chaim potok in the beginningChaim Potok is better known for the novels The Chosen and The Promise, and the Asher Lev books, but In The Beginning is just as powerful and adds sufficiently more in terms of the Jewish experience in America and how that related to events in Europe, that it may even be his best.

The background to the novel is the initial exodus of Polish Jews from Europe to America in the wake of The Lwów pogrom (also called the Lemberg pogrom) which took place in November, 1918.

What is special about In The Beginning is how well Chaim Potok describes childhood, particularly the very early years of this boy’s life.  It is a very patient book and this reflects the slow awakening that children experience, in this case vastly heightened as the young character David is awakened to Jewishness, to his family’s own history, his own ill-health and what is to become a lifelong study of Talmud, in an effort to establish some kind of truth about himself and life.

Truth is however a casualty, and although America is in general kind to the Jewish families we meet in In The Beginning, there is no escape from anti-Semitic feeling, which is of course all the more poignant when it is directed at a four year old who has no idea why. In the Beginning is a book of conflict.  There are the internal conflicts of Judaism, the conflict of Judaism with the society in which it sits, but these are secondary to the conflicts which take place within the family in question and in the Talmud study David undertakes. 

This wouldn’t be that great a novel if it were merely about Jewish people in conflict with American society at large — and in fact the Jewish communities in In the Beginning don’t react much with America at all, and the hero even less.  David turns out to be an enormously gifted scholar but all of this is presented as pointless by his family, because he wishes to temper his Talmud study with goyish applications like literary criticism, anthology and archaeology.  In fact although no violence is tendered towards the goyishe by the Jewish people in In the Beginning, there is still plenty hostility, and David’s father is particularly hostile to gentiles, generally because he fears a dilution of the Jewish heritage he has given his life over to preserving.

Fairly grandiose YouTube presentation concerning Chaim Potok

The most evocative scenes of the book are when David is young, and although his voice remains largely the same throughout it is just as interesting to watch his younger brother growing up, and discovering novels and poetry, and trying to make a life out of that.  It’s ironic that David’s brother’s rejection of the Jewish scholarly life is not considered bad at all, when in fact David is heavily criticised, largely for working against his destiny and studying Talmud at a university.

There are a few things at play in the title of In the Beginning — which are of course the first words of the Talmud.  This is the beginning of David’s life and journey and the beginning of the Jewish journey in America, and given the intensity of Talmud study, you have to wonder if a scholar could not spend his entire life studying those words and nothing else.

In the Beginning is beautifully written, and has an American memoir feel to it at times, and is able to well express the long passage of youth while also including a good dose of history — most notably the Wall Street crash here and then World War 2 and the concentration camps, both of which have a huge impact on the families in the novel.  Probably most powerful of all is the sadness of his moth and exhaustion of his father, both of whom are haunted by the figure of David’s Uncle David, who died in the aftermath of the Polish pogrom. 

David’s mother can never escape this loss, and due to the tradition of Levirate marriage, which is when the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow, and the widow is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother.  In Talmudic tradition, the son of this marriage should also be named after the dead man, and so that is why David is called David — and so just as the characters must live up to Jewish tradition, they are also saddled with living up to the impossible standards established by this death.