SUBJECTS — Literature/U.S. & Literary Devices/Theme; Symbol; Irony; Religions/Judaism; U.S.: 1941 – 1945 & New York;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Parenting; Father/Son; Friendship; Breaking Out;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Caring.
AGE: 10+; MPAA Rating — PG for an opening accident scene and some mild language;
Drama; 1996; 107 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
An injury during a baseball game between two rival Orthodox Jewish schools in New York during World War II results in an unlikely friendship between Reuven and Danny. Their relationship comes under great strain when their fathers take opposing positions in the intra-Jewish debate over whether to establish a secular Jewish state in Palestine. The story is narrated by Reuven, whose father is a professor arguing for the creation of the state of Israel, but is focused on Danny, an intellectual Hasid who wants to study psychology in a secular university. Danny is pressured mightily by his father, a charismatic Hasidic Rabbi who has raised his son in “silence” and expects him to carry on the rabbinical dynasty established generations ago in Poland.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1997 Academy Awards: Best Cinematography (Caleb Deschanel).
Featured Actors: Maximilian Schell as Professor David Malter, Rod Steiger as Reb Saunders, Robby Benson as Danny Saunders; Barry Miller as Reuven Malter; Hildy Brooks as Mrs. Saunders; Kaethe Fine as Shaindel Saunders.
Director: Jeremy Kagan
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Adapted from the 1967 award-winning novel by Chaim Potok, “The Chosen” is a compelling story of friends, fathers and sons, and assimilation into mainstream Western culture.
English Language Arts Classes:
Often assigned reading in high school ELA classes, the novel on which the movie is based deals with fundamental human values. The movie covers most of the characters, conflicts, and themes of the book in a well-acted and carefully written production. It is best viewed after the novel has been read. Through comparison, students can learn how literary techniques such as symbolism, motif, and imagery are applicable to film. Moreover, students can begin to develop respect for visual media as a serious art form, increasing their critical skills, and awakening an interest in film history. See TWM’s essay on Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories, and Plays. Viewed without reading the book, the movie provides ELA teachers considerable opportunity for assignments requiring research and argumentation as well as literary analysis. Students will also benefit from receiving the information described in the paragraph below relating to the use of the film in Social Studies classes.
Social Studies Classes:
The film introduces the Hasidic sect of Orthodox Judaism in a way that is sympathetic but which clearly shows its differences from modern Western culture in arranged marriages, strongly patriarchal family structures, separation of the sexes, and focus on Talmudic studies. The movie makes clear the conflicts faced by American Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust and some of the arguments for and against the establishment of the state of Israel. This Learning Guide focuses on the use of the movie in ELA classes.
Unless your child is reading the novel from which the film was adapted in class, enjoy the film with your child and point out how religious tolerance and the nature of friendship and forgiving are important areas of reflection for young people. If your child is reading the novel in class, watch the film after the reading has been completed.
The roots of Hasidism, a sect of Judaism, is adequately covered in the novel but is largely absent from the film. It may be useful in classes that do not read the book to require students to read chapter six, in which Reuven Malter’s father explains the development of Hasidism. He addresses the split between the Jews in terms of support for the creation of the state of Israel and explains the anger expressed by Rabbi Saunders, Danny’s father, who believes that the state of Israel can only be established when the Messiah returns. On this basis, he opposes a secular Jewish state.
A number of esoteric terms must be understood, however, for students to follow the film:
Hasidim: This term means “pious ones” in Hebrew. They are an ultra-orthodox sect of Jews who believe in prayer, joy, personal experience, ecstatic prayer, and mysticism. They often express their faith in song and dance. The sect developed in Eastern Europe in the mid-1700s. In the first half of the nineteenth century, when Hasidism was at its height, it was practiced by millions of Jews in Eastern and Central Europe.
Torah: The teachings of the Jews consisting of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.
Talmud: The book of commentaries and scriptural interpretations that make up the body of knowledge found in the Torah.
Tzaddik: A righteous Jewish man who acts as a mediator between the Jews and their creator.
Gematriya: The practice of determining meaning in words by assigning each letter a numerical value which they can be manipulated into new words and altered meaning.
Resolution 181: In 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution that partitioned the British Mandate of Palestine into two separate states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were to fall under international authority. Whereas the Jews accepted the resolution, the Arab majority living in the area did not.
At one point in the story, Reuven spends the night packing guns in crates marked “Farm Equipment.” The guns were being sent to the armed Jewish resistance in Palestine. Since the British controlled Palestine and the guns were going to be used against British soldiers, as well as to protect Jews from Arabs, this act was illegal and against stated U.S. government policy. The British considered the armed Jewish resistance, the Irgun and the Hagana, to be terrorists. Aiding and abetting terrorists is clearly illegal. However, in the years preceding the adoption of U.N. Resolution 181 in 1948, the U.S. supported the creation of the state of Israel, and U.S. customs officials did not try to stop people from sending guns to help the Jews in Palestine.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Danny was troubled by the fact that at the baseball game he hated Reuven and wanted to hit him with the baseball. Why did Danny hate Reuven so much when he faced him on the baseball diamond?
Answers can differ, but they are all interesting. Often, two groups of people who are close in their beliefs but opposed to one another will have bitter disputes. Danny could have hated Reuven because he saw in Reuven part of what he wanted to be, an Orthodox Jew who was not Hasidic, not forced by family tradition to become a Hasidic Rabbi, and a person who could experience the wider world. Danny could also have been angry at Reuven because Reuven had just made a good play against Danny’s team.
2. Baseball serves as a symbol for something far more important than sports on several levels. What does baseball stand for in this story?
The voice-over suggests that the game was intended to show that the Jews were as physically fit as Americans in terms of their ability to defend the country in warfare. As the competition between the two sects of Jews becomes clear, the game can be seen as a representation of the struggle between the Zionists and the anti-Zionists.
3. In the hospital, after a visit from Danny, Reuven says that “some part of me had been left back in the schoolyard by my shattered glasses.” What does he mean by this?
Responses will vary. It is clear, however, that in being virtually assaulted while playing a game, the quintessentially American game of baseball, Reuven is experiencing a loss of innocence. As a young man, he must look out for himself even in situations that were formerly safe. In addition, being assaulted by a fellow Jew was even more surprising to Reuven. He learned that Jews are not safe, even from fellow Jews who look down upon the less Orthodox. The shattered glasses may represent the need for seeing things in a new way and giving up his former vision of the world.
4. Danny says that when he doesn’t understand something, he thinks about it until he does understand. How do these words help Danny overcome the evil thing that he did when he struck Reuven with the baseball?
The lessons about redemption begin with this line. Danny admits that he intended to hurt Reuven and says he is not sure why but he will not stop his search for meaning until he is clear. Honesty is the first step in redemption.
5. When Danny offers to help Reuven with his schoolwork, both boys are moving further along in the process of redemption for Danny and forgiveness for Reuven. How does Danny’s gesture help Reuven get over the pain caused by the deliberate attempt to hit him in the head with a swiftly batted ball and how does it help Danny redeem himself?
Restitution is an important component of the process of redemption and it logically follows the introspection mentioned in the previous question. It enables the offending party to make right whatever wrong has been committed. The Biblical tradition of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” has another meaning than just revenge. It also refers to the measure of restitution and that meaning is being followed precisely in this example. No good would come from allowing Reuven to bat Danny in the eye; Danny can restore in some measure Reuven’s eyesight by providing his eyes to do Reuven’s reading. As for forgiveness, in allowing their friendship to progress and accepting Danny’s restitution, Reuven is moving toward forgiving Danny.
6. Rabbi Saunders, Danny’s father, has been raising his son in what is called “silence.” Danny explains this by saying that “Words distort what a person really feels in his heart.” Rabbi Saunders, however, had another reason for raising his son in “silence.” As he explains it, when Danny was a very young child, he was so proud of his memory that he missed the point in the story that he read. Rabbi Saunders used silence to show his son what pain was. Was Danny’s rationalization for this father’s conduct, the claim that words distort what a person feels in his heart, an accurate statement?
Answers will vary. Students may want to discuss personal experiences about a time when their feelings were so deep that they were unable to find words to express them. The scene at the movie theatre as the boys were looking at the victims of what was beginning to be called a Holocaust may serve to illustrate how words can be inadequate up against such horrors. Students may also disagree with this idea and contend that words enhance meaning. A third variation is that students may contend that means of expression other than words, facial expressions for example, may also be misleading.
7. What purpose was served when Reuven met with Rabbi Saunders?
Answers will vary. Danny’s father knows the importance of having a friend and wants to be sure that Reuven will not be a bad influence on his son since Reuven’s father believes in something called scientific criticism of Torah. Rabbi Saunders wants to discover how devoted Reuven is to Judaism and possibly to show Reuven the respect afforded to Danny, a boy seen by the Rabbi’s followers as a budding young tzaddik. The Rabbi seems to want to communicate with his own son through Reuven.
8. What irony lies behind the fact that Danny and Reuven’s father know about each other?
Answers will vary. Students may find that irony exists in the fact that Rabbi Saunders tries to protect his son from Reuven’s influence because he fears Mr. Malter’s ideas when the man has been mentoring his son in the library for some time. Irony can be found in the fact that Danny is driven to explore the world beyond the Torah because of the same intellectual drive that makes him good at studying the Torah.
9. Authorship of Torah is the central difference between the beliefs of Danny’s father and Reuven’s father. What are their beliefs and what is the importance of the dispute? Do you see this same dispute in other religions?
Rabbi Saunders believes that Torah was written by God directly whereas Mr. Malter believes that Torah was written by men inspired by God. Some in the Christian community share the same conflict about the authorship of the Bible. The dispute centers on divine authority; those that hold God to be the author of the Bible, be it in the Old or New Testament, are more orthodox and authoritarian in their concept of God.
10. What does Reuven learn about Hasid culture during the time he stays with Danny’s family?
Answers will vary. Students will note that Reuven sees the home as a strange and wonderful unit. He enjoys the happiness he witnesses and though he is disturbed by the fact that the men and women are separated at the wedding, he appreciates the good mood, the singing, and dancing. He is actually drawn into the dance. He learns that Danny’s sister has been engaged since she was a child, a fact that further disturbs his notions of cultural norms.
11. Reuven grows to feel sorry for Rabbi Saunders, asserting that the man is trapped. In what sense is Rabbi Saunders trapped?
Reuven sees Danny’s father as a brilliant and caring leader who cannot escape the tenets of a religious system set down centuries ago. Rabbi Saunders fights against the establishment of a Jewish homeland and considers David Ben Gurion, the founding father of the state of Israel, as leading his people in a “contaminated activity.” Saunders, a staunch anti-Zionist, cannot see the importance of establishing a safe place for Jews, even after the world has learned about Hitler’s efforts to eradicate all of European Jewry.
12. What lies at the center of the dispute between the Zionists, represented by Mr. Malter, and the anti-Zionists, represented by Rabbi Saunders?
The Zionists had been working for decades, in a political and social movement, to establish a homeland called Erez Israel. The anti-Zionists firmly believed that the movement for a Jewish homeland had to be messianic in that a return to Israel could only happen with the coming of the Messiah who would lead the Jewish people back to Jerusalem. The anti-Zionists thoroughly opposed a secular Israel.
13. As fiercely as Mr. Malter works to help establish the state of Israel, Rabbi Saunders works against it. What are their personal interests in this struggle?
Answers will vary. Mr. Malter believes that only the establishment of a Jewish state can make any sense of the savagery wrought upon the Jewish people by European anti-semites. His own life has been filled with meaning since he began to devote himself to the struggle and when Reuven notices his father becoming weak, Mr. Malter says, “Only a life with meaning is worthy of rest.” Rabbi Saunders, to the contrary, believes that the work of Hitler in Europe did a great deal to destroy the “Jewish body” but that Zionism would destroy the “Jewish soul.” Rabbi Saunders ex-communicates Reuven over the dispute. Mr. Malter defends the Rabbi’s fanaticism, an expression of his generous nature.
14. When Reuven begins to help ship guns to Israel for use in the struggle against the Arabs, his father supports his efforts. Are they as fanatical as Rabbi Saunders?
At that time, the British, an important ally of the U.S., controlled Palestine. The British viewed the armed resistance of the Jews to British rule as terrorism. Sending guns into a disputed territory to be used by terrorists can be viewed as an act of fanaticism. This fanaticism, acceptable to Reuven and his father, is juxtaposed against the fanaticism of the anti-Zionists, such as Rabbi Saunders.
15. When Resolution 181 is passed, Danny is allowed to re-establish his friendship with Reuven. What is revealed about Danny’s father in this lifting of the excommunication?
Resolution 181, though flawed, was seen by the Zionists as the establishment of a Jewish state and they felt victorious. The anti-Zionists ceased their struggle against the creation of a Jewish homeland and as a part of that unwillingness to continue fighting Jew against Jew, Danny’s father decides that his son can be friends once again with Reuven. This shows the Rabbi’s willingness to accept his opposition’s victory and reveals that he will put family issues above the continued bitterness between Zionists and anti-Zionists. In essence, he forgives.
16. What character traits allow Danny and Reuven to re-establish their friendship after over a year of being apart?
Both boys understand and respect the opposing points of view that resulted in the excommunication. Although Reuven was hurt by the separation imposed upon his friendship by Rabbi Saunders, whom he considers a tyrant, he is forgiving and fully aware of the difficulties and pressures under which Danny lives. He, like his father, is generous of spirit. Danny remained loyal to his father and was accustomed to the silence that fell between himself and his friend. His great intelligence is his dominant characteristic.
17. What irony exists in the life choices made by the two friends?
Reuven is free to take any path he chooses in life and he chooses to become a rabbi. Danny is pressured to be a rabbi following six generations of a rabbinic dynasty but he chooses to become secular and to study psychology.
18. When Danny, Reuven, and Rabbi Saunders meet, the Rabbi explains his use of silence by talking about a time when Danny was proud of his ability to memorize but unable to feel the suffering in a particular story. What characteristic did the father see in the son that caused him to respond with the technique of silence?
Danny showed hubris, a complete lack of humility, in his response to the story his father told. Rabbi Saunders wanted to teach his son compassion and mercy and to give him the strength to carry the pain of his followers when it came time for the boy to replace the father in the rabbinic dynasty.
19. How did friendship enable Danny to break the dynastic tradition, assume the clothing and hairstyle of a secular Jew, and enroll in Columbia University?
Answers will vary. According to Jewish tradition, it is important to find a teacher and a friend. Reuven’s father served as Danny’s teacher, and Reuven served as Danny’s friend. Reuven’s father counseled Reuven several times on the importance of being a friend and tells him that being a friend is difficult. Reuven remained Danny’s friend even though the ex-communication, even when times were difficult and Reuven needed Danny’s support. Friendship, as shown by Reuven, is understanding and forgiving and loyal. Danny was strengthened in his bold move to become his own person by these characteristics of friendship.
20. The story from the Talmud at the end of the film about the boy who went astray from his father, a king, illuminates something important about Rabbi Saunders and about the relationship between fathers and sons. What is the theme of that story?
In the story, a messenger is sent to call the son back to the kingdom, but the boy says he cannot return. The king sends the messenger back, saying, return as far as you can and I will come the rest of the way. Danny’s father gets from his son a promise to keep to the commandments and remain a devout Jew; Danny gets from his father the freedom to lead his own life without any withdrawal of love or trust or respect.
PARENTING – FATHER/SON
See Discussion Question 20.
1. Evaluate Rabbi Saunders as a father.
The main characteristic of Rabbi Saunders as a father was that he loved his son, and he made it clear to his son that he loved him. Once a parent makes his or her love of their child clear, many mistakes in parenting end up not harming the child and can be forgiven. Rabbi Saunders was, at times, tyrannical and harsh. The technique of teaching humility through the “silence” was extremely harsh and is the most controversial thing that he did as a parent. However, in the end, it worked. Rabbi Saunders wanted Danny to be his successor as Rabbi of the group of Hasidic Jews that Rabbi Saunders led. This was very dear to his heart. He also wanted Danny to remain a Hasidic Jew. However, when he understood that Danny wanted to lead a different life, Rabbi Saunders met his son halfway. Danny promised to be an observant Jew, and Rabbi Saunders sanctioned his move into secular society to become a psychologist.
2. What would have happened if Rabbi Saunders had tried to force Danny to become a rabbi and stay in the Hasidic community?
Most likely, Danny would have rebelled and left the family with very hard feelings.
See Discussion Questions 16 and 19.
3. What character traits allowed Danny to break out of the confines of Hasidic culture despite the plans his father had for him and the weight of family tradition?
Answers may vary and could include honesty, courage, and determination.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
1. Is Reuven’s father respectful of the beliefs and authority of Rabbi Saunders? In the book on pages 160 and 161, Mr. Malter tells Reuven that “. . . there had been serious questions in his mind about how ethical it was for him to give Danny books to read behind his father’s back.” Mr. Malter worries that he is violating the Golden Rule, asking Reuven, “How would I feel if someone gave you books to read which I believed might be harmful to you?” Do you think that Mr. Malter was doing the right thing by suggesting books to Danny?
There is no one correct answer to this question. The Golden Rule and the Fifth Commandment tell Mr. Malter that what he is doing is wrong. The Fifth Commandment requires people to “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This applies not only to Danny, but to Mr. Malter, who should not assist Danny in disobeying his father. Moreover, Mr. Malter is acting behind Rabbi Saunder’s back, knowing that the Rabbi would disapprove of what his son was doing and of the books that Mr. Malter was suggesting that Danny read. One of the warning signals for unethical conduct is when a person acts in secret, without telling one of the affected parties what is going on. However, to do right by Danny, Mr. Malter needs to guide the boy’s reading. After all, Mr. Malter is a teacher while Danny is only fifteen years old, entering a world that is almost entirely new to him. And, as Reuven points out, Danny was reading anyway, on his own. Mr. Malter finds himself in a classic conflict-of-values situation. For many, and for the story in the book, it is resolved by applying the logic of the Rule of the Most Honoring Choice. Under the logic of this rule, the importance of Danny’s long-term interest in having his reading guided by an experienced teacher outweighs the interests of the other stakeholders: Danny’s father and the interest of the Hasidic community that his father leads in keeping Danny isolated from the outside world.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
See questions under the Parenting and Friendship sections above.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
The following assignments are geared toward ELA standards associated with literary analysis, writing, and oral presentation.
1. Narration skills can be practiced by assigning the students the task of telling the story about the king being reunited with his son in full detail, rich with description and dialogue. Students should feel free to change the king into any parent, the kingdom into any community, and they can change the gender of the parent and child should they so desire.
2. Persuasion skills can be practiced by requiring students to write an opinion paper designed to persuade, for or against, any of the following statements which relate to this story:
- Raising a child in “silence” is a form of child abuse.
- No one is fortunate until he becomes unfortunate.
- Words distort what a person really feels in his heart.
- The pain of the world can be heard in silence.
- It is not easy to be a friend.
- Art is a deception that detracts from what is real, what is true.
- With your head in front of your heart, you are a king; with your heart in front of your head, you are a fool.
- Only through adherence to the dictates of one’s religion can one lead a full life.
- Religion is a rope thrown to a drowning man.
3. Skills in formal analysis can be exercised by asking students to address any of the following prompts:
- Characterize the pairing of Danny and Reuven, and Mr. Malter and Rabbi Saunders. Illustrate the similarities and differences between each pair. Be sure to describe the boys and men, comment on their values as shown by what they say and what they do, and note reasons that each member of the pairing respects one another.
- Write a clear statement of the conflict in this story and show how it is manifested in the story using at least three examples. Be sure that the conflict is universal in nature.
- Determine the theme of the story and write an essay in which you support your choice of theme and show clearly how the resolution to the conflict leads logically to the theme you have chosen.
- Evaluate the story’s choice of point of view and determine how the focus of narration supports theme. Determine whether the theme would be the same had the story been told from Danny’s or from an adult’s point of view. Support your conclusions.
- The focus of interest in the story, indeed the back-story itself, is the creation of the state of Israel. Write an essay in which you judge whether or not the presentation of the issues involved is fair. Support your position.
4. Informal essays can be written on any of the following prompts. They can be rumination or narration, personal or simply informal.
- Discuss a friendship that you have had over the years in which there occurred a separation and a subsequent reunion. Use detail and be certain that depth of feeling is shown.
- Discuss a time in your life when you had to forgive someone for an offense. Make clear the nature of the offense and the process you went through to be able to forgive.
- Discuss a time in your life when someone asked you for forgiveness. Write about your resistance to forgiving and how you managed to get past the hurt and forgive the offense.
- Discuss the difficulties you face when the desires of your parents or friends differ from your own personal desires with regard to what you want out of life or out of a particular time in your life.
See also TWM’s Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction. For classes that read the novel, see The Use of Film Adaptations of Novels and Short Stories for suggested assignments, projects, and activities.