Davita’s Harp

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629

Ilana Davita Chandal’s life has been filled with uncertainty as well as with the love of her radically idealistic parents. Her journalist father Michael has been disowned by his patrician family both for his politics and his marriage to a Jewish woman. Her mother Channah bears the scars of a...

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Ilana Davita Chandal’s life has been filled with uncertainty as well as with the love of her radically idealistic parents. Her journalist father Michael has been disowned by his patrician family both for his politics and his marriage to a Jewish woman. Her mother Channah bears the scars of a brutal pogrom and the senseless tragedies of World War I. The horrors of the twentieth century become Ilana’s when Michael is killed during the bombing of Guernica while covering the Spanish Civil War. Then Channah’s closest friend, Jacob Daw, because of his previous membership in the Communist Party, is deported to Adolf Hitler’s Europe, where he dies.

Although she does not abandon her parents’ idealism, Ilana needs something more. She first finds comfort in her Aunt Sarah’s Christianity. Later, however, she is attracted to the Orthodox Judaism of her mother’s youth. Channah’s remarriage to a religious cousin completes the family’s return to the Jewish world.

Potok has written several highly acclaimed novels about American-Jewish life, but he enters new territory when he explores the milieu of areligious Jewish radicals. This is also his first novel in which a young girl is the protagonist. In focusing on Ilana, Potok, who is an ordained rabbi, can also explore the role of women in traditional Judaism. He gives no easy answers. Ilana may be the school valedictorian, but because of her sex she is denied her school’s top prize. Nor does Potok allow the shelter of Judaism to eradicate the pain of Ilana’s tragedies. Yet through Ilana’s struggle to understand the world and make it a better place, Potok affirms his faith in the ultimate decency of human beings in a novel that is moving in its humanity.

Bibliography

Abramson, Edward A. Chaim Potok. Boston: Twayne, 1986. This full-length study traces Potok’s ideas through the recurring themes in his work. Includes full chapters on Potok’s first five novels, but Davita’s Harp is dealt with in less detail. Also includes a chronology, a bibliographical chapter, and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Hock, Zarina Manawwar. “Authority and Multiculturalism: Reflections by Chaim Potok.” Language Arts 72 (April, 1995): 4. Hock discusses Potok’s use of multicultural themes to expose attitudes toward current social issues. She demonstrates how his fiction reflects the battle between the traditional and new sources of conduct.

Kauvar, Elaine. “An Interview with Chaim Potok.” Contemporary Literature 27 (Fall, 1986): 291-317. This rich, thought-provoking article focuses on themes that run through Potok’s novels. Because the interview was conducted as Davita’s Harp was being published, Kauvar refers to the book repeatedly. Potok is articulate, and his remarks will help readers to penetrate more deeply into the philosophical underpinnings of his work.

Potok, Chaim. “The Culture Highways We Travel.” Religion and Literature 19 (Summer, 1987): 1-10. This material was originally presented as a lecture at The University of Notre Dame. Potok speaks candidly. He discusses how his characters become caught between two conflicting universes that they love.

True, Warren. “Potok and Joyce: The Artist and His Culture.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 2 (1982): 181-190. In several interviews, Potok has mentioned the strong influence of James Joyce on his work. In this article, True compares Joyce’s Stephen (from the 1916 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) with Potok’s Asher Lev. True looks at both characters as they feel the pain of being different.

Walden, Daniel, ed. Studies in American Jewish Literature 4 (1985): 1-120. This issue devoted to Potok includes articles investigating both his life experiences and his written work. Includes an overview of critical response to Potok’s works, an interview, and a bibliographical essay. Of particular interest may be Joan Del Fattore’s article “Women as Scholars in Chaim Potok’s Novels.”

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