In the Beginning Summary
by Chaim Potok

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In the Beginning Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 David begins a study of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, with businessman Shmuel Bader.

It is Bader and David’s Hebrew Bible teacher, Ray Sharfman, who encourage the boy to use his intellect to argue against the traditional Jewish commentators. For David, the study of the Bible texts is infused with life. His father’s watch repair business prospers, and the family is able to move to a larger apartment house, but Max Lurie is burdened by his older son’s interest in the new science of textual criticism, developed in Germany. There is still much rage in him, for his brother David had died in a pogrom, and his son’s study seems to be bringing the Jewish tradition into question. Max’s younger son, Alex, has taken up the study of modern novels and Sigmund Freud. David tries to explain that his intention is to use the learning of the secular world as a weapon against that world.

A visionary reconciliation occurs at the end of the novel, during David’s visit, years later, to the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. David is joined by the spirit of his father, now dead, and by Max’s brother David, who tells Max that there has been no betrayal, that Orthodoxy must be enriched by outside knowledge.

Rage will not overcome anti-Semitism; only a deep penetration of pagan culture with the insights of Orthodoxy, tempered by modern science, can ever succeed. In this vision, Potok draws upon the principles of argumentation and consolidation in Orthodoxy itself. Orthodoxy is not one generation’s interpretation but the whole tradition of interpretation, wherein one rabbinical argument is countered with a second, reconciled by a third, and so on down through the centuries. David’s explorations of new knowledge outside the tradition may well return to enrich the tradition itself and enable it better to penetrate the modern consciousness.

As in Potok’s other Bildungsromane , the most fascinating scenes in the novel involve David’s challenge of his instructors, and the ancient rabbinical commentators as well, on points of Scripture. The conflict here is that of good against good; the ultra-Orthodox tradition is drawn with sympathy and care, for these are the people of Potok’s past. Yet, as the...

(The entire section is 1,693 words.)