At the beginning of this novel, Oz describes what it's like to grow up between cultures. He lives in Israel yet identifies with European intellectual culture, particularly Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Chekhov. His parents speak many languages yet only teach Oz Hebrew, presumably because they want to shelter him from the "wonderful, murderous continent" of Europe. The big idea to be had here is where Oz and his family fit in. They admire elite intellectual culture yet are themselves rather poor. Russian literature resonates with their own spirit, yet they also want to distance themselves from it and establish a new identity in Israel.
The question of identity will be one that continues to course through this novel as Oz struggles to understand who he is. His observations of his family and their relationship to the world will come together as he realizes the influence of history, geography, and politics on his life and future.