Potok’s novel The Chosen concerns the tensions of living a religious life in a secular society. This conflict is reflected through an examination of two Jewish communities in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, New York. Two Jewish boys, an ultra-religious Hasidic Jew named Danny Saunders and a Modern Orthodox Jew named Reuven (Roo ven) Malter, discuss the realities of trying to be committed, religiously observant Jews in a secular American society. The main theme in the novel is Danny’s conflict between his desire for secular knowledge and his obligations to his father, Rabbi Saunders, and his father’s followers.
Reuven Malter is the son of Modern Orthodox Jew and teacher David Malter. Even though the elder Malter is religiously observant, he encourages Reuven to explore nonreligious thought. Thus Reuven is thoroughly acquainted with Western secular tradition. But Reuven has conflicts of his own. His father teaches Judaism from a scientific point of view, but the instructor at Hirsch College adheres to a more traditional, religious orientation.
Relationships between fathers and sons are important in The Chosen, especially in the choices of the sons’ careers. Danny’s father expects him to become a rabbi and leader of his Hasidic sect, following the tradition of generations, while Reuven’s father lets him choose his own path.
The novel’s action begins symbolically with a softball game between the Jewish parochial schools that Danny and Reuven attend. Potok sets up the game to highlight the differences between Danny’s branch of Judaism and Reuven’s.
During the softball game, a ball hit by Danny strikes Reuven in the eye and puts him in the hospital. Despite the boys’ initial an-tagonism — Reuven blames Danny for deliberately hitting him with the ball — the boys develop a warm friendship. They discuss their feelings about their respective Jewish sects and about their fathers. Over the course of the novel, The Chosen focuses on and gradually expands Reuven and Danny’s discussions.
Central to the novel are Potok’s concerns about Jews who live in the United States. He asks how much a committed, religious Jew can participate in American society without forfeiting a sense of Jewishness, or the perceptions of what it means to be a Jew. Potok also questions how much an American Jew wanting to participate fully in American society can practice Judaism without giving up the sense of being an American. Can a balance be struck between these two apparently diverse concerns?