In the Beginning: A Novel

In the Beginning: A Novel

by Chaim Potok

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307575548
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/17/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 2,905
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Chaim Potok was born in New York City in 1929. He graduated from Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was ordained as a rabbi, and earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He also served as editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America. Potok’s first novel, The Chosen, published in 1967, received the Edward Lewis Wallant Memorial Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. He is author of eight novels, including In the Beginning and My Name Is Asher Lev, and Wanderings, a history of the Jews. He died in 2002.

Read an Excerpt

ONE
 
 All beginnings are hard.
 
I can remember hearing my mother murmur those words while I lay in bed with fever. “Children are often sick, darling. That’s the way it is with children. All beginnings are hard. You’ll be all right soon.”
 
I remember bursting into tears one evening because a passage of Bible commentary had proved too difficult for me to understand. I was about nine years old at the time. “You want to understand everything immediately?” my father said. “Just like that? You only began to study this commentary last week. All beginnings are hard. You have to work at the job of studying. Go over it again and again.”
 
The man who later guided me in my studies would welcome me warmly into his apartment and, when we sat at his desk, say to me in his gentle voice, “Be patient, David. The midrash says, ‘All beginnings are hard.’ You cannot swallow all the world at one time.”
 
I say it to myself today when I stand before a new class at the beginning of a school year or am about to start a new book or research paper: All beginnings are hard. Teaching the way I do is particularly hard, for I touch the raw nerves of faith, the beginnings of things. Often students are shaken. I say to them what was said to me: “Be patient. You are learning a new way of understanding the Bible. All beginnings are hard.” And sometimes I add what I have learned on my own: “Especially a beginning that you make by yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.”
 
I marvel that we survive our beginnings. Mine was filled with strange accidents. In the very beginning there was the accident that occurred about a week after I was born: my mother, bringing me home from the hospital, tripped going up the front stoop of our apartment house and fell forward heavily onto her knees and then sideways onto her left elbow before my father caught her and helped her to her feet. My nose and the left side of my face had struck the stone edge of the top step.
 
Of course I have no memory of that accident; but that accident has much to do with what I am able to remember of subsequent years.
 
My mother’s knees and elbow were badly scraped. I appeared to be uninjured. The blanket I had been wrapped in had protected my face, and only very little blood, as if from a small scratch, had come from my nose. Our family doctor—a short, pink-faced, red-haired man who spoke Yiddish and English fluently and wore a pince-nez—came quickly, conducted his examination, and announced that no injury had been done to me, I was lucky, we were all lucky, at least twice a week he had cases of mothers tripping on stoops while carrying their babies in and out of buildings and sometimes the babies were badly hurt. But I was all right. However, if my nose swelled, or my mother’s knees or elbow swelled, they were to call him. My nose did not swell and my mother’s scrapes healed rapidly.
 
Dr. Weidman had spoken with authority, and neither my mother nor my father had thought to question his judgment. They had the European immigrant’s awe of doctors and reverence for medicine. It was a few years before they discovered that our doctor had erred.
 
Then there were the bird and the dog I killed accidentally when I was about four. The bird was a canary, a gift of my father’s to my mother. She loved that bird; she would sit in the living room and listen to it sing. After a few minutes she would begin to smile, her tight, nervous features would grow calm, and her darting eyes would slowly relax and become limpid with joy. Once a week my father would close all the windows in the apartment and let the canary fly around the house. I lay ill in my bed one hot day, unable to breathe through my clogged nose, my throat painfully tight and dry. I forgot about the bird and opened my window. The bird flew out and was gone. My father hit me for that accident. A cat would now eat that bird, he said. Only feathers would be left of it, he said.
 
The dog belonged to a downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Horowitz, who let him roam our New York block. Everyone liked him. I would sit alone near my brother’s carriage and watch the children playing with him. One day he got up on his hind legs and poked his shaggy head into the carriage while my brother slept. I hit him and he ran into the street and was hit by a car. Mrs. Horowitz shrieked at me when she saw her dog crushed and dead along the curb. “But it was an accident,” I kept saying. “It was an accident.”
 
There was Eddie Kulanski, the boy on my block who hated Jews with the kind of mindless demonic rage that remains incomprehensible—and terrifying—to me to this day. He was only six years old but his hatred bore the breeding of a thousand years. A few months before my sixth birthday he accidentally came near to killing me.
 
The street we lived on—before our world fell to pieces and we plunged into the decade of the Depression—was wide and tree-lined and lovely. It was a quiet, sunny, cobblestone street filled with well-to-do families who owned cars, went to their synagogues and churches, spoke English civilly to one another—the senior members in the heavy accents of their European lands of origin—and who felt that, at least for them, the immigrant’s dream had been realized, they had been right to abandon the blight of Europe and gamble on golden America. Somewhere in the city things were different for immigrants, they lived in a black nightmare of tenements and a miasma of squalor and degradation; but the immigrants on our Bronx street had succeeded: they were all naturalized citizens, proud of their new country, their new wealth, and their children who romped on the sidewalk, played happily, and chattered in an English that seemed to immigrant ears accent-free.
 
Those should have been sweet years for me, those first years of my life. But they were not. I did things and things happened to me that brought dread into our lives. All through those early years and on into my teens, accidents trailed in my wake like foul-breathing specters. Often my accidents were very narrow escapes; but sometimes they resulted in serious physical injury to myself or to others—and this despite the fact that I lived and played with caution because I was slight of build, always short for my age, and often ill from the injury our family doctor said had not been done to me when my mother tripped and fell with me in her arms.
 
The injury that had not been done to me by that fall is called a deviated septum, the breaking of the cartilaginous tissue that partitions the nose and aids the delicate and vital filtering processes of the nostrils. Once it was broken, I became fair game for the viral and bacterial pirates of our world. The break widened as I grew older, and the septum began to block my right nostril; but the damage was not discovered until I was almost six. By that time the break was reparable only by potentially serious surgery, which could not be performed until after I had stopped growing.
 
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 cousin, the alternately withdrawn and volatile natures of my parents, and the mysterious comings and goings of the now ubiquitous, now vanishing Mr. Shmuel Bader.
 

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In the Beginning 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My all time favorite. I recommend this to anyone. Its just a fantastic book, overshadowed by other great works as The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, both which dont hold a candle to this book.
fingerpost on LibraryThing 5 months ago
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 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.
Joycepa on LibraryThing 5 months ago
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 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.
LaurieRKing on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Every young adult should read a couple of these; every adult should re-read them.
TurtleBoy on LibraryThing 5 months ago
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 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.
kwmcdonald on LibraryThing 9 months ago
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 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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Ed-Philosopher More than 1 year ago
Averse to books (and movies) with gratuitous sex and violence? Try Chaim Potok. His books tend to honor the gentle, sensitive (see HSPerson.com) intellectual. In this book, you follow the childhood of David Lurie, a Jewish boy growing up in 1930s and '40s Bronx (New York). An early injury leaves him physically weak and vulnerable to teasing, but his scholarly talents, vivid imagination, and tight-knit community allow him to grow into a fine young adult with the courage to forge his own way, even when that means challenging some of the religious values of his family and friends.
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