Persecution by the Nazis in Germany before World War II led to the dispersal of European Jews to the United States, Palestine, and other countries. When the full extent of the annihilation ofJews in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany was revealed (six million had been exterminated), a resurgence of interest in establishing a Jewish homeland was ignited. During the 1930s, Jews in Germany began to lose their civil rights and eventually they lost their property and were relocated to the work and death camps that the Nazis established in parts of eastern Europe. Those Jews who left Germany before World War II were the first wave during the middle of the twentieth century to settle outside Europe. After the war, some 200,000 concentration camp survivors came to America. Many of them were Orthodox Jews, and they tended to settle into the type of neighborhood described by Chaim Potok in The Chosen. By the 1950s, the children and grandchildren of earlier Jewish immigrants from Eastern European countries tended to be assimilated into the larger American culture. Many were Reformed or Conservative Jews and had attended public schools. The influx of a new population of Jews who were religious ignited a new interest in Judaism. In Potok’s story, David Malter becomes the spokesperson for ardent followers of Judaism. After the Holocaust, there was a widespread feeling within the Jewish community in America that the fervor of religious Jews like the Hasids had helped Judaism survive centuries of persecution. The feeling was that Jews would only be safe from persecution when they had their own country. This became the impetus for the widespread support among both religious and secularized Jews for the establishment of the State of Israel.
While Zionism is regarded as a nineteenth-century movement for Jews to return to their original homeland in the Middle East, efforts to return to Zion date back to the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora in the sixth century RC. During the Diaspora, when the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem, a leader (a false messiah) would appear, claim to be the messiah, and promise to return the Jewish people to Zion. Notable among them was Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), also known as Sabbatai Zebi, who led a large band of European Jews to Constantinople, but, after he was imprisoned, he converted to Islam to save himself from execution. In the sixteenth century, a Jewish Italian family asked the Turks, who controlled the region then, to allow them to establish a Jewish settlement in Galilee. It was not until the late nineteenth century, though, that European Jews had enough freedom of movement and financial resources to begin settling in Palestine. In 1897 the Herzl World Zionist Congress established a worldwide movement. In 1917 the British government established a homeland in Palestine with the Balfour Declaration. It was supported in 1922 by the League of Nations. In 1948 the State of Israel was established after Palestine was partitioned. Support for a Jewish state has not been universal among Jews. The Hasids and other fundamentalist Jewish groups felt strongly that Jews had to wait for the Messiah before returning to Israel. Many Jews who had assimilated, particularly in the United States, felt that an Israeli state in the Middle East would not be viable, that the antagonism of the Arabs would lead to another Jewish annihilation. In the latter part of The Chosen, the Jewish state is being established. Reb Saunders represents the Hasidic view that Jews must wait for the Messiah before returning to the homeland. Mr. Malter represents the Zionist view that a homeland was necessary for the survival of the Jewish people.
Hasidism began in the late eighteenth century in a region along the Russian and Polish border. Its leader was Israel Ben Eliezer. The traditional Orthodox approach to the study of the Talmud was based on the oral laws that Moses had been given by God on Mount Sinai and their interpretations over the centuries. Ben Eliezer emphasized spirituality and its fervent expression. His praying was characterized by ecstasy and trances, while traditional prayer was restrained. His followers continued his forms of worship and the movement spread throughout Eastern Europe. The leader of each group was considered a “righteous one” (lzaddik). The tzaddik acted as an intermediary between his followers and God, not unlike the relationship between a Catholic priest and his parishioners. Throughout their history, the Hasids dressed in plain dark clothing. The men were forbidden to shave their beards or their side locks and they wore fur-trimmed hats, They have been compared to the Amish of Pennsylvania in their dress. While the Hasids represent a small proportion of the Jewish population in the world today, they are credited with stemming the tide of assimilation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Chaim Potok, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998