The Chosen

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World War II and War Theme Analysis

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Judaism and Tradition Theme Icon
Choosing and Being Chosen Theme Icon
Fathers, Sons, and Rebellion Theme Icon
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World War II and War Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Chosen, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
World War II and War Theme Icon

The Chosen starts with a battle, or a near battle, in the form of a softball game between Reuven Malter’s school team and Danny Saunders’s infamously brutal Hasidic team. The Hasidic team plays with such brutality because they have been told that the only way that they will be allowed to have a team is if they make it their religious duty to beat the “apikorsim” (Jews who do not believe in god, or in this case are not Hasidic). This immediately introduces the idea of cultural or religious differences as a reason for battle or war.

They are also playing softball because of America’s entry into war. Jews felt the need to “show the gentile world that Yeshiva students were as physically fit, despite their long hours of study, as other American students.” During the game Reuven Malter’s coach, Mr. Galanter, calls him and his teammates “soldiers,” especially as the game becomes more violent, ending in Reuven’s injury. Although this is the last mention of softball in the book, war continues to serve as the background for almost the entire novel. Reuven and his father follow the battles of World War II, first on the radio in the hospital and then aided by maps cut out from the newspaper and hung all over their home.

After the actual battles end, the news of the Holocaust has an even greater impact on their lives. The pain and horror caused by the atrocities of the Holocaust brings David Malter out of his isolated community and into the wider world. David Malter becomes an important leader in the Zionist movement (a push for a Jewish state in Palestine) and the first mention of Manhattan (or any area that the family has been to outside Brooklyn) comes when he attends a Zionist movement at Madison Square Garden. His son does not go, further highlighting that this is a great distance for the Malters. WWII and its aftermath brought this small Brooklyn community into global affairs.

The discussion of a Jewish homeland also creates conflict in Williamsburg, highlighting the differences between the different sects that live so close together. The Hasidic Jews are violently against Zionism because they fear the possibility of a secular Jewish state, other Jews in the community believe that it is important to take action now that 6 million of their people have been killed, and that Jews need a country that they can make safe for their people, whether or not they are deeply devout.

Through the fights and arguments that break out on the streets and in school, The Chosen demonstrates different perspectives on how to deal with suffering. The Hasidic view is to take on the suffering of others and deal with it through silence, prayer and study of God, all while continuing to wait for the coming of the Messiah. Other Orthodox Jews, like David Malter, believe that action must be taken to save the Jewish community--in this case a Jewish state. He believes that they can wait no longer and so in spite of his orthodox views he works to bring even non-practicing Jews over to his cause. WWII endangers the future of Judaism and The Chosen depicts how different Jewish Americans separate from yet affected by Holocaust can to react.

World War II and War ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of World War II and War appears in each chapter of The Chosen. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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World War II and War Quotes in The Chosen

Below you will find the important quotes in The Chosen related to the theme of World War II and War.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I felt myself suddenly very angry, and it was at that point that for me the game stopped being merely a game and became a war.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

In the opening scene of the novel, Reuven and his friends play a game of softball against a group of Hasidic Jews. Although it's "just a game," Reuven feels himself competing with the Hasidic Jews for religious reasons--it's as if both sides are fighting over who the "real" Jews are.

The scene is full of symbolic undertones. Keep in mind that the characters are playing a game of softball--an all-American sport. Thus, the scene is a metaphor for the way that different ethnic groups (the Hasidic and Orthodox Jews) compete with one another under the facade of assimilating with American culture. Furthermore, note that the warlike game of softball takes place at the same time as an actual American war: America's involvement in World War II, a war that was fought partly to end the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. Ironically, Reuven is "warring" with other Jews when--it's implied--he should be joining forces with them against anti-Semites around the world.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

“We are like other people, Reuven. We do not survive disaster merely by appealing to invisible powers. We are as easily degraded as any other people.”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker), Reuven Malter
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Mr Malter tells Reuven about the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. As Malter sees it, the Hasidics have always been too superstitious; too willing to believe that God will protect them through all their trials and tribulations. In Poland, the Hasidic population endured tremendous suffering: the leaders of Poland slaughtered thousands of innocent Jews. Years later, during the Holocaust, Polish Jews were sent to concentration camps to die.

As Malter sees it, the Hasidics have always been too naive in their acceptance of "disaster." Instead of using logic and rationality to solve their problems, the Hasidics have always appealed to "invisible powers"--i.e., God.

It's important to notice how pain and suffering are integral parts of what it means to be Jewish, at least as Mr. Malter sees it. For a Jew, the question is--how do we respond to tragedy? In large part, the rivalries and arguments that we see between the different types of Judaism reflect Jewish communities' different responses to the historical tragedies that Mr. Malter alludes to here.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“I feel like a cowboy surrounded by Indians.”

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker)
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Danny takes Reuven to the local (Hasidic) synagogue. Reuven has never spent so much time around so many Hasidic Jews; he's always stayed within the Orthodox community. Reuven feels awkward and "foreign" among the Hasids: he compares his situation to that of a cowboy surrounded by Indians.

Once again, Potok emphasizes the big differences between the two Jewish communities, Hasidic and Orthodox--differences which, while large from Reuven's perspective, are basically invisible to the majority of the world. At this point in the novel, Reuven still feels uncomfortable outside his own ethnic and religious group--he's too unfamiliar with Danny's community to feel at ease there. Cowboys and Indians are, traditionally speaking, enemies, suggesting that Reuven still feels some leftover antagonism with the Hasids.

Notice also that Reuven frames his discomfort in distinctly American terms. Reuven is an Orthodox Jew, but he shows his awareness of broader American culture (baseball, cowboys, etc.). Reuven is a Jew, but he's an American Jew.

I didn’t agree at all with his notions of the world as being contaminated. Albert Einstein is part of the world, I told myself. President Roosevelt is part of the world. The millions of soldiers fighting Hitler are part of the world.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker), Reb Isaac Saunders
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuven listens to a sermon delivered by Reb Saunders, the leader of the Hasidic community in Williamsburg. Reb claims that without the laws of the Torah, the world is "contaminated"--i.e., it's a dirty, immoral place.

Privately, Reuven disagrees with what Reb says. The world isn't divided between good and evil, black and white, Hasidic and non-Hasidic. On the contrary, Reuven believes, there are plenty of "good" people who don't embrace the letter of the Torah: Einstein, Roosevelt, etc. Reuven's more nuanced view of the world suggests that he's more assimilated with his American community: unlike Reb, he has respect for quintessentially American (and secular) figures like FDR.

Chapter 9 Quotes

A spider had spun a web across the corner of the upper rail, and there was a housefly trapped in it now, its wings spread-eagled, glued to the strands of the web, its legs flaying the air frantically.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important bit of foreshadowing, Reuven sees a housefly trapped in a web, about to be eaten by a spider. Reuven is struck by the way the housefly wriggles in pain--it seems to know that it's about to be eaten. Symbolically, the scene anticipates the news of the Holocaust--the greatest tragedy to the Jewish people in the 20th century, and perhaps in recorded history. The nihilistic mood of the scene is surprising: Potok seems to suggest that death and suffering (symbolized by the fly's fate) are natural parts of the universe. The duty of the Jews, then, is to transcend inevitable death and suffering through the strength of their faith.

Chapter 11 Quotes

It was as senseless, as – I held my breath, feeling myself shiver with fear – as Billy’s blindness was senseless. That was it. It was as senseless, as empty of meaning, as Billy’s blindness. I lay there and thought of Roosevelt being dead and Billy being blind, and finally I turned over and lay with my face on the pillow and felt myself crying. I cried a long time.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker), Billy Merrit
Related Symbols: Eyes and Blindness
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the low points of the book, Reuven receives word of Frank Delano Roosevelt's death, the horrors of the Holocaust, and his friend Billy's failed medical operation, all within a few days of each other. Reuven is overcome by the senseless tragedy of the world: there's so much pain and suffering around him.

Reuven's behavior in this scene indicates how compassionate he's become: he's genuinely moved by the pain of other people. At the same time, the scene represents a challenge to Reuven's faith in God--like so many religious people in the 40s and 50s, he questions how a just God could possibly allow so much tragedy to occur.

“The world kills us,” he said quietly.” Ah, how the world kills us.” … “The world drinks our blood,” Reb Saunders said. “How the world makes us suffer. It is the will of God. We must accept the will of God.”

Related Characters: Reb Isaac Saunders (speaker)
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Reb Saunders responds to the senseless tragedy of the Holocaust. Saunders--just like Reuven--is nearly overcome with the magnitude of the tragedy. Six million innocent Jews have been murdered, simply because of their religion. Saunders--knowing full-well that an entire community is looking to him for guidance and reassurance--gives the only interpretation of the Holocaust that his faith allows him to give. He concludes that the Holocaust, while horrible, is a reflection of the will of God, and therefore must be accepted by the Jewish community.

Saunders' behavior reflects both the weakness and the strength of the Hasidic community. The way he accepts the facts of the Holocaust might seem rather weak-willed: instead of trying to overturn tragedy, he just acknowledges it. And yet Saunders also seems incredibly strong in this scene. Instead of savagely looking for vengeance upon the Nazis who committed such enormous crimes, he takes the high ground. All Jews in the world have to come to terms with the Holocaust, sooner or later: because of his boundless love for God, Saunders is able to come to terms with tragedy and be a pillar of strength for his followers.

“I am not satisfied with it either, Reuven. We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves.”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker), Reuven Malter
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Malter here gives Reuven his own interpretation of the Holocaust. Mr. Malter takes offense to the quiet, almost passive way that Reb Saunders accepts the tragedy of the Holocaust as "God's will." Whether or not the tragedy is God's will, Malter insists, Jews can't just wait around for God to make the tragedy better. Instead, they need to mobilize their ranks and find ways to care for Holocaust survivors, repairing the Jewish communities that were devastated by the Nazis. In short, where Saunders responds to tragedy with calm, arguably noble acceptance, Malter responds with action.

In a nutshell, Malter and Saunders's responses to the Holocaust sum up the differences between Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism, while also reminding us that the differences between types of Judaism have always reflected the differences in the ways human beings cope with pain. Hasidism accepts pain and moves past it, trusting that God will resolve all human problems in the end; Orthodoxy tries to remedy pain with concrete, real-world action.

Chapter 13 Quotes

“It is beginning to happen everywhere in America. A religious renaissance some call it.”

Related Characters: David Malter (speaker)
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mr. Malter explains to Reuven that the Jewish-American culture is rapidly changing. After the atrocities of the Holocaust, many non-observant Jews are turning back to their synagogues for guidance and comfort. Malter mentions his non-observant friends, who have unexpectedly donated large amounts of money to their temples. Throughout the country, Jews are uniting together in the face of tragedy.

Note that Mr. Malter doesn't necessarily claim that the changes in Jewish culture are a "religious renaissance"--he just suggests that they could be interpreted that way. Perhaps the changes Malter describes are cultural more than religious. While some non-observant Jews are rediscovering their faith in God, many more are turning back to their religious communities for reasons that have nothing to do with religious faith. A temple isn't just a place for Jews to worship God; it's a place for them to feel a sense of love and community. Following the atrocities of the Holocaust, Jews feel a need to rekindle their communities, recognizing that religion provides comfort and acceptance, not just faith.

Chapter 14 Quotes

The death of six million Jews had finally been given meaning, he kept saying over and over again. It had happened. After two thousand years, it had finally happened. We were a people again, with our own land. We were a blessed generation. We had been give the opportunity to see the creation of the Jewish state.

Related Characters: Reuven Malter (speaker), David Malter
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Following the events of the Holocaust, a schism breaks out in the Jewish community. There are some, like Reuven's father, who see the Holocaust as paving the way for the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. As Mr. Malter argues, Israel will give "meaning" to the meaningless tragedy of the Holocaust: it will finally give the Jews a homeland (the very thing they've been lacking for thousands of years).

It's characteristic of Mr. Malter's worldview that he manages to find a "silver lining" even in a tragedy as horrific as the Holocaust. Malter cannot allow himself to accept pain and suffering--he's always trying to take action to reduce pain. Here, for example, Malter tries to mobilize the Jews in his community to support the establishment of an Israeli state. (The sad part about the post-Holocaust Zionist movement, Potok acknowledges, it that it tore apart the Jewish community once again. Some of the Jews in the country believed in a Jewish state; others bitterly opposed it.)