In The Beginning by Chaim Potok

It seems like all of Chaim Potok’s novels honor the gentle, sensitive intellectual or artist. In this book, you follow the childhood of David Lurie, a classic “highly sensitive child” (HSC) growing up in the 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 (Jewish) values of his family and friends.
(I wonder if this novel isn’t largely autobiographical).

Rather than describing David’s sensitivity, I will let Potok’s book speak for itself:

“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 signs and glances and the often barely discernible gestures that are the real message carriers in our noisy world” (5-6).

Near David’s home is a pine wood. “I really loved this pine wood. I loved its silences and the still sounds of a summer breeze in its branches. I liked things to be quiet. I did not even like it when our new canary sang too long” (29).

After a disturbing run-in with bullies in his neighborhood, David runs home and hides under his bedsheet. “I lay in my white world, shivering with fear and fever, and thought how nice it would be if I did not have to leave my bed again. The street reeked with the odor of malevolence…. Yes, it would be nice to stay here. Very nice. How smooth and cool the sheet was. I rubbed my eyelashes against [it]…. Cool and white and smooth and silent” (133).

David’s first experience of school is both boring (he had already taught himself to read) and overwhelming. During his first recess, the “frenzied play” gives him a headache, so he studies the chain-link fence “until the shrill sound of the whistle terminated the recess” (165). At the end of the day, “I came out of the school building, pushed and jostled by older students whose shouts and strident laughter rang disturbingly in my ears, and saw my father waiting for me at the foot of the stone stairway” (163).

Later that week, his mother gently asks him about his sullenness. He replies, “I’m not learning anything in my school,” to which his mother responds, “Sha, darling. Sha. You will learn. This is only your fourth day in school. Even God needed a week to create the world” (178).

© 2010 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written March 2010