Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In the Beginning, Potok’s fourth published book, marked a stylistic advance in his art. In its extensive use of flashbacks and impressionistic language, Potok moved forward and backward in time creating concrete worlds suffused with the stuff of dreams, preparing the reader for the final vision of the climax. The novel is David Lurie’s story. Now a teacher, Lurie’s reminiscences transport him to his sixth year. At the close of the novel, Lurie has become a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
The Luries, an Orthodox Jewish family, emigrated from Poland and settled in the Bronx. David’s father, Max, founded the Am Kedoshim (Holy Nation) Society to bring fellow Jews to the United States and away from the bloody pogroms that plagued their homeland. Max Lurie is full of rage at the Gentiles who perpetrate such violence. David himself falls victim to anti-Semitism after he accidentally runs over the hand of a neighbor boy with his tricycle.
Eddie Kulansky torments the sickly David, who struggles in his thoughts against the bullies of the world. David dreams of the Golem of Prague, similar to Frankenstein’s monster, and imagines his putting to rest all those who would persecute the Jews.
Though he is frequently ill, David is (as are all Potok’s narrators) a prodigy, making adults uncomfortable with his questions and picking up attitudes of anger against the Gentiles. With the failure of Max Lurie’s real estate business during the Depression and the financial ruin of the Am Kedoshim Society, the family must face Max’s own depression. Max’s wife, Ruth, the widow of Max’s brother David (Max married her according to the Law of Moses) is frail and superstitious. Ruth reads to her son in German, and the young...
(The entire section is 726 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
In the Beginning is a journey into the heart of an Orthodox Jewish family, Polish immigrants who have settled in the Bronx. It is the reminiscence of David Lurie, now a teacher, then a young boy struggling to piece together the meaning of his life in the midst of dark and troubling visions. When the novel opens, David is approaching six years of age; at its close, he is setting off for graduate study at the University of Chicago.
David is a sickly child, his frequent fevers the result of an undiagnosed deviated septum sustained in a fall with his mother, who was bringing him home from the hospital after his birth. Mishaps continue to plague his early childhood, and one day he accidentally runs over the hand of Eddie Kulanski, one of the neighborhood boys, with his tricycle. Eddie, a violently anti-Semitic bully, uses the incident as a pretext to threaten and torment David, who thus experiences at first hand the reality of the irrational hatred that even then was preparing the way for the Holocaust. Throughout his childhood, David is haunted by his impotence against the goyim in his neighborhood and those in Poland whose pogroms had so angered his father, Max Lurie. In fever dreams, David imagines the Golem of Prague, a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, able to subdue all those who persecute the Jews.
David’s earliest memories involve meetings of the Am Kedoshim (Holy Nation) Society, founded by his father. Successful in real estate, Max Lurie is working with fellow Jews to bring relatives and friends to the United States to escape the bloodshed in Poland. Max is no passive victim; in his homeland he had organized the Lemburg Jews to defend themselves, and when he saw that the situation there was hopeless, he led a group which emigrated to the United States.
(The entire section is 739 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Hock, Zarina Manawwar. “Authority and Multiculturalism: Reflections by Chaim Potok.” Language Arts 72 (April, 1995): 4. Hock discusses Potok’s use of multicultural themes to expose attitudes toward social issues. She demonstrates how his fiction reflects the battle between traditional and new sources of conduct.
Potok, Chaim. “The Invisible Map of Meaning: A Writer’s Confrontations.” Tri-Quarterly 84 (Spring, 1992): 17-45. Potok discusses the major theme that runs throughout his works, that of cultural conflict and the influence this conflict has on the direction of an individual life. Potok describes his first encounter with mainstream Western literature and shows how this experience shaped his subsequent writing, including In the Beginning.
Potok, Chaim. Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. New York: Fawcett Books, 1990. Potok’s compelling history of the Jews recreates historical events and explores the many facets of Jewish life through the ages. Although this work does not address Potok’s fiction, it does provide insight into Potok’s ethnic heritage which has a direct bearing on his writing.
Walden, Daniel, ed. The World of Chaim Potok. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. This rich resource on the writing of Chaim Potok features critical essays, as well as reviews and a bibliographic essay. It does not directly discuss In the Beginning but provides valuable insight into Potok’s fiction that can be extended to the entire body of his work.