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
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.
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.