Monday, January 25, 2010

From a boy to a man - a creation story (Books - In the Beginning by Chiam Potok)

Singing the praises of Chaim Potok the other day in Booking Through Thursday sent me straight to the shelves for a re-read. Having re-read My Name is Asher Lev, The Chosen, and The Promise several times, this time I chose In the Beginning. As its name suggests, this is a creation story. The creation of the man, David Lurie, from the boy with the combined influences of his physical and mental qualities, his family, his schooling, his friends, his Judaism, and the events taking place during his formative years both locally in his neighborhood in the Bronx, New York and in the world at-large, which include everything from the Russian Revolution and pogroms against the Jews in Poland, to the stock market crash and World War II.
I spent my early life growing a little and being ill a lot. I thought and dreamed a great deal. I lay in my bed and watched and listened. I turned my long lonely days and nights into nets with which I caught the whispers and sighs and glances and the often barely discernible gestures that are the real message carriers in our noisy world. But it was years before I could shape what I saw and heard into a pattern that made some sense of the lives of my aunt and uncle and cousing, the alternately withdrawn and volatile natures of my parents, and the mysterious comings and goings of the now ubiquitous, now vanishing Mr. Shmuel Bader.
David is a prodigy with an abnormally observant mind, a photographic memory, and is reading three languages before his tenth birthday. Destined to become a great rabbi or teacher, his schools promote him ahead, which still does not prevent him from boredom in class and simultaneously does little to make up for his immature social awareness. David has the propensity for a certain kind of dreaminess that is unusually developed because he spends so much time sick in bed. He takes the pictures and ideas that revolve through his daily life both real and imagined and turns them over and over, making images of them in his mind's eye so that he might "enter" into them, as he explains. He tries to make sense of the crazy world he lives in through empathy. This is a world in which his relatives are senselessly murdered simply for being Jewish and even at the level of his neighborhood, he often faces the anti-Semitism of some of his non-Jewish peers. So this method of understanding is a painful one for his sensitive and idiosyncratic sensibility. Potok is particularly good at creating the feeling of being inside the point-of-view of this unique child's mind. And this point of view is particularly useful for probing the challenge of living with any sense of purposefullness or more traditional religious faith in a world of senseless and repeated cruelties.

David is named for his mother, Ruth's, first love, who had, it seems, a similar brilliance as well as a similar frailty. He was the brains and his brother Max the organizing force in a resistance movement among Galician Jews. When David (the elder) is murdered by the Cossacks, Ruth marries Max and they emigrate to America, where Max uses his strength to save hundreds of lives and becomes a hero to his community. Living up to the ghost of his unseen uncle is a tremendous burden to David, but one of the chief lessons of this book is the value of challenging beginnings.

The chief idea of this deep and powerful novel is exemplified through the two brothers - David and Max - as the fictional realizations of two ways of apprehending the world's challenges - action and thought. These natures are experienced by our protagonist through his childhood as irreconcilable qualities. What makes this more than simply another long tale of a childhood hardship is the richness of detail Chaim Potok gives these two men. He doesn't create simple caricatures that summarize their qualities to make for expedient symbolism. Rather, he struggles through the novel's pages as David struggles through his childhood, to understand the complexities of these men. This is an analogue for the exhaustive study of the torah and its many interpretations that David and his peers go through in their Yeshiva education. This study is the center-piece of an active, practicing Jewish life. Judaism is not a tradition of accepting the most obvious explanation of anything, least of all its primary texts and Potok's fiction is no less probing of human beings and their qualities.

The beauty of In the Beginning is the way Potok combines the twin strengths of David's "fathers" into thought-as-action through the character of the younger David. It is this marriage of approaches that is David's coming-of-age and makes clear the usefulness of his iconoclastic mind. And it is the hardness of his beginnings that gives him the strength to endure life as a ground-breaking scholar - a tradition anathema to his community's way of life. Potok's writing is simple and evocative, the world he creates believable and enveloping, and the ideas he brings to life intelligent and complex, confirming my memory of this book as a moving and deep reading experience.


Andy Nathan said...

I fondly remember reading "The Chosen" in high school; a gift from my English teacher. Reading your review makes me want to re-read that wonderful novel, and follow it up with "In the Beginning." Thanks for the wonderful review.

Ted said...

Hey Andy! That's a great one too - isn't it? Do you remember the movie of The Chosen with an unlikely but surprisingly good Robbie Benson playing a Hassidic Jew and the amazing Rod Steiger playing his father the rebbe?

Andy Nathan said...

Though I remember, from childhood, seeing a promo for the movie, I have never seen it. I now would like to. I've been thinking a great deal about "The Chosen" over the past months. Reading your post was a good way to bring back the novels more immediate feelings.