabbi, even though his father would prefer him to choose a secular career, while Rabbi Saunders expects his son to become a rabbi when Danny longs to be a psychologist. By the time they complete Hirsch College, the two young, who have again become close friends, are ready to pursue their chosen careers, and both have the support of their fathers; but it was not an easy journey.
The Horror of War
Another important theme in the novel is the horror of war, as depicted in the Second World War, which rages in the background of almost the entire book. Although the Jews in America are physically removed from the terror inflicted by Hitler, they are profoundly affected by it mentally and emotionally. They listen in horror to the tales of the torture and extermination of the European Jews. In reaction to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, many American Jews join the Zionist movement, seeking to form a Jewish nation in the Holy Land. Mr. Malter's participation in the Zionist movement is what causes the friendship of Reuven and Danny to be stopped by Rabbi Saunders. The boys, therefore, feel a direct affect from the horror of war.
Man's Inability to Get Along with his Fellow Man
The minor theme of enmity between people has been depicted to give the readers a glimpse of how human beings sometimes hurt one another. Even though they are all Jewish, the Hasidic Jews fight with the Conservative Jews and believe themselves to be superior to their more liberal neighbors. The enmity between the sects even comes out in a baseball game between the young Jewish boys. Danny is determined to beat Reuven's team to prove that the Hasids are better. In his eagerness to show his superiority, he bats a ball directly at Reuven, injuring his eye. The only good thing to come out of the enmity is the friendship between the two boys. But even this friendship is disrupted by the enmity between the Jews. Rabbi Saunders demands that Danny suspend his friendship with Reuven because his father has become an active Zionist. In addition, on the college campus, the students even get into fistfights over the Zionist issue. Chaim Potok clearly points out in the book the difficulty of people getting along, even when they are of the same race and basic background.
THE MEANING OF THE TITLE:
The "chosen" has several levels of meaning. First, and most obviously, it refers to the Jewish people as the chosen people of God, as clearly indicated in the Old Testament of the Bible. It also can refer to Reb Saunders and his son, Danny. The father was the chosen one to become the Hasidic rabbi of his people and to lead them from the suffering endured in Russia to the promised land of America. Now it is expected that Danny will become the next chosen rabbi of his people, following in his father's footsteps. Most significantly, however, Reuven is a chosen one. He has been selected to become Danny's friend and the go between for Danny and his silent father.