Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review: In the Beginning

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

In The Beginning is quite different in style than Potok’s earlier novels. The story is told through -somewhat non-sequential flashbacks. We see a lot of David as a young boy, but then it moves quickly through his adolescent years. He is brilliant, bookish, and intellectually rebellious—though in a quiet and confident way. It shifts back and forth from great narrative and descriptive detail to more emotional impressions. It is a lot in David’s head – sometimes when he sick with fever or lost deep in daydreams.

The overall mood of the novel is melancholy. There are moments of joy and happiness, but a lot of sadness and loneliness. It is beautiful in many ways; painting an impressionistic picture of American Orthodox Jewish life in early middle part of the 20th century.

Potok’s novels take me into a world both familiar and utterly foreign. It is a deeply Jewish world, but it’s not my Jewish world. Potok stirs in me a desire to know more about this Orthodox world, a (ever so slight) regret that I didn’t grow up and live in this world filled with Torah and Talmud. At this same time, I am repulsed by this closed, ghettoized world; one so fearful and disdainful of different knowledge and ways. I think this tension is at the heart of Potok’s novels. Be it Danny Saunders (The Chosen), Asher Lev (My Name is Asher Lev), or David (In The Beginning), the main character always straddles and struggles with this gap between the Yiddish, Orthodox world and the secular world. He wants to keep and maintain this world he knows and loves, but there is too much in him—a desire for more than what the insular Orthodox world can offer—for him to stay. He does not want to reject the past, but he also knows that life requires moving forward…to a new beginning.

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