Davita's Harp | Critical Review by Cynthia Grenier

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Davita's Harp.
This section contains 859 words
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Critical Review by Cynthia Grenier

SOURCE: "In Search of a Spiritual Pacifier," in The Wall Street Journal, April 29, 1985, p. 22.

In the following review, Grenier praises the "genuine seriousness and moral complexity" of Davita's Harp, but finds shortcomings in Potok's "stiff dialogue and stilted characters."

Chaim Potok owes much of his popularity as a writer to his handling of Judaic scenes in contemporary American life (The Chosen, The Promise, etc.).

This time, in Davita's Harp, Mr. Potok heads into new, highly topical territory—woman's role in the Jewish faith—set in the context of American communism in the 1930s. In what may have been a rash venture, he has chosen as his narrative voice that of his pre-pubescent heroine, who recounts her life from birth to menstruation.

Davita is the daughter of two deeply committed Communist Party members—he's the radical son of an old New England family, she's a Russian-Jewish victim of a pogrom. Party meetings are held in their New York apartment, where the harp of the book's title hangs on the door, symbolizing a security that neither religion nor politics can give our heroine. "Again and again I heard the names Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco," says Davita. "I heard strange words. Republic, militia, rebellion, coup d'etat, garrison…. And names with menacing sounds. Anarchist, Falangist, Fascist."

Soon Davita is piping up in the first grade to tell her classmates that "Stalin is a Communist. He is not afraid to use his power for good purposes." Caution is rapidly instilled when a fellow first grader from an Italian family takes threatening exception to her description of Mussolini as a fascist.

During these early years the family is poor but happy. They know they are working toward the building of what they confidently expect to be a better world.

But then Davita's father, off in Spain for an unidentified "progressive" newspaper, is blown up while trying to rescue a nun in Guernica. Her anguished mother bravely soldiers on for the party and is about to enter into a second marriage with a fellow Communist when Hitler and Stalin sign their 1939 nonaggression pact. Davita remembers the news announcement:

"My mother turned off the radio. 'Capitalist lies,' she said. 'What they go through to slander us!'

'What does it mean?' I asked.

'Never mind.'

'What does nonagression pact mean?'

'Finish your supper, Davita.'"

Utterly destroyed morally and psychologically after she is expelled from the party for questioning Stalin's wisdom, Davita's mother is eventually saved by the love of her widowed cousin, an Orthodox Jew and successful lawyer. Remarried, she returns quite easily to the observant Judaism of her Odessa girlhood, although she still reads the New Masses—"for the fine writers it published." As for those years of Stalinist communism, she speaks with a voice that "shook with anger and bitterness, with her sense of having been used and duped and betrayed."

As Davita tells us, "during her years with my father she had thought often about her religious past; now she reflected upon her Communist past. She seemed unable to bring together those two parts of herself. And that haunted her."

All this seems rich material for a novelist. Alas, Mr. Potok is telling Davita's story, not her mother's. And Davita's story is not so much a quest for a moral absolute as for a spiritual pacifier.

Although her parents are both resolute atheists, as befits good party members, Davita at a young age finds comfort in attending synagogue with a neighbor. At her father's death, finding no release in the impersonal party funeral service, Davita says kaddish—the prayer for the dead—at her synagogue, only to discover women don't say kaddish; only men do. The balance of the novel borders on a feminist approach to Judaism, with the heroine discovering that Orthodox Judaism is not an equal-opportunity religion.

As a novelist Mr. Potok seems drawn to ideas of genuine seriousness and moral complexity, ideas that one would like to see contemporary writers handle. One regrets all the more, therefore, the stiff dialogue and stilted characters. Mr. Potok appears most at ease when he sets his scenes in the synagogue or the yeshiva. In fact, a tiny flame of life flickers valiantly in all the Jewish characters. But the goyim come off as very strange creations indeed. For example, Aunt Sarah, the New England spinster who goes as a nurse to Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War talking about "sweet Jesus," sounds more like a Southern Baptist than a Maine Yankee.

There are hints in this book that we have not seen the last of Davita. She imagines herself addressing not just the departed spirits of her father, aunt and family friend, but "the world and … this century…. I wanted to say that I would try to find and join with the side of America that wouldn't hurt people like Wesley Everest [the Wobbly lynched in Centralia, Wash.], and I would also try not to let this century defeat me." In this passage, she seems not to have learned anything from her mother's experience. But knowing Mr. Potok's passionate concern with things religious, one suspects that Davita, like her mother, will ultimately come back full circle to the faith. Even if it takes two sequels to do it.

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This section contains 859 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Cynthia Grenier
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