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.
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