Mr. Potok has written scholarly and popular articles and reviews during his publishing career. Mr. Chaim Potok is a novelist, philosopher, historian, theologian, playwright, artist, and editor. All of Mr. Potok’s novels explore the tensions between Judaism and the modern society (Kaupunginkirasto). Chaim Potok was born in the Bronx, New York, on 17 February 1929, to Polish Jewish immigrants, and was educated in Jewish parochial schools. Mr. Potok undertook a serious religious and secular education, first at the Orthodox Yeshiva University, New York, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in English (summa cum laude) in 1950. Mr. Potok received his rabbinical ordination in 1954 at Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, and finally at the University of Pennsylvania, he obtained a Ph.D. in 1965(Buning). “Potok transforms Judaic scholarship to drama. Potok explores the tension inside the religious community. He fuses his interests in Jewish education and twentieth century history, a history that had violently touched his family. This novel serves as Potok’s primary vehicle for the examination of the modern Jewish experience. The genesis and substance of every Potok novel is the Jewish religious, historic, and cultural experience in a non-Judaic world.
The philosophic and ethical views are derived from the Judaic sources. Potok’s affirmative vision, veneration of life, positive assessment of human nature, and pervasive striving for meaning in the midst of chaos, for good in the face of evil will be derived from Judaism (Walden 233). It is about growing up in an anti-Semitic environment.
David, a young Jewish boy, is growing up in the Bronx of New York City. David experiences the strains that modern, assimilationist America can put upon a deeply religious, orthodox, sensibility. David grew up on the streets of New York and encountered the anti-Semitism that prevailed there at a certain period of time.
David appears to be exploring the nature of evil in human affairs. David learns of scripture or history, what he hears about his parent’s past, what he endures himself in the way of accident or cruelly all become aspects of a single experience-a Jewish experience.
In the fourth year of David Lurie’s life, we enter his life and mind, to see how, through a crucible of childhood pain and love, a man’s spirit was forged.
How a gentle, frail little boy became a young man with the terrible courage to pursue his vision of the truth at the risk of all that was most dear to him: family love, friendship and his passionate identity with the centuries of Jewish tradition. David Lurie lives on sunlit apartments on the tree-lined boulevards of the Bronx. On the city sidewalks, Davey (David Lurie) is playing marbles in perfect communion with Tony Savanola until the six-year-old Eddie Kulanski, raised to hate “Kikes,” initiates Davey into the anguishing knowledge that to be a Jew is to be in peril.
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 (Amazon). In the Beginning as the title suggests is a recapitulation of the Book of Genesis from the Creation to the flood of Noah.
Many of the dramatic tensions in the novel develop through David’s father Max. Max Lurie is active in leadership in a society to help other emigrants to America. The primary tensions in the novel develop from young David’s situation in an environment that cherishes the old ways of life and Yeshiva study.
David become more and more conscious of a need to move out that environment into the larger world of non-orthodox, even non-Jewish intellectual life move out of it, moreover, with out relinquishing it utterly (Halio 373).
In almost all of Potok’s novels, father-son relationships are central to our understanding of the various conflicts that occur. It is the task of the fathers to pass on the Jewish heritage to their obedient sons. Critics have pointed out that the stress put on the authority of the father parallels a similar stress in traditional, patriarchal Judaism on God as King, Judge, and Father; hence the high level of respect, based on mutual love, that the sons display towards their fathers (Buning).
Mr. Bader (Davids teacher) who guided David in his studies would welcome David warmly into his apartment. Mr. Bader and David would sit at his desk and he would remind David to be patient (Potok 279). David learned in his journey to adulthood that he could not swallow the entire world at one time. David would remind himself consistently before a new class at the beginning of a school year or about to start a new book or research paper; that all beginnings are hard. David would touch his raw nerves of faith, the beginning of things (Potok 289).
Mr. Bader taught other important lessons to David. Mr. Bader taught that is it more important to learn the important questions than it is to learn the important answers. There are some questions that do not have good answers. There are some rich and some poor. How much money a man makes has nothing to do with his wisdom or the good he is able to do for others.
David shows us the universal joys and universal guilts of childhood, but the special excitements and the added burdens of a rare spirit and mind destined for rare achievement and the cruel choices that such destine demands of child, boy, youth and man. David reminisced, “I can remember hearing my mother murmur those words while I lay in bed with fever. Children are often sick, that is the way it is with children.
All beginnings are hard. You will be all right soon. (Potok 280) David bursts into tears one evening because a passage of a Bible commentary had proved too difficult for him to understand. David was about nine years old at the time. Davids father said to him ” You want to understand everything immediately? Just like that? You have only begun to study this commentary last week. All beginnings are hard. You have to work at the job of studding. Go over it again and again (Potok 279).
David learned in his journey that a man can not ignore the given to him by his life (Potok 131). People exist by the virtue of the help they give to one another. Helping people improves the helper person’s life and keeps the helping person human (Potok 279). Our task is to understand, to memorize and to give back what we had learned.
“All Beginnings are hard.” Beginning is sustained through the painful and sometimes repetitious actions of the story. David Lurie is now a famous Biblical scholar, now guiding his young students on the dangerous tightrope path of iniquity. David Lurie traveled this path as a youth, where a misstep might mean hurtling into a bitter loss of faith. David is looking back at his own beginning. David Lurie is a studious, thoughtful child, whose state as a child of immigrants makes him more sensitive to European influences on American life and policy (Amazon). He is a precocious reader and brilliant student of the Jewish scriptures. The accidental aspect of certain things is heavily underscored (Huapt 232).
In the Beginning, Potok’s altered ego, the brilliant young yeshiva student David Lurie, undertakes to bridge the gulf between fundamentalism and secular humanism, including ugly aspects of Western anti-Semitism, even at the risk of losing the respect of his family, his friends, and all of his teachers but one (Buning).
Moreover, this quest for identity and authenticity has been dramatically accentuated in our century by World War II and in particular by the Holocaust and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These unprecedented atrocities require a radical review of the human predicament. Indeed, the traumatic aftermath of these events, particularly of the Holocaust, overshadows all of Potok’s works. He is not only concerned with its devastating after-effects on his characters, but at the same time with what theologians and philosophers call the problem of Divine Providence or theodicy. Centering on the unanswerable question of how God can allow the existence of physical and moral evil in a world supposedly created by Him (Buning).
It suggests that the author has decided in favor of religion. The book has ascetic, stoical, self-punishing tone, established with its first line. “All beginnings are hard” and sustained through the painful and sometime repetitious actions of the story. From shortly after birth in the nineteen-twenties, David Lurie is plagued by chronic sinus illnesses that prove to be emblematic of his growing up. David’s inner life, tortured with fears and bad dreams, is followed through the depression, which ruins his family. In the late thirties and forties as the news from Europe grows more and more dreadful into David’s budding years as a scholar buds, David learns that curiosity can be a dangerous enemy of faith. Mr. Potoks story cannot be recommended to everyone. Its prose is simple and smooth, but a heavy earnestness pervades it all (New Yorker 193).
The book centers on the conflict between the religious life and the life of imagination. What ” finally, boils down to be a story in which its hero must eventually confront- yes the conflict between orthodox and modern approaches to the scriptures (Huapt 373). All beginnings are hard. In the Beginning opens as David Lurie, now a famous Biblical scholar, now guiding his young students on the dangerous tightrope path of inquiry he himself traveled as a youth–where a misstep might mean hurtling into bitter loss of faith–looks back at his own beginning (Potok 1).
The story is tied to scriptural themes with unaccustomed complexity. I was surprised to see a reference to the Documentary Hypothesis.
This is an explanation of how the first five books of the Bible were written. I learned about the Documentary Hypothesis in my Hebrew scripture class. This is a very complex biblical criticism in the middle of a novel. It does have references to Torah and Talmudic study, so non-Jews and seculars ones might have to look something
Despite of the resulting fullness and complexity, the author has mis-estimated. His patterning is too careful, too insistent. When every small episode or description is made thematically relevant, there is a loss of the spontaneity that Mr. Potok’s fluid associative mode of reminiscence seems to require. He proceeds too cautious, as through fearful of spilling a drop of his meaning. An incidentally effect is make Jewishness seem an exhausting full time condition imposing a conversational style that moves only between the gnomic and wry. The most important aspect of the miscalculation is that within the larger context the author has created, his hero is insufficiently interesting (Irwin 413).
Most of Potok’s novels can be seen as the fictional sites of cultural confrontation and how that confrontation affects the people involved in them. The cultural confrontation is between a minority immigrant Jewish subculture and the ‘umbrella’ culture (as the author himself calls it) of Western secular humanism.
It is Potok’s particular gift as a novelist and storyteller to have subjected these rather abstract areas of cultural expression to novelistic treatment and to have made them available to the common reader. He writes about these modern achievements with great enthusiasm and succeeds remarkably well in making them exciting for us, however complex they actually are. Yet, he is not blind to the darker aspects of Western civilization, particularly since its history is fraught with an anti-Semitism that reached its greatest intensity in the Holocaust (Buning).
This novel about a Jewish brain box puzzling at the irrationality of history turns out unexpectedly moving. Kept off stage and reflected in miscrosm, the street corner humiliations, the tough gangs of goyim forcing copies of social justice on Semitic looking schoolboys offer much more controllable leverage on our emotions.
It is this careful focus which ensures that the conclusion works. With five million dead in Europe and a race about to make a new beginning, a decision to abandon orthodox Jewish study and see what goyische learning has to offer might seem less than a climax. It is a measure of Mr. Potok’s plausibility and characterization that the act (viewed as treachery by the community) comes across as a necessary, heroic and loyal to a deeper Jewish tradition (Barnes 373)
The mythic elements are superbly manipulated Potok has, at last, come to grips with the implicit in all of his previous work: the problem of sustaining religious faith in a meaningless world. He offers no easy resolution. Lurie (the narrator) at the end of the novel is still searching for the truth. That is what makes “In the Beginning” so powerful. It successfully re-creates a time, a place, and the journey of a soul. Its ultimate ambiguity is a perfect reflection of the response of an intelligent religious sensibility to life (Nissenson 321).
Personally, I found this book to be dull. It was the same thing over and over. It did not hold my attention. It seemed centered on a boy named David who was sickly with some mysterious illness that could not be cured. The illness was never named. In spite of the illness, the child was bright and intelligent. He was ahead of his peers when he started school. He had self-taught himself to read both the English and Hebrew alphabet. It is centered on a Jewish boy learning how to interact with his parents.
It seemed that it was a sequel to another story and it assumed one knew and understood the previous story even though it was not narrated. It assumes you know and understand the history of the 1930-1940’s. There is one thing that I did find good about the book is that it seems to be writing about the conflicts of pursuing your dreams when every one else is trying to derail your efforts. The story makes you feel that you actually know these characters even though his characters may come from a culture totally alien to the reader.
Amazon Review, http://www.amazon.com
A review of “In the Beginning” The New York, vol. LI, no. 39 November 17, 1975, pg. 193-194
Author’s comments, http://www.lasierra.edu/ballen/potok/potok.unique.html#begin
Barnes, Julian; “Zion Tamers” in New Statesman, vol. 91, no. 2351, April 9, 1976, pg. 478, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 26, Gale Research Company Book, Tower, Detroit, London (1999) pg. 373
Biographical Data, http://www.lasierra.edu/ballen/potok.biographical.html
Book Synopsis, http://www.lasierra.edu/ballen/potok/begin.syn.html
Book information, http://www.lasierra.edu/ballen/potok/potok.begin.html
Broadway, Bill; Religion Georgetown University Washington Post; 27 Mar 1999
Buning, Marius Chaim Potok, March 1995 Free University Amsterdam, The Netherlands Post-War Literatures in English Groningan: Nyhoff http://www.lasierra.edu/ballen/potok/potok.about.html
Contemporary Authors Volume number 17-20 first version Gale research Company Book Tower Detroit, Michigan, 1965, 1966, 1976 pg. 590-591
Contemporary Authors Volume number 19 New Revision Series Gale Research Company Book Tower Detroit London, 1987, Pg. 379-384
Contemporary Authors Volume number 35 New Revision Series; Gale Research Inc. Detroit, London, 1992, Pg. 384-387
Contemporary Literary Criticism Volume number 26 Gale Research Company Book Tower Detroit, Michigan, 1983 Pg. 367-376
Contemporary Literary Criticism Volume number Vol. 112 (CLC112) Gale Research Company Book Tower Detroit London, 1999 Pg. 254-257, 284-289
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume number eight Twentieth Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, A Bruccoli Clark Book, Gale Research Company, Book Tower, 1992 Page numbers 232-243 1984
Dictionary of Literary Biography; Volume number 152 American Novelist Since World War II Fourth Series A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book, Gale Research Inc. Detroit, Washington DC; (1995) pg. 202-215
Halio Jay L., American Dreams Southern Review vol. 13, no.4 Oct 1977 Pages 837-844; Contemporary Literary Criticism Volume number 26 Gale Research Company Book Tower Detroit, Michigan (1983) Pg. 367-376
Irwin, Michael; A Full-time Condition, The Times Literary Supplement, no. 3865 Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 9 April 1976; Contemporary Literary Criticism Volume number 26 Gale Research Company Book Tower Detroit, Michigan (1983) pg. 367-376
Kaupunginkirasto, Kuusankosken, 1999, Chaim Potok http://www.askjeeves.com/main/metaAnswer.asp?MetaEngine=WebCrawler&logQID=378E62249B62D411AB730090278D5513&qCategory=jeeves&qSource=0&frames=yes&site_name=Jeeves&ads=&MetaTopic=Chaim+Potok&MetaURL=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.kirjasto.sci.fi%2Fpotok.htm&EngineOrdinal=2&ItemOrdinal=1&ask=Chaim+Potok+and+In+the+Beginning+metasearch&origin=0&MetaList=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.kirjasto.sci.fi%2Fpotok.htm&x=27&y=
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher “New Promises, Familiar Story” in the New York Times, December 3, 1975, pg. 43 Contemporary Literary Criticism, volume 26Gale Research Inc., Detroit, Michigan (1983) pg. 372
Merkin, Daphne; Why Potok is Popular? Feb 1976 pg.73-75
Contemporary Literary Criticism Volume number 7 Gale Research Company Book Tower Detroit London (1977) Pg.321-323
Nissenson, Hugh, The New York Times Book Review 19 Oct 1975; Contemporary Literary Criticism Volume number 7 Gale Research Company Book Tower Detroit London
(1977) Pg. 321-323
On Being Proud of Uniqueness, http://www.lasierra.edu/ballen/potok/potok.unique.html
Potok, Chaim, In the Beginning; A Fawcett Crest Book, December 1981,