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Issue #49 (September 1985)
Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok (1985) is a masterful book. It does have the same stylistic fault marked in his other books, repetitiveness, but his continued indulgence in this "fault" must mean that it is deliberate. It is feminist, yes, but this is just one more mosaic in the pattern Potok has fashioned throughout his six books, not a new departure.
When I reviewed his five earlier books, I concluded that Potok had reached a point of decision. He could no longer continue the same logical thrust in his next book without entering a new metaphysical domain. Either Potok would have to admit himself to be frankly anti-religious, anti-Jewish, Christian, or would have to confess himself to have remained a religious Jew in spite of all the steps away from it which his books have depicted.
I did not reckon with Potok's stature as a philosopher, that he would hark back to a new beginning by constructing an epistemological basis for the yet-unrevealed metaphysics. Instead of the philosopher's self-concocted rationale for how it is possible to know, Potok more "logically," one might say, proceeds from how a child actually comes to know her world.
One of the first things the reader comes to perceive, long before the eight-year old narrator does, is that her parents are rabid Communist activists. Gradually we come to understand how some Jews in the 1930s could see Communism as ushering in the messianic kingdom. We cope with the paradox, never adequately explained, of how rigidly Orthodox Jews could yet maintain better relations with Communists than with Conserva- tives and Reform Jews, or certainly better terms than with Christians. The probable explanation is that relatives continued to maintain normal family ties, and also that the Reform and Conservative synagogues were more familiar to native American Jews of Western European extraction than to the new wave of Hasidics just in from Eastern Europe.
In Davita's Harp we are presented with further paradoxes. The icily logical, dominant intellectual is Davita's mother, Channah. In contrast to her diffidence to her mother, for her emotional father (an ex-Episcopalian) Davita proclaims great affection: "I love him, my father, Michael Chandal" (three-fold repetition). Davita herself is immodest, irreligious, and insensitive to social conventions, but her girlish "crush" is for David, a shy, Puritanical, devout Jewish boy. This theme is a remake of The Promiser, in which another Jewish genius (this one an adult) falls in love with a saintly young man, the Hasid Danny (hero of The Chosen). The major paradox is that in Potok's world, it is the men who are inhibited and religious, and it is the women who are bold and irreligious. In regard to all this, the question arises as to whether Potok thus portrays his characters based on an imaginative irony, a pandering to our modest feminist mores, a depiction of real people he knew among his immediate family and friends, or is all this an expression of Jewish life and culture?
Davita's Harp opens a new dimension to Potok's novels, the depiction of madness in several of the major or sympathetically portrayed characters. This harks back again to The Promiser, but in that novel the insane Jewish genius was portrayed unsympathetically as bringing on his own madness due to his own unjustified hate. Also unique in Davita's Harp is that the breakdown is seen "from the inside" in several cases. Overwhelming crises trigger the bouts of insanity.
One of the crises is the downfall of Communism among Jewish intellectuals at the time of the Non-Aggression Pact in 1939 between Hitler and Stalin. Politically oriented readers might think that the whole book is about Communism, but this is a complete misreading of the book. As in all Potok novels, all events and ideologies take meaning only within the context of their impact on Jewish life in New York, and the only aspect of Jewish life which concerns Potok is religion.
Even religion emerges in a re-created form in Davita's Harp. Yes, there is still plenty of talk about pogroms, even the rape of major characters therein, but little emphasis is placed on the persecutors being Christians. The evil done by Fascists in the Spanish Civil War is luridly detailed, even to the death of a main, loved character. No anti-clerical diatribes are made, however, against the involvement of Catholicism on the rebel side with Franco. Instead it is the Moors from Morocco who are portrayed as Franco's main troops. A main character is killed, paradoxically, while trying to rescue a Roman Catholic nun. The most praised character in the whole book is a Christian missionary, a nurse. Even the most anti-clerical is heard to say, "If only all Christians were like her." All this derives from Potok's assiduous effort to build from scratch in the eyes of a young girl a view of the world in which conservative Christian readers can understand Jewish Communists and in which narrow-minded Jews can appreciate Christianity.
Although the ending reinforces the impression that this book is about feminism, the truth is that this issue is just one more exhibit in Potok's continuing case against Talmudic Judaism. Whereas Davita's Aunt Sarah could be a powerful, effective individual as a Christian missionary, the only dominant intellectual role for her Jewish sister-in-law was as a Communist.