The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The characters are drawn with broad strokes, as befits a story much of which is recounted from the point of view of a boy. Although first-person narrator David Lurie is a mature young man by the time the book ends, the bulk of the narrative centers on his boyhood and adolescence, and Potok frequently exploits the dramatic irony occasioned by youthful lack of knowledge.

To the young David, his father, Max Lurie, is a larger-than-life figure, a pillar of strength—at least until the Crash of 1929, which ruins him. Even this loss, however, does not permanently break his spirit. A revisionist Orthodox Jew, he fought against the Red Cossacks who invaded Poland in 1920. When his brother David died in a pogrom, Max married David’s widow, Ruth, in accordance with the Law of Moses. Max is a resourceful provider for his family, burdened always with the belief that the tradition must be preserved. Despite fits of anger at the pogroms and at his son David’s choice of studies, Max tries to recognize that there is another way besides rage:You want to fight the goyim with words? All right. Good. Fight them with words. My little brother would not have been troubled too much to see you reading German books if you were thinking to use them as weapons. I will fight them with guns.

David is a counterpoint to his father’s strength. A brilliant, precocious youth, David is hounded by childhood accidents and recurring illnesses, bullied by bigger, stronger boys, haunted by extraordinarily vivid nightmares. Yet David is less an individual and more a means for the author to exemplify the confrontation of Orthodox Judaism with anti-Semitism and secular culture. He is an ideal. He is...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

David (Davey) Lurie

David (Davey) Lurie, the narrator, a Jewish boy growing up in New York City. Davey’s childhood is plagued by what he sees as terrifying accidents and is dominated by his illnesses, nose and throat infections made frequent by a deviated septum, the result of falling with his mother the day she brought him home from the hospital as a newborn. His rich imagination is filled with a combination of his father’s harsh history, his mother’s bittersweet memories, and his cousin Saul’s stories from the midrash (commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures). To the distress of his father and cousin, Davey’s brilliant mind eventually leads him to study higher criticism of sacred texts and to question the safely orthodox understandings of Scripture with which he has been reared. After his ordination as a rabbi, Davey leaves home to study for an advanced degree at the University of Chicago. At the end of the novel, in the cemetery at Bergen Belsen, he finds in a vision of his father and his Uncle David courage to “nourish the present” without losing its roots in so tragic a past.

Max Lurie

Max Lurie, Davey’s father, a real estate agent in New York. Short, thickset, and muscular, Max is known for his strength and his ability to get things done. After serving in the Polish army in World War I, Max returned home to his Polish village, only to find anti-Semitism and pogroms awaiting him. In response, he founded the Am Kedoshim Society to help Jews survive by physical and financial force. During the early parts of the novel, the society is trying to bring its members and their families to America. Max hates the goyim (non-Jews) but is above all a practical man of action. When the stock market crashes, financial and political action become impossible for him, and he suffers an emotional breakdown. Eventually, recognizing that he must rebuild, he learns to repair watches, gradually building a successful business as...

(The entire section is 806 words.)