In the Beginning

by Chaim Potok

Book, 1975



Call number




New York : Knopf : distributed by Random House, 1975.


David Lurie learns that all beginnings are hard. He must fight for his place against the bullies in his Depression-shadowed Bronx neighborhood and his own frail health. As a young man, he must start anew and define his own path of personal belief that diverges sharply with his devout father and everything he has been taught.... "From the Paperback edition."

User reviews

LibraryThing member Joycepa
Young David Lurie’s life is dominated by accidents in which he is both an unwitting participant and helpless victim. When bringing him home from the hospital, him mother tripped on the front steps to their apartment and fell, with the infant David in her arms; the left side of his face and his
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nose hit the pavement. A doctor’s examination showed nothing wrong, but unseen was damage to the nasal septum; as a result of this accident, David spent his childhood constantly ill, and grew up fragile. Trying to protect his baby brother’s carriage from the unwelcome attentions of a neighbor’s dog, David shooed the dog away--who promptly ran into the street, was hit by a car, and killed. The dog’s owner blamed David. On his tricycle, he accidentally ran over the hand of an anti-Semitic neighborhood bully,who harassed and frightened David for years. The Great Depression nearly destroyed his father, a man of action who had fought in the Polish Army in World War I, and dedicated his life to bringing Jews out of Europe into the U.S.

But the greatest accident of all was the Holocaust. No one--not David, not his grim father, not his uncle nor any of his friends--can even begin to imagine the mentality that would bring about such a catastrophe. As a result, anything German became taboo.

For David, who, although in fragile health, is a genius, this presents major difficulties. He has become interested in studying the Bible, not just the Torah, which is bad enough in his Orthodox Jewish community; it means reading questionable sources--Jews who, in Orthodox thought, are more like goy. Worst of all, it means reading German scholars; even if they are Jewish, David is surrounded by hostility from members of his yeshiva. David, aided by the greatest Talmudic scholar alive, is forced to choose between the heritage he loves and his passion for learning and understanding.

Chaim Potok, in his finest books, always writes about the conflict between the secular world and that of Orthodox Jewry. He writes about it with the most obvious love for his Orthodox heritage, but with enormous empathy for those in conflict. Whatever the resolution, it isn’t easy for his protagonist and always comes at great cost.

Potock not only is a master storyteller, but he is also a superb writer. Outside of a few words that anyone of my generation heard while growing up on the East Coast of the U.S., I have never heard Yiddish spoken. Potok narates his main story line and conversations with short, simple declarative sentences that have a sort of sing-song (the best way I can describe it) rhythm; I have no doubt that it imitates spoken Yiddish.

But David is someone who loves nature, finds comfort in the zoo and the parks. When Potok describes these scenes and David’s reactions, his prose becomes lyrical; his sentences are complex and filled with the wonder and delight that David feels when he feeds the zoo’s billy goat or is walking along a path in the park to a picnic area. David also dreams, and many are nightmares; then the prose is composed of long run-on sentences, clauses strung together by the conjunction “and” and darkly stunning in their descriptive power.

Potok moves easily with the skill of a master writer among these three styles, weaving a story that is both moving and thought-provoking. His stories are never simple, but they do reveal a world that is mostly hidden from the gentile view, one that is never filled by stereotypical characters but by real people who come from a revered and precious tradition and who must make their way in a secular world. In sum, a powerful book, beautifully written. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5592. In the Beginning, by Chaim Potok (read 4 Nov 2018) This 1975 novel is a powerful story of Jewish life and belief in Depression and wartime New York. The story begins in 1929 when David Lurie is 6 years old. The years of his early childhood in the Bronx are told at considerable length in the
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first person. His parents came to the U.S. after the war , they go through the Depression and recover therefrom. Their effort to persuade David's grandparents to leave Europe are unsuccessful The book closes with overpowering poignancy as David is studying to be a rabbi and word comesafter the war in Europe ends and the fate ot the family members in Europe is learned. There is much discussion of Jewish religion and learning which is expertly portrayed and which does explain the intellectual hurdles facing David and his relatives and which I found gripping and absorbing. The book is a masterpiece and fully lives up to what I expected from Polok, this being the fourth novel by him which I have read.
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LibraryThing member fingerpost
I love Potok's writing. I felt that I missed something in this book, and the story did not propel me forward in the way his other books I've read did. Towards the end, the plot becomes very involved in Jewish scholarship of the Torah and Talmud, to the point that as a non-Jewish reader I felt that
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I was surely missing a little of what was going on. David Lurie is a sickly boy who reads all the time and is constantly troubled by exactly WHY goyim seem to hate Jews so much. His studies as he grows older take him in directions his orthodox family and yeshiva friends do not approve of. While not really the subject of the story at any point, it takes place against a backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II.
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LibraryThing member kwmcdonald
Follows the very trying adolescence of an Orthodox Jewish boy in frail health, in the Bronx around the time of the Depression. The first half or so of the book was very slow reading for me; I didn't like it much. In the second half it picked up, and I really enjoyed the last third or so. So stick
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with it; if your experience is like mine, the first part of the book will be hard to get through, but it gets better. I almost quit reading this book about a quarter of the way through, but now I'm glad I didn't.
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LibraryThing member TurtleBoy
There is truth to this book of a sort one doesn't often find in literature: truth to oneself as a creator, mated with truth to one's traditions, even when the two find themselves in apparent opposition to one another.

The novel offers the story of a young Jewish man's coming-of-age, from a boyish
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six through to his 23rd year, in which he finally leaves his parents' Bronx apartment to pursue an education elsewhere.

As he grows he grows in wisdom, educated by life about death, duty, hatred, tradition. "We each have a job to do," his father is fond of saying, yet it takes our hero David Lurie a very long time to determine just what his own job may be. His cousin's path is a sure one, just as has been his mother's, his father's, his uncle's, each way dictated by custom, by family, by law. His own path is a trickier one, and only through nearly constant and literally feverish introspection is he able to find it and to find the courage to pursue it.

This book is a magnificent one, rich in detail, alive with the simple observational brilliance that make Potok such an exceptional author.
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LibraryThing member charlie68
An enveloping read that tells of a Jewish boy growing up in 1920s New York through the Second World War and his physical struggles and also with his faith. Very well written.
LibraryThing member starbox
Last read a Chaim Potok book aged 14...43 years on I read another and it's FABULOUS writing, up there with Roth's 'Radetzky March' as my best reads of the year.
This is an impression of the Jewish experience of the early 20th century...but not from a European perspective. The young narrator is
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living a relatively OK life in New York. But the whole book is filled with a sense of menace, as the child encounters snatches of adult conversation; a photo of his father and friends in a Polish forest with guns; mother fearing for her family back in Poland and the anguish as their efforts to persuade them to leave are rebuffed; the narrator's uncle and namesake who was killed in a pogrom...and closer to home, casual racist bullying, the Depression which impacts on the community's ability to help their compatriots. And the fearful news from Europe...

David Lurie is the sickly but academically brilliant son of Polish Jewish emigres. His father helps run an organisation dedicated to helping Polish Jews start a new life in the States. But the family history forms a big part of the child's experience: the frequent family trips to the wooded Bronx zoo overlay the images of the Jewish resistance in the Polish forest; and as his search for religious truth lead him to a secular university rather than the yeshiva, a sense of betraying his roots...

Utterly brilliant writing, 100% recommended!
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LibraryThing member PaulaGalvan
A moving story about the life of David Lurie, a Jewish boy growing up in New York. Due to an accident suffered as an infant, chronic illness often confines David to his bed which leads to an over-active imagination and a love for reading. As his family survives the great depression, racism, then
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the loss of their family to Hitler's camps, David becomes a renowned scholar of the Jewish faith. I probably would have liked the book more without having to wade through the tedious religious debates throughout the book, but the writing is beautiful and thought-provoking.
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LibraryThing member LaurieRKing
Every young adult should read a couple of these; every adult should re-read them.

Original publication date



0394499603 / 9780394499604
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