The Characters

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Although Potok is a traditional writer who believes in the primacy of plot, some of his characters seem to stand more for views that Potok wants to put forth than as people integral to the storyline. This is especially true of Channah and Michael Chandal, who seem most substantial when...

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Although Potok is a traditional writer who believes in the primacy of plot, some of his characters seem to stand more for views that Potok wants to put forth than as people integral to the storyline. This is especially true of Channah and Michael Chandal, who seem most substantial when they are espousing the primacy of human rights and their commitment to Communism as a means to create an international community. As characters, however, they tend to blend into the background in the novel.

The same kind of one-dimensionality is suggested by Sarah Chandal and Ezra Dinn. Although the actions of both are important to the story line, their primary usefulness—especially Dinn’s—seems to be as spokespeople for the Christian and Orthodox perspectives that Potok wants to detail. The characters of Ruthie Helfman and David Dinn also serve to present religious information, but because they are in closer contact with the day-to-day musings of Davita—the most fully developed character in the novel—they seem more real somehow.

Davita is the character on whom the novel rests. Her acute perceptions carry the reader along as she tries to make sense of the world around her and as she comes to rely more and more on what she finds within. In the first chapter, the reader learns that Davita is telling the story as she looks back in time. This at least partially accounts for her ways of thinking and speaking, for Davita’s perceptions in the novel are not those of a typical child. The accumulated wisdom that overlays her observations may create a sense of incongruity for some readers.

Some critics have suggested that Potok’s attempt to speak through a female persona is less successful than his characterization of male narrators. Potok includes intimate female scenes here; for example, Davita sees Channah, in her loneliness, exploring her body in front of a mirror, and Davita is shown experiencing her first menstrual period. Such scenes, however, seem less alive than the richly woven, detailed scenes in the synagogue.

The most profound and thought-provoking characters, Davita and Jakob Daw, reflect themselves in visions and stories. The sense of individual definition that they exude is less a separation from others than a deep familiarity with their own inner lives. To get closer to Jakob Daw, the reader has to descend into the stories he tells to Davita. In Jakob, political or religious views do not overshadow his essential humanity, and his character is the touchstone by which Davita—and probably the reader—will be oriented. With orientation comes understanding, and Davita is the vehicle of integration in the novel. She pulls together what is best in all the characters and their belief systems. Although she has been damaged by both politics and religion, Davita is left with a strong sense of worthiness and leaves her convictions about the art of living with the reader.

Characters Discussed

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Ilana Davita Chandal

Ilana Davita Chandal, the narrator, who recounts her experience of growing up in New York City during the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. Because both of her parents have rejected their religious heritage, Ilana Davita is forced to seek her own understanding of faith. Her father dies when she is about nine years old. After her family friend, Jakob Daw, is deported from the United States for his former association with the Communist Party, Ilana Davita has a breakdown and attempts suicide. While recovering on the family farm in Maine, Ilana Davita is cared for by her Aunt Sarah, who continually prays for her spiritual and physical well-being. Subsequently, Ilana Davita reclaims her Jewish heritage but is shocked to learn that she has been denied the Akiva Award for having the highest academic average in her Jewish school simply because she is a girl. In a dream, her Aunt Sarah counsels her to let go of her anger, then learn to be discontented with the world while also being respectful of it.

Channah Chandal

Channah Chandal, the young mother of Ilana Davita. As a result of abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers and her own father’s refusal to help, Channah abandons her Jewish faith and later devotes her life to supporting the communist cause of helping the exploited working class. She and her first husband, Michael Chandal, are especially supportive of the communist cause in the Spanish Civil War in Spain. After her husband’s death, she continues to support communism until Joseph Stalin signs a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler. Her disillusionment leads to a nervous breakdown. After she recovers, with the help of her sister-in-law, Sarah Chandal, she renews her friendship with her longtime friend Ezra Dinn and rejoins the Jewish faith community. She and Ezra marry soon there-after.

Michael Chandal

Michael Chandal, the father of Ilana Davita Chandal and a young correspondent. Because of a brutal anticommunist incident he witnessed in Centralia, Washington, in 1919, Michael renounces his Christian heritage as well as his wealthy family and joins the communist cause against fascism as manifest in all Western countries, including the United States. In an effort to aid the communist cause in Spain, Michael goes there to cover the Spanish Civil War. He dies at Guernica when Ilana Davita is only nine years old.

Jakob Daw

Jakob Daw, a longtime friend of Channah Chandal from her days in Vienna. He supports the communist cause primarily through his unusual stories. He becomes disillusioned with communism after seeing Stalin’s deeds in the Spanish Civil War. He visits the Chandals three times in New York and is finally deported to France, where he dies of pneumonia. Channah translates and edits his stories for publication. Jakob’s story about the little bird who comes to life in the door harp becomes symbolic of the inspiration for living to which Ilana Davita learns to cling throughout the novel and which she tries to pass along to her new baby sister at the end of the novel.

Ezra Dinn

Ezra Dinn, a lawyer and a widower who has known Channah Chandal since her days in Europe. He tries to encourage her to reclaim her Jewish faith but has no success until she becomes disillusioned with and abandons the communist cause. He eventually marries Channah, and they have a daughter named Rachel.

David Dinn

David Dinn, the son of Ezra Dinn who becomes the stepbrother of Ilana Davita. He is instrumental in helping Ilana Davita come to understand and accept the Jewish faith.

Sarah Chandal

Sarah Chandal, the sister of Michael Chandal, a nurse who devotes her time and talents to relieving human suffering in the world. Much like Michael, she risks her life to help people, especially in war-torn regions. Several times, she comes and helps Ilana Davita’s family, and she prays for them to become Christians. She is the only family member of the Chandals who continues to associate with Michael.

Themes and Characters

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Potok's deep acculturation in Judaism animates his life-affirming belief in the individual, in society, in the human quest for meaning, and in the magnificently human capacity for self-sacrifice. Like many American Jewish writers, he refuses to espouse the popular modernist philosophy of alienation. He embraces instead a vision of the enduring, the generous, and the good in humankind.

His novels excel at depicting numerous Jewish customs and beliefs: family psychology, religious ritual and scholarship, the role of the male, the "place" of the woman, the influence of the Jewish European heritage, reactions to the Holocaust, attitudes toward Zionism, and the impact of materialistic America upon the Orthodox Jewish family. Above all, he provides a universally relevant account of the young adult's age-old quest for self-identity forged from the inevitable clash between personal impetus and parental injunction.

Central to an understanding of this clash is Potok's account, related in several interviews, about the anger he experienced as a young man upon discovering how powerfully Jewish tradition denounces the works of the imagination as inferior to feats of Talmudic scholarship, not to mention the almost violent opposition of the Orthodox Jewish community to the Jew as either artist or novelist.

When the story begins, Davita is a very young child living with her parents in a series of New York apartments. Her father, Michael Chandal, is a reporter for a leftist newspaper who, in the course of the story, becomes a well-known journalist. An Episcopalian from New England, he meets Davita's mother Channah, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, in New York, where they are drawn together by their commitment to communism. Because Michael and Channah, who is often called Annie, are non-religious political activists who frequently hold loud meetings at their apartments, they are forced to move frequently, and Davita grows up in a loving but hectic environment.

In time, Davita learns more about her parents' beliefs and friends. One friend who deeply influences Davita is Jakob Daw, an Austrian writer who is very close to Channah. When he visits the family in New York, he tells Davita beautiful, strange stories, and he continues to write about these stories in his frequent letters to her after he leaves New York. Another important influence is Aunt Sarah, Michael's sister and a deeply religious Christian nurse. When Channah is ill and Michael goes overseas, Aunt Sarah takes care of Davita; she also tenderly nurses Davita back to health after her suicide attempt.

Davita has exceptional intelligence, artistic vision, scholarly aptitude, and understanding of social idealism. Through her courage and intelligence she manages to survive her parents' political and personal crises, the unsympathetic anti-Communist neighborhoods from which the family is repeatedly evicted, the growing shock of a disintegrating Europe, anti-Semitism, and a well-meaning but frequently insensitive local Jewish community. Potok gives wonderful insights into the psychological effects children experience when their parents' fervent political activism prevents them from tending to their child's emotional needs.

The emotional trauma Davita experiences from her father's death and her mother's nervous collapse affect her severely, as does the growing knowledge of her mother's loss of faith in Stalin and subsequent reentry into the world of traditional Judaism. There is evidence that some of these events stem from Potok's own childhood and from his wife's childhood. Particularly insightful is the very human account of Davita's attempted suicide, her subsequent emotional withdrawal, her long illness and recovery, and her ultimate discovery of her own courage and her unique capacity for independent thought and action. Davita becomes fully aware of the world's injustices and cruelty, the social barriers denying women full equality, and the fate of the European Jewish community, yet she maintains her belief in herself and human goodness. Above all, she finds herself able to trust others and capable of forming a loving friendship. David Dinn, a Jewish boy Davita meets at the beach, becomes her good friend, and eventually her stepbrother when his father Ezra Dinn, an immigration lawyer, marries her mother. Empowered by the love of her family, and the creative forces of her own imagination and personal religious vision, Davita achieves young womanhood whole and clear-eyed.


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The main character is liana Davita Chandal (later Dinn), the narrator, who tells of her life up to about age fourteen. The novel is about her finding of identity and of a view of life. Through her parents, she is exposed to the Communist view of events in the 1930s; through her aunt, she is exposed to Christianity; through relatives and neighbors (and her mother, who was raised a Jew), she is exposed to Judaism. The narrator reveals her response to events in the world and in her own life, her attempt to find her moral bearings, her intellectual development, the development of her imagination (here her "uncle" Jakob is a major influence), and her growth into young womanhood. The course of her life is affected by a series of traumatic events: her father's death, the deportation of Jakob Daw, and her failure to receive the Akiva Award in her yeshiva because she is a girl. The last event brings to a head her growing dissatisfaction with the role of women in Orthodox Judaism. But despite this crisis and its implications for her future, the novel ends affirmatively with Davita's having discovered much about her identity: she has rediscovered her Jewishness, but also recognizes her connection with other parts of her past.

Like Davita, the lives of other characters have been shaped by traumatic events: her mother, Anne or Channah Chandal, by what happened to her in a Russian pogrom and later by her disillusionment with Stalin; her father, Michael Chandal, by the murder of a radical he witnessed in Centralia, Washington, as a young man; the writer Jakob Daw, a friend of Davita's parents whom she calls "uncle," by the devastating results of his being gassed in World War II. Other important characters include Davita's Aunt Sarah, a nurse and a devout Christian; Ezra Dinn, a cousin of her mother and her new father after Michael Chandal's death; and David Dinn, who becomes Davita's "brother" when her mother remarries. Reuven Malter, from The Chosen (1967) and The Promise (1969), makes a brief appearance near the end of the book. One effect of having such a diversity of characters, each with a different outlook shaped by individual circumstances, is that the novel becomes an implied lesson in tolerance and empathy.

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Critical Essays