Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
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...
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- Critical Essays
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.
David’s early life centers on Shabbat, Sabbath observances. David is a prodigy, asking uncomfortable questions about adult life and catching the “whispers and sighs and glances and the often barely discernible gestures that are the real message carriers in our noisy world.” Soon he begins studies at the yeshiva with his older cousin Saul, and soon his father is confronted with the stock-market crash.
Max Lurie’s business fails during the Depression, the Am Kedoshim Society is bankrupt, and Max plunges into deep despair. Eventually the Luries move to smaller quarters, and Max begins to develop a new trade of watch repair. David remembers his frail mother, writing letters to her family remaining in Poland, nursing her husband, reading to David in German, fearful.
David studies Torah, the first five books of Moses, with Mr. Shmuel Bader.I had never been taught Bible that way in school. For my teacher, the words of the Bible . . . were simply there. Our task was to understand, to memorize, and to give back what we had learned. When Mr. Bader was done with that page it quivered and resonated with life.
Max Lurie’s new business prospers, and the family moves to a larger apartment house. In the midst of dark rumors of Jewish deaths in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, David’s time is occupied with intense study of the strange books given to him by a superstitious neighbor, Mrs. Horowitz, now long dead. The books, which belonged to her father, are in German; they are works of biblical criticism that study not a seamless Torah with one (divine) author but rather a collection of writings from many sources.
After completing his undergraduate work at the yeshiva, David chooses secular Bible study at the University of Chicago. His younger brother, Alex, explores modern novels and the works of Sigmund Freud. The grief of David’s father, who fears that his sons are becoming traitors to Orthodoxy, is put into perspective in the novel’s visionary conclusion, which takes place years later, on a visit to the site of the Bergen-Belsen death camp. There, David has an imaginary conversation with the spirit of his namesake, Max’s brother, killed in a pogrom. They are joined by the spirit of David’s father, also dead now, and father and son are reassured that there has been neither failure nor betrayal: From the goyim, Jews must draw culture to enrich the roots of Orthodoxy. It is not rage, says the ghost, but a deep penetration of that evil culture that will in the end transform it.