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.)

Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

This story begins in New York City in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The personal events of the novel are highlighted by such international...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Davita's Harp, although usually quiet and unpretentious in tone, is complex in technique. There are several important symbols: the harp hung...

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Davita's Harp is a book about storytelling and the nature of stories themselves. Potok structures the plot around numerous inset...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Set in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Davita's Harp deals with the important public events of that period: The Depression, the rise of...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Davita's door harp, which hangs on the back of the door in each of the apartments the family occupies, is clearly the central symbol in...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Show which women in the novel derive their primary identity from the men with whom they are associated and which women achieve...

(The entire section is 147 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Besides its relation to other novels of growing up, Davita's Harp has some affinities with novels about the rediscovery of Jewishness, such...

(The entire section is 67 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Potok's previous novels, such as The Chosen, The Promise, In the Beginning, and My Name Is Asher Lev, all feature...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Benjamin, J. C. 'The Novels of Chaim Potok." Jewish Quarterly 29 (Summer- Autumn 1981): 19-21. This article discusses earlier Potok...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.

Booklist. LXXXI, December 15, 1984, p. 539.

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.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, January 1, 1985, p. 14.

Library Journal. CX, February 15, 1985, p. 180.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 26, 1985, p. 9.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, March 31, 1985, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LXI, April 15, 1985, p. 129.

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.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, January 4, 1985, p. 59.

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.

Time. CXXV, March 25, 1985, p. 80.

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.”

The Wall Street Journal. CCV, April 29, 1985, p. 22.

Wilson Library Bulletin. LIX, June, 1985, p. 689.