Professor Nathan Appleman:
Professor Nathan Appleman is the chairman of the psychology department at Hirsch College. He has a low opinion of psychoanalysis, and puts the focus of the department on experimental psychology. This disappoints Danny at first, but after a discussion with Appleman, he respects the professor's point of view.
Davey Cantor is Reuven's friend at high school, and baseball teammate. He warns Reuven about the aggressiveness of the Hasidic team they are playing. Later, at Hirsch College, it is Davey who brings Reuven the news that President Roosevelt is dead.
Mr. Galanter is the gym teacher at Reuven's yeshiva. He also acts as the baseball coach. Because of his health, he was unable to fight in World War II, but he encourages his team with the use of warlike expressions. Mr. Galanter is popular with his students, and he shows kindness to Reuven, visiting him in the hospital.
Rav Gershenson is a renowned Talmudic scholar who teaches at Hirsch College. A kind and gentle man in his late sixties, he is also an exciting teacher. He has high standards and expects his students to come to class knowing the Talmud text and commentaries that are scheduled for discussion. Because of his high standards, many of the students dread being called upon to explicate difficult passages in class. Rav Gershenson does not call upon Reuven for a long time, but when he does, Reuven excels with his explanations, and Rav Gershenson is pleased with him. But Rav Gershenson, who is very conservative in his approach to scholarship, refuses to allow David Malter's modern, scientific method of textual analysis to be used in his classroom.
Sidney Goldberg is in the same class as Reuven at high school, although they are not close friends. Sidney is not a good student, but he is a good baseball player.
David Malter is Reuven's father. He is an Orthodox Jew who teaches Talmud at the yeshiva his son attends. He is also a writer on Jewish issues. Malter is a man of integrity and learning, and he has a good relationship with his son, based on mutual respect, affection and understanding. He is a widower, and he is not in very good health. Reuven sees him as "a thin, frail man in his fifties, with gray hair, gaunt cheeks, and spectacles" (p. 102). During the course of the novel Malter suffers two heart attacks, although he makes a good recovery in each case.
Malter urges Reuven to become friends with Danny, because he sees that Danny is lonely. He also recommends books for Danny to read, although at one point he has doubts about whether this is the right thing to do, because he knows Danny's father would not approve. Malter justifies it by saying that Danny would read anyway, and needs some adult guidance.
Malter does not admire Hasidism, and favors a more open attitude to the secular world. He wants Reuven to become a mathematician, although he is equally content that his son chooses to become a rabbi. In spite of his dislike of Hasidism, Malter refuses to condemn Reb Saunders, even when Saunders bans Danny from seeing Reuven. Malter respects Saunders because he is a man of principle and of learning, even though their approaches to Talmud study, and to parenting, are very different. Malter cultivates a warm relationship with his son, whereas Saunders will not even talk to Danny, except in the context of Talmud studies.
When the news of the Holocaust reaches America, Malter is devastated. His mission becomes to train teachers and rabbis among American Jews, so that the Jews can continue as a people. He becomes obsessed with the Zionist cause for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and he overworks and damages his health. But working for Zionism gives his life meaning.
Reuven Malter is a fifteen-year-old Orthodox Jewish boy, the son of David Malter. He attends a Jewish school (yeshiva) in Brooklyn. Reuven is also the narrator of the story, during which he matures from being a boy without much knowledge of the world into a young man capable of making choices that will shape his adult life. Reuven is a sensible, well-balanced boy with a great capacity for empathy. When he is in the hospital suffering from an injured eye, he feels keenly the suffering of others. Reuven also has great intellectual abilities, and his passion is mathematics. He also excels at Talmud studies.
Reuven becomes friends with Danny Saunders, and this opens his eyes to a new kind of world, the world of the Hasidic Jews in his neighborhood. This enables him to understand and evaluate different ways of thinking about life and religion.
Reuven has a warm, affectionate relationship with his father, from whom he learns greatly. He never hesitates to consult his father about intellectual or personal issues, in sharp contrast to the struggles that Danny has to communicate with his father. David Malter hopes that his son will become a mathematician, but Reuven eventually decides to become a rabbi. He wants to serve others.
Reuven takes a keen interest in the world around him, following the progress of World War II by putting wall maps up in his room. One of his heroes is President Franklin Roosevelt. When Reuven attends college he becomes allied with the Zionist faction there, because of his father's activism in the Zionist cause. In contrast to Danny, Reuven does not rebel against his father's views.
Billy Merrit is the eleven-year-old boy who occupies the hospital bed next to Reuven. He was in an car accident in which his mother was killed. Billy has been blinded, and an operation to restore his sight fails. Billy's plight awakens Reuven's compassion.
Roger Merrit is Billy Merrit's father. He was the driver in the car accident that killed his wife and resulted in Billy's blindness.
Mickey is a six-year-old boy who has spent most of his life in the Brooklyn Memorial Hospital with a mysterious stomach condition.
Danny Saunders is a fifteen-year-old Hasidic boy; he has a fourteen-year-old sister and an eight-year-old brother. It is Danny who hits the baseball that injures Reuven in the game between the two high schools. After Danny visits Reuven in the hospital, the two boys become close friends. They find they have much in common, since they are both intellectually brilliant. Danny is a genius, with a photographic memory. Even at fifteen, his knowledge of Talmud is prodigious. As the son of Reb Saunders, the leader (tzaddik) of the Hasidic sect, Danny is expected to inherit the position of tzaddik. But Danny's interests lie elsewhere. He is fascinated by psychology, and begins to study the work of Sigmund Freud. He even teaches himself German so that he can read Freud in the original language. He reads widely in the public library, following the suggestions made by David Malter. But Danny is on a collision course with his father, who has a narrow attitude to education. Reb Saunders raises his son in silence. He never speaks to him except during their intense sessions when they study Talmud together. The relationship between Danny and his father is therefore distant and strained, although Danny respects his father.
Danny and Reuven attend the same college. Danny is at first disappointed when he finds that he has to study experimental psychology rather than Freudian psychoanalysis. His friendship with Reuven is ruptured when his father bans him from seeing Reuven. This is because Reuven's father supports the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. For over two years Danny and Reuven do not speak, but eventually the ban is lifted and they resume their friendship. Danny is now reconciled to studying experimental psychology, and decides to become a clinical psychologist. He applies to a doctoral program at Columbia University and is accepted. His father finally accepts that he will lose his son to a secular profession.
Levi Saunders is Danny's eight-year-old brother. He is in ill-health because of a recurring problem with his blood chemistry. Danny hopes Levi gain in strength because he secretly wants Levi to inherit the family position of tzaddik of the Hasidic sect. Levi shows every sign of having the tenacity to hang on to life, even though he must take medication every day for as long as he lives.
Reb Isaac Saunders:
Reb Isaac Saunders is the father of Danny Saunders. He is the leader, the tzaddik, of the Hasidic sect that lives in Reuven's neighborhood. Saunders was born in Russia and inherited the leadership of his Hasidic sect when he was twenty-one. During the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, his wife and children were murdered by Cossacks. He was injured and left for dead, but was nursed back to health first by a Russian peasant and then by a Jewish family. The following year he emigrated to America, bringing the entire Hasidic sect with him.
Saunders is a charismatic figure, who is seen by his congregation as almost superhuman, a link between God and man. He is a learned, principled man and a great scholar, although his teaching style is more emotional than that of David Malter. He is passionate about his views and does not take kindly to being challenged or opposed. Reuven does not know what to make of him, since one minute Reb Saunders is austere and intimidating and the next minute he is kind and gentle. Reuven sees him as a bit of a tyrant, however, and hates him when he breaks up the friendship between him, Reuven, and Danny. But although he is an authoritarian figure, Saunders has many good qualities. He is personally kind to Reuven when Reuven's father has a heart attack, inviting him to come and live with him and his family. And for a long time he does not object to Danny's friendship with Reuven, even though he guesses that Danny is reading books that he would not approve of. He loves Danny in his own way and is proud of his son's prowess at Talmud. He does not mind when Danny wins some of their arguments over Talmud interpretation.
Saunders raises his son in silence, speaking to him only when they study the Talmud together. He believes this method of raising Danny will make him stronger and teach him compassion. He will understand suffering. The necessity of suffering, and the mission of the Jews as the people commanded by God to study the Torah, are the cornerstones of Saunders' philosophy. He seems to carry a great weight of his own suffering, as if he is suffering for all his people. He is devastated when he finds that Danny wants to become a psychologist but he eventually accepts it.
Dov Shlomowitz is a big Hasidic boy who plays on the baseball team against Reuven's team. The word Dov is Hebrew for bear. When he is at bat, Dov deliberately runs into Reuven at second base, knocking him down.
Tony Savo is a patient in the Brooklyn Memorial Hospital who occupies one of the beds next to Reuven. Mr. Savo was a professional boxer, and he is suffering from an injured eye. The eye eventually has to be removed. Mr. Savo befriends Reuven and gives him advice about life. He warns him against Danny, because he thinks Danny is a religious fanatic.
Dr. Snydman is the surgeon who operates on Reuven's eye at the hospital.