Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In his novels, Potok returns again and again to conflicts between American Orthodox Judaism and secular perspectives on psychology, cultural values, and the arts, speaking largely out of his own experience. As a rabbi, Chaim Potok stands out among important Jewish American writers. Although consistently critical of the ultra-Orthodox position, Potok is fully committed to Judaism and presents its complexities in his work. Although similar in theme and setting to most of Potok’s fiction, Davita’s Harp is the first novel he has written from the female perspective.

Potok has been criticized by fundamentalists for his portrayal of the Orthodox tradition. In Davita’s Harp, some of these critics focused on the Akiva Award situation, declaring that such injustice could never happen. Potok countered by explaining that Davita’s experience was based on something that actually occurred to his wife when she was thirteen. Because of her gender, his wife was refused the class valedictory, Potok says, and the hurt stayed with her. In 1986, Potok said that he planned to write again of Davita, picking her up in midlife as a feminist writer who feels compelled to leave the Orthodox tradition. Thus, Davita’s introduction provides a means for Potok to investigate an issue that is shaking religions to their core in the late twentieth century: the desire of women to take active and meaningful roles.

Potok is generally classified as a Jewish American writer. He prefers, however, to be known as an American writer who focuses on a small and particular American world. Potok creates worlds in his fiction through which readers—Jews and non-Jews alike—can locate aspects of their own subjectivity, expanding their understanding of themselves and appreciating the underlying interconnectedness of human experience. Potok has extended Jewish American writing by moving religion from the sidelines, where it is found in many novels, to the center of his work. Although Potok’s style has been criticized, he is nevertheless recognized as an impressive writer who has made an important contribution to American literature.