Davita's Harp

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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...

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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 school—where boys put their hands over her chest and yell “Grapes!” Davita experiences a profound sexual awakening when she sees her mother masturbating before a mirror, and she comes to understand something about the sexual torments of young males through fervid discussions with her stepbrother.

Whether Potok has convincingly depicted these female experiences is probably something for female critics to debate. That he has made a very bold and costly attempt is indisputable. Potok believes that great art, like great theology, proceeds only from an experience of suffering. In The Chosen, the zaddik-to-be, Danny Saunders, is forbidden to speak to his beloved father. In this way, his genius is humanized; his pain enables him to identify with the fatherless, the excluded, the wounded. In an era of unparalleled tensions between the sexes, Potok has also embraced the suffering that occurs whenever a male surrenders his imperial consciousness. One can be sure that Potok will never be the same person hereafter. Becoming Davita has required much of him; in particular, it has demanded that he, a rabbi, recognize some of the humiliations that Judaism inflicts upon women.

In the novel, the humiliation that comes to symbolize all the others is the prohibition against women saying Kaddish. This is a special prayer that is said in synagogue every morning and evening for eleven months by a person mourning the loss of someone very close. Among Orthodox Jews, the prayer is spoken only by men. Davita’s “liberation” is achieved through her quiet rebellion against this tradition. How Potok blesses this rebellion while still displaying the compelling power of Orthodoxy is an interesting artistic feat. His tactic is to make Davita’s defiance a natural expression of her identity as a convert to Judaism.

The young Davita whom the reader meets in the beginning is clearly not a tranquil little secularist, despite the Marxist view of religion imparted to her by her parents. Her nightmares about the evil witch Baba Yaga, her questions about the reasons for her infant brother’s death, her curiosity about her aunt’s fundamentalist Christianity, her responsiveness to the sectarian features of the Communist Party (songs, meetings, textual study)—all of this betrays a religious nature. Most important for Potok, Davita lives a richly imaginative life, and this means that she will inevitably arrive at the threshold of faith, for faith and imagination are allies in the struggle to bear the unbearable things of the world.

Davita learns about Kaddish from David Dinn, an Orthodox boy whose mother has recently died. The anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, and Fascism of her classmates drive her to associate with other Jews in her neighborhood. She learns holiday traditions from her neighbors. Ironically, she gains much of her understanding of Israel’s history from a book loathed by all Orthodox: the King James Bible. Her embracing of Judaism is mainly aesthetic until her father’s death. Then, the requirement of saying Kaddish becomes for her a categorical imperative. Having transferred to an Orthodox parochial school, she has the possibility of saying the prayer publicly each morning. Yet, as her male teacher instructs, “A girl does not say Kaddish.” The fourth grader simply disobeys, continues the practice, and is finally allowed to complete the religious duty. It is consistent with Potok’s message that Davita’s rebellion against antifemale tradition is energized and sustained by the Law. She is, after all, obeying a sacred injunction (“Honor thy father”), and in so doing, she is asserting the equality of men and women in their subordinance to mitzvoth (commandments).

Davita’s defiance produces a curious result: the reconversion of her mother to Judaism. This is a gradual process, helped mightily by the extreme sectarian bitterness shown by Spanish Communists to their leftist brothers-in-arms, by Joseph Stalin’s trials and purges, and by the Soviet-German nonaggression pact of 1939. Out of the Party, recognizing the threat to all Jews posed by Nazism, she seeks the community served by her forebears. After her marriage to the Orthodox Ezra Dinn, David’s father, she must endure the death of Jakob Daw, her dearest friend.

A journalist and storyteller, Jakob Daw is a much-celebrated and mysterious figure in radical circles in Europe and the United States. In the novel, he is a sad angel whose surrealist parables come to play a very important part in Davita’s life. He carries the weight of the novel’s considerable symbolic content. That one is to read him thusly is clear from his name, clearly derived from jackdaw, a European blackbird. (It is no coincidence that the name of this fictitious writer of parables echoes the name of Franz Kafka, whose surname is derived from the Czech word for jackdaw, kavka.) Jakob Daw tells Davita an extended tale about “a little bird with black feathers and short wings and a small red spot under each of its large dark eyes.” The bird’s mission is to find the source of a beautiful music which, because of its soothing power, unfortunately allows people to forget about their deeds of violence and cruelty. The bird ultimately nests in Davita’s door harp, a charming small zitherlike instrument, which acts as a chime and brings some peace to a troubled child’s life. By bringing the door harp into his haunting fictive world, Jakob Daw shows Davita the saving powers of imagination.

To mourn her friend, Channah also says Kaddish. This requires that she force herself into an all-male daily worship service, where she is required to stay hidden behind a screen. She persists to the end. This defiant acceptance of the Orthodox way leads to the climax of the novel, when Davita competes for the highest honor at the yeshiva, the Akiva Award, and is passed over because of her sex. Her response to this is not to forsake the community that has provided security and identity. Rather, she understands that “sacred discontent” with all communities will probably be her permanent condition.

What then does Judaism offer women? Much and not enough, Potok seems to say. Still, one suspects that he will never make this the question of questions. A profound lyricism infuses the novel. All of Potok’s fictions have incantatory moments, but in this one incantation is everywhere, sweeping away ideological formulas. King David had his harp; Queen Davita must be allowed hers. Yet there is a source of grace that draws music from them both. From this source come both sacred discontent and the promise of a homeland. Potok seems to be saying that at least for Jews, the rights of women must be worked out in and through the context of worship, holy debate, and love of the Law.

Setting

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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 events as Hitler's rise to power, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Stalin regime, the Russian gulags, the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact, World War II, and the shock of the Holocaust. The intellectual setting, which is more important in this novel than the geographical setting, draws upon such social issues as economic exploitation of the worker, global warfare, social injustice, and the violation of human rights, as well as women's issues. Davita's vision, founded on the New York working class neighborhoods of her early childhood, broadens to the rural New England of her aunt and father's childhood, and finally to Russia, Africa, and Europe. The widening of her geographic and political horizons promotes her subsequent social and moral growth. As she shuttles between the worlds of the Orthodox Judaism of her New York neighborhood and the New England Protestantism of her aunt, Davita establishes a genuine religious vision.

Literary Techniques

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Davita's Harp, although usually quiet and unpretentious in tone, is complex in technique. There are several important symbols: the harp hung on the door wherever Davita lives (a symbol of continuity, of imagination, of hope, and of many other things); the picture of horses on a beach; the image of birds; and other visual symbols, such as Picasso's Guernica, related to the events and ideas of the book. Another technique is the frequent telling of stories by Jakob Daw, Aunt Sarah, Davita's mother, and Davita herself. The stories, ranging from anecdotal to fantastic, often have symbolic import or relation to the novel's themes. The stories and their symbols often enter Davita's dreams, and the dreams themselves become an important part of the texture of the novel. Excerpts from newspaper articles and from books, radio reports, and snippets of conversation also enter into the novel and sometimes into Davita's dreams and imagination. Some passages, especially those involving emotional trauma or disorder, are in stream-of-consciousness style. These various elements in the novel come together to form a complex interweaving of past and present, public and private, dreams and waking life, all unified by being presented as the narrator's perception of and thoughts and feelings about events as they happen. Because little is explained beyond these immediate perceptions, much of the novel's thematic content, the meaning and even the exact nature of its events, is conveyed by implication.

Literary Qualities

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Davita's Harp is a book about storytelling and the nature of stories themselves. Potok structures the plot around numerous inset stories that Davita learns from her parents, Jakob Daw, Aunt Sarah, books, and newspapers. The careful placement of each story reinforces the themes presented in the outer framework of events. Through each puzzling or frightening new tale, Davita gradually fuses together her emotional inner life and the world of external events. Davita's growing ability to relate stories to life and to use them in the creative processes of her own imagination and soul marks her progressive maturation and self-identification both as a young woman and as a budding artist.

Drawing strongly upon the forces of historical realism and mythology, Potok weaves the aura of dream shattered by nightmare to enliven what might otherwise be a dull social document. Through the use of symbols such as the door harp that accompanies each of Davita's geographic and emotional moves, Potok develops his primary themes of imagination, hope, and continuity in the novel. Inset stories and recurring symbols lend texture to the novel and substance to the imagery.

Most of the narrative is written in the third-person, but many passages employ a disjointed stream-ofconsciousness technique to evoke the emotional trauma and social fragmentation that result from such events as Michael Chandal's death, Jakob Daw's fate, Davita's recovery from her suicide attempt, and her perceptions of her mother's nervous collapse. The third-person narrative is broken only by these passages and by occasional passages of quasi stream-of-consciousness, in which experiences belonging to the mystical and imaginative worlds are related.

Potok's sensitive and effective prose style in this novel befits the treatment of the inner life of the imaginative child and the interplay of imagination and reality. The flexible and literary style alternates moments of poetic vision with social realism. The prevailing tone of the novel is elegiac and nostalgic as Davita penetrates the pain of the adult world and the binding yet often uplifting traditions of the Jewish fathers. Potok's prose reveals the manner in which Davita knits up all the pieces of her past and present.

Social Concerns

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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 Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact, and World War II. The events are shown in their immediate impact on individual characters, who include American Communists (one of whom — Davita's father — is killed in Spain), a nurse who relieves suffering in Ethiopia and Spain, a European writer, and Jews with memories of earlier waves of anti-Semitism. Even more than events, the novel portrays the conflict of ideas: Marxism, Fascism, Judaism (of several varieties), Christianity. The protagonist is exposed to the failures and flaws of each of these, but also (except for Fascism)'sees what is attractive in each and adopts part of them into her view of the world and of her self. Besides touching on the events and ideas of the time, Davita's Harp deals with general social issues: economic exploitation, social injustice, war, the roles and rights of women. In response to such issues, many of the characters feel what one of them calls a "sacred discontent" with the world, but a discontent coupled, for some, with love and respect for the world as well.

Additional Commentary

Potok describes the major social and political issues of the 1930s-1940s: socialism and communism in both the United States and elsewhere, the Stalinist terror, the Spanish Civil War, Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, Hitler's rise to power, and the Holocaust all form the historical backdrop of Davita's world. The social situation of world Jewry forms another dominant theme with the inclusion of the character Jakob Daw. But the social issues relevant to American Jewry form the foreground of the novel and dominate its themes, characters, and setting. The Orthodox Jewish position on the role of women in ritual worship and religious education is a major theme of this novel. The tensions between the secular world and the religious world of the Jews form another.

Of particular interest to Potok is the relative value of several different forms of social and political consciousness. Jewish, secular, and Christian modes of involvement with human rights violations are represented by Michael Chandal, journalist and Socialist; Aunt Sarah, Christian nurse; Channah Chandal, agnostic Communist activist; Jakob Daw, Jewish writer; and Ezra Dinn, Orthodox Jewish immigration attorney who rescues Jews fleeing Stalinist Russia. Each in turn displays an intense moral commitment to human rights issues, teaching Davita the value of the individual and the need to fight to keep that knowledge alive. She also learns that the cost of caring can be death, as with her father in Guernica; exile, as in the case of Jakob Daw in anti-Semitic Europe; disillusionment, as with her Communist mother's initial commitment to Stalinism; or frequent social and religious exclusion in her own case.

Literary Precedents

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Besides its relation to other novels of growing up, Davita's Harp has some affinities with novels about the rediscovery of Jewishness, such as Samuel Astrachan's An End to Dying. In its interweaving of public events (sometimes through newspaper articles and headlines) with the characters' private lives, Davita's Harp shows the influence of John Dos Passos, one of whose books, Nineteen-Nineteen (1932), is mentioned in the novel.

Bruce Young

For Further Reference

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Benjamin, J. C. 'The Novels of Chaim Potok." Jewish Quarterly 29 (Summer- Autumn 1981): 19-21. This article discusses earlier Potok novels in terms of theme, style, character, and social issues and provides useful background reading on Potok.

Forbes, Cheryl. "Judaism Under the Secular Umbrella." Christianity Today (September 8, 1978): 14-21. In this interview, Potok explains what happens when Jewish and Christian values and cultures come into contact with one another.

Kremer, Lillian S. "A Conversation with Chaim Potok." In Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984, edited by Jean W. Ross. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Contains information about Potok and his influences, sources, themes, and major works of fiction and nonfiction.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook: 1983. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1983. A quick reference source for information about Potok and his previous works.

Studies in Jewish American Literature 4 (1984). This special issue contains articles by major scholars of Jewish- American literature. Of particular interest is Dan Walden's "A Zwischenmensch [an in-between person] in the Cultures," and Joan Del Fattore's "Women as Scholars in Chaim Potok's Novels."

Bibliography

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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.

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