This section contains 1,222 words
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Critical Review by Paul Cowan
SOURCE: "The Faiths of Her Childhood." in The New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1985, pp. 12-13.
In the following review, Cowan offers a favorable assessment of Davita's Harp, which he describes as "Mr. Potok's bravest book, though it is not his best."
Chaim Potok is a writer who defies easy categorization. Though he does not have the instinct for the fast-paced plots and sleek characters that usually make novels popular and though he has not attracted the intellectual following of a Saul Bellow, still, four of his five novels and his one nonfiction book have been best sellers. By exploring the themes that fascinate him, Mr. Potok has opened a new clearing in the forest of American literature.
Davita's Harp is Mr. Potok's bravest book, though it is not his best. It will almost certainly be one of his most popular. Set in New York during the 1930's, it portrays the lives of Communist Party members and religious Jews. Until Mr. Potok's novel The Chosen, almost all popular American Jewish fiction—like most ethnic American fiction—focused on protagonists intent on escaping their childhood environments. The characters who were born in Saul Bellow's Chicago and Philip Roth's Newark may remember the neighborhoods they grew up in with affection or rage; their adult speech may retain traces of immigrant English; they may feel tangled emotions toward a parent they have left behind. But they set out to create themselves anew.
Most of Mr. Potok's characters leave their childhood environments too, at considerable pain to the people who love them. In The Chosen, Danny Saunders, who was expected to inherit his father's role as a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, decided to study psychiatry. Conversely, in The Book of Lights, Arthur Leiden, primed to follow in his father's footsteps and become one of the great physicists of his age, left the genteel scientific community his parents inhabited—paradoxically, the community that created the atomic bomb—to become a rabbi. But the worlds in which Mr. Potok's characters grew up retain a tight hold on their loyalties. Danny Saunders, Arthur Leiden and now Davita Chandal in Davita's Harp are all haunted by memories of the past that echo in their present.
Davita is the daughter of Michael Chandal, a gentile from Maine, a left-wing journalist whose father, a lumber magnate, has disinherited him, and Channah Chandal, a Jewish woman from Poland, a Marxist intellectual whose dreadful memories of her stern Hasidic father have left her disillusioned with religion. For the first quarter of the novel, the Chandals' political work sustains them emotionally as they live like urban gypsies, evicted by one landlord after another. They are protected materially by Ezra Dinn, an Orthodox Jew and Channah's friend since childhood.
These are some of Mr. Potok's most disappointing pages. Though Michael is a robust, loving father, Channah—like so many mothers in Mr. Potok's novels—is a somewhat sickly, withdrawn woman. The Chandals talk about the political horrors of the 30's—the Spanish Civil War, Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, lynchings in the South—without ever explaining them to their baffled, terrified daughter. Since Davita, a child when the novel begins, is the novel's sole voice—and since she is so often bewildered—she (and Mr. Potok) fails to furnish much insight into her troubled parents. But Mr. Potok's prose style is so rich that even these pages have an enchanting quality. Soon Channah Chandal's Orthodox landsmen find the family an apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. That is the urban soil Mr. Potok always describes with a master's certainty. While living in Crown Heights and in the summertime community of Sea Gate, Davita meets a young girl who is a refugee from the Spanish Civil War. She also comes to love a surrogate uncle, a left-wing writer her mother knew as a young woman. Presently the United States Government sends her uncle back to Hitler's Europe. History begins to shape the child's consciousness.
At the same time, Davita ricochets between the religions her parents have rejected. Michael's sister Sarah, a Christian missionary, often stays with the family. One summer she invites Davita to spend time with her in Maine. She teaches the child to pray on her knees and encourages her to believe in Jesus. Davita loves Aunt Sarah but not her creed. Though Davita's parents don't observe any religious ceremonies, the girl is delighted by the way her Orthodox neighbors greet the Sabbath. Their Judaism appeals to her more than Aunt Sarah's Christianity.
As Davita comes to life, so does the book. She can't bear her beloved father's compulsive need to cover the civil war in Spain. He seems to be choosing politics over her. The Sabbaths she experiences intrigue her so much she begins to attend the neighborhood synagogue despite the fact that her mother rejects religion, despite the fact that almost all the yeshiva boys make derisive remarks to the ignorant girl whose father is a gentile. When her father is killed in Spain, Davita insists on saying the mourner's kaddish in the woman's section of the synagogue. In the 1930's this was so rare as to seem almost heretical. But as Davita becomes an increasingly observant Jew—and soon a brilliant student in a Brooklyn yeshiva—she continues to insist on her rights as a woman within the limits of Orthodox law.
At the very end of the novel, after Davita, now in her early teens, has been denied a prize in the study of the Talmud because she is a girl, she imagines the speech she would have delivered if she had won the award. It reflects the faiths of her childhood—Judaism and radicalism: "I wanted to say that my mother was once badly hurt in Poland because she was a Jewish woman, and my father was killed while trying to save a nun in Guernica, and my uncle died in part because of his politics and in part because he wrote strange stories. I wanted to say that I'm very frightened to be living in this world and I don't understand most of the things I see and hear and I don't know what will happen to me and to the family I love. I wanted to say that I would try to find and join with the side of America that wouldn't hurt people who [fight for justice], and that I would also try not to let this century defeat me."
As the imagined speech suggests, Davita's Harp is full of the horrors of the 20th century. As in all of Chaim Potok's novels, those horrors don't simply exist in the minds of intellectuals. They are not symbols. Hitler's death camps, Franco's troops, the atomic bomb kill people the reader has come to love and alter the survivors' lives completely.
Yet they don't defeat Mr. Potok's characters. For there is a sweet, loving bond that links their lives, a bond symbolized by the gentle tones of the small harp that has been fixed to a door wherever Davita has lived. A frail glory infuses the world these people see when they open their doors and windows each morning. Those qualities are unusual in modern fiction. They draw the reader into Chaim Potok's world. The people he depicts live in a community held together by ancient laws. Those people nourish each other in the worst of times. In doing so, they nourish Mr. Potok's readers too.
This section contains 1,222 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)