The narrator of The Chosen is Reuven Malter, a Jewish teenager in Brooklyn who tells that he grew up several blocks away from Danny, not knowing of his existence until he was fifteen. The area in which Danny lives is populated by Russian Hasidic Jews who were fiercely loyal to Danny's father. There were also other Hasidic sects nearby, populated with their own rabbis that hold their own loyalties. Danny attends a small yeshiva (Jewish parochial school), while Reuven attends the yeshiva in which his father teaches in Crown Heights, one which offers more English subjects and uses Hebrew instead of Yiddish.
Danny and Reuven only meet because of the desire of Jewish parochial teachers to show the physical fitness of their students by organizing into competitive athletic leagues. Reuven plays for the softball team, led by Mr. Galanter, a gym instructor in his early thirties. Reuven plays against a team of Orthodox students, each with a crisp uniform that contrasts with Reuven's more casual team. Davey Cantor warns Reuven of Danny Saunders of the opposing team, the son of Reb Saunders. Danny Saunders hits a double and ends at Reuven's base. While on base, Danny asks Reuven if his father is David Malter and tells Reuven that his team will kill "you apikorsim" this afternoon (apikoros, plural apikorsim, means a Jew who denies the basic tenets of his faith, indicating one who accepts Darwinism, for example). To Danny, Reuven is an apikoros because he goes to a school that teaches more English. Reuven's father dislikes these types of Hasidic Jews for their fanatic sense of righteousness. Reuven scrapes his elbow catching a hit by Danny, but continues playing. Reuven later pitches against Danny, who after several pitches hits the ball back at Reuven, hitting him in his left eye, shattering his glasses.
In The Chosen, Chaim Potok uses the relationship between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter as symbolic of the greater social and political problems faced by American Jews during the mid-twentieth century, a time in which they faced such tragedies as the Holocaust and the tension during the establishment of Israel as a secular Jewish state. In fact, both of these issues play a significant role later in the novel. While Danny Saunders is an orthodox, Hasidic Jew whose faith is strict and dogmatic, Reuven Malter views the world from a more secular and liberal viewpoint. The point of conflict between Danny and Reuven when they meet is thus the issue of assimilation into American society. For Reuven, assimilation into the broader American culture is natural and acceptable, as shown by his attendance at a yeshiva that teaches a more standard English curriculum, while Danny and his fellow Hasid resist this move away from their tradition.
The major conflict in this chapter is thus not between Jews and gentiles, but in fact between liberal and conservative Jewish sects that view each other with a sense of distrust and contempt; Reuven's father dislikes the fanatic Hasidic sense of righteousness, while Danny has great disdain for 'apikorsim' as traitors to the Jewish faith. However, Potok imbues the conflict in this chapter with a sense of irony: the two Jewish sects fight a metaphorical battle over assimilation on a baseball field, one of the most prominent symbols of the dominant American culture. Furthermore, the reason that both teams play softball is to combat prevalent stereotypes of Jewish culture; thus both teams attempt to modify their behavior to fit the expectations of American culture.
In this first chapter, Potok constructs the currently antagonistic relationship between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter as the center bond of the novel. Potok portrays Danny as an exemplar, the most formidable player that Reuven faces, while Danny's mention of Reuven's father suggests that there is some hidden connection between the two boys. The development of this relationship between the two boys and the revelation of its meanings will provide a great deal of the narrative force of the novel.
Mr. Galanter takes Reuven to the Brooklyn Memorial Hospital. Mr. Galanter tells Reuven that he has never seen a boy hit the ball like Danny did. Reuven worries about how his father will react to learning that he is injured. Dr. Snydman, a man with a warm smile whom Reuven likes immediately, examines his eye and tells him that he will be taken to the eye ward. Reuven remains in a room with Tony Savo, another patient in his middle thirties who asks how his head is, as well as Billy, a boy of ten or eleven with light blond hair. Reuven introduces himself, but when Mr. Savo has trouble with his name he claims his name is Robert. Mr. Savo was a professional prizefighter. Reuven tells Billy what he looks like, since Billy cannot see. He was in a car accident. David Malter arrives, and tells Reuven that there was glass in his eye and he will come home in a few days after his eye heals, but Dr. Snydman is not sure whether the eye will totally heal. His father also tells Reuven that Reb Saunders called to apologize for his son. Reuven tells his father how Danny Saunders called him an apikoros and how he believes that Danny intended to hurt him. David tells his son that he is forbidden to read until his eye heals, and gives him a radio and his tefillin and prayer book.
Potok continues to develop the theme of assimilation in this chapter, in which Reuven finds himself in Brooklyn Memorial Hospital among patients who know little about Jewish culture. The encounter between Tony Savo and Reuven Malter illustrates this theme: rather than correcting Mr. Savo when he has difficulty pronouncing his name, Reuven merely tells him that his name is "Robert." This is the only major instance in the novel in which Reuven or any of the major characters has significant contact with a gentile, thus it is important to demonstrate the lack of understanding toward Jewish culture and the separation of Reuven and, more significantly Danny, from the more secular American society. Tony Savo's difficulty pronouncing Reuven's name is no sign of anti-Semitism, but nevertheless shows the problems of total acceptance into American culture.
More importantly, the chapter establishes the relationship between Reuven Malter and his father. Reuven holds a great sense of respect and admiration for his father, yet worries greatly about how his father will react to his accident, perhaps even more than he worries about his own fate. Potok also indicates the honesty and open communication between Reuven and his father, as shown by Reuven's free admission of the argument between him and Danny.
The introduction of Danny's father introduces two major themes that will predominate The Chosen. The first is the relationship between fathers and sons; the direct and open relationship between Reuven and David Malter will contrast between the interaction between Danny and Reb Saunders that will be described in later chapters. The second theme is intellectual scholarship. Each of the four major characters (Danny, Reuven and their respective fathers) places a high value on different forms of study, whether of mathematics or the Talmud. Reuven's inability to study while his eye heals provides a major change in his daily routine, this showing the significant presence of study within his household and his daily life.
Reuven awakes when he hears shouting and cheering. The radio is blaring as news of D-Day arrives. Mr. Savo is awake and walking around the hallway, and Mrs. Carpenter, a nurse, orders him to bed. Mr. Savo plays catch with Mickey, a little boy who has been in the hospital nearly all of his six years. He tells Reuven how important the event is. Mr. Savo asks Reuven if he will be a priest since he is religious, but Reuven says that his father wants him to be a mathematician but he wants to be a rabbi.
Mr. Galanter visits and tells Reuven how lucky he is, and Danny Saunders also visits. Danny apologizes and Reuven says that he does not hate him but asks why Danny is only miserable and how he can sleep nights. The two argue, and Danny calls him an apikoros once again. When David Malter visits, Reuven tells him about Danny's visit. Danny visits a second time because something about the baseball game bothers him. He says that he was angry because Reuven pitched him some curve balls, and as he speaks about baseball he talks like an average boy despite the clothes of a Hasid. They discuss their workload from the Talmud, and Danny has four blatt to do each day while Reuven only manages with one. Danny says that he wants to be a psychologist, and admits that he felt that he had to win on account of his father. Reuven thanks Danny for coming to see him, and Danny promises to visit again tomorrow.
The news of D-Day that arrives at the hospital ward serves as a reminder of events contemporary to the novel and helps to place the novel in a historic perspective. The setting of the novel at the end of World War II is significant as preparation for later contemporary events critical in The Chosen. The setting of the novel also mirrors the development of the characters, for the characters find themselves at critical turning points that reflect the shifts in a greater sociopolitical context.
The unlikely friendship between Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders develops in this chapter, in which Potok contrasts these two protagonists in an interesting manner. Despite Danny's Hasidic background and earlier behavior, Potok portrays Danny Saunders as the more conventional and perhaps more secularly-minded of the two boys; Reuven is surprised to find Danny, in the clothes of a Hasid, speaking about baseball like an average boy, while Danny expresses interest in the very secular profession of psychology. In contrast, the more liberal Reuven Malter wishes to become a rabbi, a profession seemingly more suited to the Orthodox Danny. Even the names of these characters highlight this ironic twist: while others have difficulty pronouncing the name Reuven Malter, Danny Saunders has an English name that suggests assimilation.
David Malter enters a few minutes later, and tells Reuven that he will be able to go home on Friday, but will not be able to read for another ten days. Reuven tells him how Danny visited today, and he is surprised to learn how Reuven now likes Danny. David tells his son how the Talmud instructs that a person should find a teacher and a friend. He tells Reuven to make Danny Saunders his friend. Reuven awakes that night and finds that the curtain had been drawn around Mr. Savo's bed, and he can hear people moving around. The next morning, the curtain is still drawn. Billy and Reuven wonder what happened to Mr. Savo. They hear him moan during the day, which frightens Reuven. Danny visits Reuven again; they discuss religion, and Danny admits that sometimes he is not sure that he knows what God wants. Danny asks if Reuven has read Darwin or Huxley, and he discusses Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Danny says that he sometimes gets bored studying the Talmud and that he will not like being a rabbi. Reuven tells Danny that he doesn't sound like a Hasid. Danny claims he has no choice, for people expect him to take his father's place. When David Malter arrives, Danny seems shocked to see him, as if he recognizes him. David says that he has been meeting Danny in the library and recommending books for him. The next day Mr. Savo returns to the ward, but Billy has been taken away. Dr. Snydman takes the bandage off of Reuven's eye. Reuven asks about Billy, but Dr. Snydman's answer is cryptic.
The friendship between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter takes on a new and more significant dimension in this chapter, which gives the first explanation for the title of the novel. David Malter gives religious significance to the relationship between Danny Saunders and his son, claiming that one must choose a friend and a teacher. This leads to the question of who will be the teacher or whether or not Reuven is the one who has chosen Danny. Potok answers this question later in the chapter, in which Reuven learns that David Malter has been teaching Danny by advising him on books to read; the 'chosen' friend is thus not Danny, but rather Reuven.
However, another meaning to 'the chosen' also emerges with regard to Danny Saunders. If he is not the chosen friend and rather the one making the choice, he is chosen by his father to succeed him as a rabbi. This illustrates what will be a central conflict of the novel: while Danny's father wishes him to become a rabbi, Danny himself professes greater interest in secular education that is perhaps contrary to his religious upbringing. There is great irony in this, for Danny shows himself to have qualities of an apikoros despite his grave accusations against Reuven for such behavior during the first chapter.
The connection between David Malter and Danny Saunders is an important one in the novel, for it lends weight to the idea that Danny Saunders is exceptionally gifted in some regard while making the friendship between Reuven and Danny in some sense the work of destiny by tightening the focus of these characters' worlds. Potok portrays the life of Danny Saunders as if, outside of family, Danny Saunders only has interaction with David Malter and then his son. And, by building up the monumental talents of Danny Saunders, Potok makes clear that, although Reuven Malter is the narrator of the story, the central character on whom the story will turn is Danny.