Davita's Harp

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

That Chaim Potok has earned a secure place in the category “Major American Writers” is now beyond dispute. Were he to cease writing tomorrow, his legacy of six novels would still constitute a precious part of the nation’s literary canon. Not too long ago, one might have judged Potok a great religious writer, but—especially in the light of Davita’s Harp—this label has become inadequate. While Potok’s fiction remains thoroughly Jewish, he has shown himself capable of plumbing vast and diverse areas of experience and sensibility. Yet even without such a catholicity of spirit, his work would still have universal appeal by virtue of its sheer artistic and intellectual power. Like William Faulkner, Potok creatively explores a small geopolitical domain—his Yoknapatawpha County is the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the 1930’s and 1940’s—and discerns there a microcosm. Faulknerian also is Potok’s craftmanship in forming narrative structures. Both novelists attract and hold readers with whom they might be assumed to have little in common—a true test of literacy greatness.

Of the six novels, Davita’s Harp is Potok’s most ecumenical. It reaches out with remarkable sympathy to two quite alien stepchildren of Judaism: Christianity and Marxism. Potok’s appreciation of Christianity became apparent in his third novel, My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), the story of a young Hasidic artist (this rare and explosive combination is the novel’s subject) who becomes obsessed with images of the Crucifixion. That Potok might be capable of a political novel was made evident in In the Beginning (1975), one of the central preoccupations of which is Zionism and the struggle against organized anti-Semitism. Davita’s Harp is ecumenical in yet another way: Here Potok clearly wishes to speak to feminists about what Judaism offers (and withholds from) to their movement.

For readers familiar with his works, Potok’s intention to engage feminist concerns in Davita’s Harp is immediately apparent. His protagonist is eight-year-old Ilana Davita Chandal. Her father, Michael Chandal, is pure Yankee (Maine, lumbering industry, Episcopalian, Harvard University), and he has committed his journalistic career to the Communist Party. Davita’s mother, Channah (“Annie”), is an apostasized Jew from a Polish-Russian border area, where her father was a Hasid. She too is a fervent Party member. Michael is killed in the Spanish Civil War at Guernica, so the bulk of the novel is centered on Davita and her mother. There is another strong female character, Michael’s sister Sarah, who is a war nurse and Christian missionary.

The central position occupied by women in Davita’s Harp sets it in sharp contrast to Potok’s other works. “Fathers and Sons” might well have been the subtitle of Potok’s acclaimed first novel, The Chosen (1967). Concerned with the problem of leadership succession and intellectual freedom in a Hasidic community, the novel could easily be used to document the second-class states of women in traditional forms of Judaism. Such is the case not only in Hasidic communities but also in less conservative Jewish milieus, for the Hasidic reverence for the zaddik, or spiritual leader, is only an intensified expression of the historic Jewish reliance on male priests, rabbis, mystics, and scholars, and this reliance in turn derives from the thoroughly masculine bias in Hebrew monotheism as such. All Potok novels after The Chosen reflect this bias, having male protagonists, few interesting female characters, and Bildungsroman plots whose energy is invariably masculine.

In Davita’s Harp, how does Potok go about rectifying this tendency? The most conspicuous strategem (and most troublesome to evaluate) is that of narrating the tale from Davita’s perspective. To make matters more difficult, Potok follows Davita through puberty, that state least susceptible to comprehension by males. Nor does he circumvent the most challenging (for a male) female moments. In detail, Davita tells about her first menstruation. The reader is present when she first learns about rape—from a young refugee of the Spanish Civil War. Potok attempts to show the reader something of the menacing dangers and humiliations confronting Davita at public...

(The entire section is 1796 words.)