Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1639
Two fifteen-year-old boys, growing up within five blocks of each other in the early 1940’s, meet during a baseball game one Sunday in June. The game is an athletic competition between yeshivas, or Jewish parochial schools. The ensuing game takes on warlike proportions. One team is led by Danny Saunders,...
(The entire section contains 1639 words.)
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Two fifteen-year-old boys, growing up within five blocks of each other in the early 1940’s, meet during a baseball game one Sunday in June. The game is an athletic competition between yeshivas, or Jewish parochial schools. The ensuing game takes on warlike proportions. One team is led by Danny Saunders, the eldest son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, Reb Isaac Saunders, who had led his people out of Russia to the United States. This team, and all of Reb Saunders’s followers, wear the traditional clothing, corresponding with Hasidism’s founding in the eighteenth century: black hats or skullcaps, long black coats, and fringed prayer garments called tzitzits. Their long earlocks also set them apart.
The other team is led by Reuven Malter, son of widowed teacher and scholar David Malter. The marked difference between the two teams is exemplified by their respective coaches. Mr. Galanter, a gym teacher from the public school system, moonlights by teaching in Reuven’s school. He wears modern clothing and is described as “fanatically addicted to professional baseball.” Danny’s team is escorted to the ball field by a coach who is a rabbi. Dressed in traditional black garb, he reads a book while the teams play ball. His sole advice to his team is “Remember why and for whom we play.”
One of Reuven’s teammates warns him “They’re murderers.” The truth of this observation becomes evident early in the game. Although the majority of Danny’s teammates are unremarkable ballplayers, they play with a fierce intensity. During the game, one of Danny’s hits strikes pitcher Reuven, shattering his glasses and injuring his left eye. Reuven is taken to the hospital and undergoes surgery to remove glass splinters. Reuven learns that, in addition to having a concussion, he faces the possibility of scar tissue causing blindness in that eye.
While in the hospital Reuven makes several friends. Two are fellow patients in the eye ward. Tony Savo, a professional boxer, had lost an eye because of a boxing injury. Billy Merrit, a young boy, had been blinded in a car accident. The most surprising new friend, however, is Danny. When Danny first visits Reuven in the hospital, Reuven notes that “he looked a little like the pictures I had seen of Abraham Lincoln before he grew the beard.” Danny tries to apologize to Reuven, but Reuven orders him to leave.
Mr. Malter visits his son and, after learning how he treated Danny, reprimands Reuven, telling him that the Talmud commands listening and forgiveness when an apology is offered. During this visit, Reuven and his father also discuss the war in Europe, including the D day invasion by the Allied Powers. “It is the beginning of the end for Hitler and his madmen,” Mr. Malter tells his son. The next day, Danny again visits. Reuven apologizes for his behavior, and the two talk civilly. Danny admits that he did not understand his feelings during the ball game. “I wanted to walk over to you and open your head with my bat,” he says. Reuven observes that Danny “dressed like a Hasid, but he didn’t sound like one.”
During their first sustained conversation, Reuven learns of Danny’s photographic mind and phenomenal intelligence. Danny can recite from memory virtually anything he has ever read. Reuven is both awed and disturbed by Danny’s amazing ability, noting that “He did it coldly, mechanically . . . I had the feeling I was watching some sort of human machine at work.”
The boys discuss their professional aspirations. Reuven plans to become a rabbi, although his father hopes he will become a mathematician. Danny is expected to become a rabbi because the position is an inherited one. He admits, however, that if he could choose otherwise, he would become a psychologist.
The hospital visits continue. Reuven’s eye heals, and full vision returns. Sadly, his hospital mates do not fare as well. Nothing could be done to help the boxer, Tony Savo, and the surgery to restore Billy’s sight is unsuccessful. As Danny and Reuven’s friendship develops, Danny is astonished to learn that he had already met Reuven’s father.
On surreptitious visits to the public library, Danny approaches Mr. Malter. Without exchanging names, Danny asks him for book recommendations and Mr. Malter obliges. They often discuss Danny’s reading. Mr. Malter knows he is dealing with the brilliant son of Rabbi Saunders and that nothing can stop Danny’s quest for knowledge. He feels uneasy, however, knowing that Rabbi Saunders would not approve of Danny’s reading.
Reuven is eventually introduced to Reb Saunders and to Danny’s world. Reuven attends religious services in Reb Saunders’s synagogue, which occupies one floor of the family home. While attending services, Reuven is drawn into an intense, public debate between Danny and his father. He and Danny pass the rabbi’s strange test, though Reuven does not understand what has happened. His suspicions and distrust of Reb Saunders grow. Reuven is accepted by Reb Saunders, however, and he continues to visit and worship with the family. Reuven learns that Danny and his father never speak except when they discuss holy writings. This silence is mysterious to Reuven, and his resentment toward Reb Saunders grows. Danny does not understand the painful silence either; still, he trusts and respects his father.
The boys finish high school and continue their education at Hirsch College. Danny majors in psychology and Reuven studies philosophy with an emphasis in symbolic logic. They also continue their religious studies and gain the respect and admiration of professors and students alike.
A crisis in the friendship occurs following the end of the war and the subsequent movement to establish a secular Jewish nation. Reuven and his father support Zionism wholeheartedly, but Reb Saunders and his followers are vehemently opposed to it, claiming it would be a denial of the Torah and their hope in the coming Messiah. When Reb Saunders learns of Mr. Malter’s avid, public support of Zionism, he forbids Danny from having any more contact with Reuven. A second silence begins. Danny’s relationship with his father is still marked by silence, and the best friends can no longer communicate.
Danny obeys his father’s wishes, although it causes both boys great pain. Reuven describes the silence as “ugly” and “black.” The silence “leered, it was cancerous, it was death.” Adding to Danny’s misery is his disappointment with his college studies. His psychology professor stresses experimental psychology. Danny finds himself studying rats and experiments when he really wants to be studying Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. Reuven’s pain is heightened when his father is hospitalized with a second heart attack.
One day in their third year of college, Danny surprisingly breaks the friends’ two-year silence. Danny sits down at the lunch table at school and asks Reuven for some help with math. Reb Saunders had finally lifted the ban after the idea of a Jewish nation becomes real. Reuven resumes contact with the Saunders family and even attends Danny’s sister’s wedding. Reuven also learns that, in accordance with Hasidic custom, Danny’s wife had been chosen for him since childhood.
Reb Saunders repeatedly asks Reuven to visit, but Reuven lets many months pass before honoring the request. Reuven’s father is again disappointed to learn that his son has been unresponsive to another’s wishes. He reminds his son, “when someone asks to speak to you, you must let him speak to you. You still have not learned that? You did not learn that from what happened between you and Danny?” He urges Reuven to support Danny in the inevitable confrontation with Reb Saunders. Danny has decided to reject the inherited position from his father and pursue graduate study at Columbia University to become a psychologist. Mr. Malter urges Reuven to help Danny plan how he will answer his father’s questions.
Reuven visits the Saunders home during Passover and with Danny meets with Reb Saunders in his study. Reb Saunders speaks to Danny through Reuven, explaining how he himself had been raised in silence by his father. He speaks also of Danny’s uncle, who had an exceptional mind but essentially no soul. In childhood, Danny had shown early signs of being like his uncle—restless, impatient, and disdainful of others with less intelligence. Reb Saunders knew that it was not enough to have a brilliant mind. His son’s soul, that divine spark of God, must be cultivated. To develop his son’s soul and prepare him to take on the suffering of his people, Reb Saunders had decided to raise Danny as he had been raised—in silence.
This discussion takes place during the Passover—the festival of freedom. Danny is in tears as his father releases him from the inherited position. Danny’s brother, Levi, will become the tzadik, or “righteous one,” thereby continuing the tradition. With a heavy but understanding heart, Reb Saunders accepts his son’s wishes to become a psychologist, noting that “I have no more fear now. All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world. And the world needs a tzaddik.” Reb Saunders asks his son for forgiveness: “A—a wiser father . . . may have done differently. I am not . . . wise.”
Danny and Reuven graduate summa cum laude from Hirsch College. That September, as Danny prepares to move out of his family’s home and into a rented room near Columbia University, he and Reuven once again discuss Danny’s upbringing. Reuven learns that normal conversation has finally resumed between Danny and his father. Danny also tells Reuven that when Danny has a son of his own, he will consider raising him as he had been raised, “If I can’t find another way.”