The American Dream
Although the novel is set within a Jewish community in Brooklyn, and there is much discussion of Jewish topics such as Talmud study, as well as descriptions of Hasidic life that will be foreign to most readers, the core of the story is about the American Dream. The softball game at the beginning establishes the context for this, since this is a quintessentially American game. According to the American Dream, it does not matter what a person's origins are, either of class or country. Anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can become successful. This is a core belief of American society, and Reuven and Danny are excellent examples of it. They have freedom of choice. Reuven in particular can enter any profession he desires. Danny, who is a second generation Russian Jewish immigrant, is also able to choose to join the mainstream of American life, in spite of his membership of a very inward-looking Jewish religious sect. The novel is therefore a tribute to the freedom inherent in American society. Reb Saunders acknowledges this in his final explanation to Danny, via Reuven, about how he knew that Danny could not be forced to remain within the Hasidic fold: "This is not Europe. This is an open world here. Here there are libraries and books and schools. Here there are great universities that do not concern themselves with how many Jewish students they have" (p. 279).
At the center of the novel lie two father-son relationships, which are sharply contrasted. Reuven has a warm, open relationship with his father. They talk to each other and communicate freely. When Reuven is troubled by something, he takes the problem to his father. He feels no need to rebel against his father in any way.
David Malter has a tolerant, open attitude toward his son, although this does not mean that is beyond rebuking Reuven on occasions. One example of this occurs when he reproaches Reuven for rejecting Danny's apology when Danny first visits Reuven in the hospital. Reuven respects his father and follows his advice.
The relationship between Reb Saunders and Danny is quite different. Danny's father does not talk to him except when they are studying Talmud together. Danny finds this very painful. He cannot communicate his real feelings to his father, and has to follow his own intellectual interests in secret. He is also forced to go against what his father expects of him. Instead of becoming the tzaddik of the Hasidic sect, he decides to lose his Hasidic identity and enter the cultural mainstream of America as a psychologist.
The novel suggests that Reb Saunders's method of raising his son is too narrow, and leads to unnecessary suffering. The implication is that a father must allow his son to make his own decisions about what direction in life he wishes to pursue. This attitude is shown by David Malter. His preference is that Reuven, given his talent for mathematics, should become a math professor. But he seems equally pleased when Reuven decides to become a rabbi. He respects his son's decision.
The novel concerns itself with how to reconcile the existence of a loving God with the fact of innocent suffering. In theology, this is known as the problem of theodicy (the term comes from two Greek words, theos, meaning God, and dike, meaning justice). Suffering is present throughout the novel. Reuven suffers an injury to his eye that is painful and threatens his sight. But he learns from the experience. He meets people in the hospital who suffer without having done anything to deserve it (the two children, Mickey and Billy). Through this he learns to have empathy for others, although he never understands why the innocent have to suffer, as his despair at the end of chapter 12, after he has learned that Billy is permanently blind, demonstrates.
Reb Saunders is a man who feels keenly the weight of suffering of his people. He feels he must teach his son about suffering, and he tries to pass on the wisdom of his own father, who told him that "it is important to know of pain . . . it destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe" (p. 278).
Behind the experiences of the characters in the story lies the suffering of the Jewish people through the ages. This is dramatized first by the story of Reb Saunders's own life, in which his wife and children were murdered by Cossacks. Then, in the later chapters of the book, the horrors of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered, become known. Reb Saunders struggles to accept what has happened as the will of God, but David Malter is not satisfied with such an explanation. He feels that the only way one can make all this suffering mean anything positive is to work for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In other words, it is up to humans to actively work for justice. Malter too suffers as he fights for this ideal-his health breaks down and he has two heart attacks.
The message of the novel is not that suffering can be ended, but that life can be affirmed, in all its mystery and complexity, in spite of suffering. It is significant that the novel ends on a positive and optimistic note, as Reuven and Danny prepare to embark on training for their careers.