Saturday, June 20, 2015

In the Beginning

In the BeginningIn the Beginning by Chaim Potok
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chaim Potok is an amazing storyteller. One of my top 10 books of all time is The Chosen, which I reread on almost a yearly basis. This novel is just as good, though one I probably won't read as often, due to its nature - it is a bit grimmer in tone and feel.

The story is a coming of age tale of a Jewish boy named David Lurie. It begins when he is five, and continues to adulthood. He lives with his younger brother and parents in New York City, beginning in the late 1920's. His parents are immigrants from Poland, and staunch Zionists. His father is someone who believes Jews should fight back, and not let themselves be passively killed; he is a man of action. David is not. He is a sickly little boy who is ill almost monthly. Because of this (and also sometimes because he is Jewish) he is often bullied. When he is ill, he has high fevers, and Potok does a stellar job of describing how it feels to have fever dreams – I remember my own from my bout of scarlet fever.

Little David also has “accidents” – things that go wrong due to his clumsiness or actions. He can’t understand why people get so mad at him, when these incidents are not really his fault. (I think this is really a metaphor for what happens in life; often bad things happen for no reason.) After one such accident, David is afraid to speak, and goes for months without saying a word. His insights into silence are similar to the same theme in The Chosen and The Promise - obviously, a theme that is important to Potok.

I found this book compelling, but sometimes hard to read because of all the difficulties faced by David and his family. And for some reason, the part where they find out that all of their extended family was killed in concentration camps during WWII hit me extremely hard. I've read many books that deal with the Holocaust, but for some reason these few paragraphs just took the wind out of me. Maybe it was just the cumulative affect of all the other trials they faced, or that David's parents had tried to get their parents out of Poland, but they refused to leave. Whatever the reason, I was deeply touched.

Overall, this is a moving, powerful book about growing up, discovering self, and Jewish/American culture. Highly recommended!

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