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.)