Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Chaim Potok’s books are so engulfing: they suck me into a world that is both familiar and foreign; a world that appears both enchanting and soul-crushing. Davita’s Harp, though different than many of Potok’s other novels, nonetheless shares these features. One major difference is that the protagonist is a young girl: Ilana Davita. The second is the way the story is told. It is much more like a memoir. It starts with some of Ilana’s earliest memories as her world starts to take shape. It has a collage quality to it without a lot of continuity. As she grows the story becomes more robust and continuous, though never losing that memoir feel.
One of the reasons I love reading Potok is that he captures my own ambivalence about American Judaism (of the more religious variety). He, and his characters, are pulled to it, but at the same time he shows it’s darker, uglier side. The push/pull of the secular and religious is the dramatic tension in Potok’s novels. Davita’s Harp adds several other layers to this push/pull with conflicts of gender, politics, and family.
This is a much sadder novel than Potok’s other works that I’ve read. There is repeated tragedy, injustice, and death. And lots of pain and inner torment. The memories of past traumatic events haunt the characters and change them. A major theme of the books is that the characters are all driven to embrace some kind of ideology to help make sense of and give purpose to the world. For Ilana’s parents this was communism and Marxism; for others it was religion: Orthodox Judaism or the Catholicism of her Aunt. Ilana, struggling to make her own sense of things, turns to each of these as well. Mostly, though, she is looking for a home, a community. Part of the sadness, the tragedy of the book is that for most of the characters, and for some more than others, the individual gets let down, hurt, even rejected by their chosen ideological community. This is somewhat, though possibly unintentionally, mirrored by the grand conflicts in the background of the book between fascism and communism as they ate their own and the rest of Europe in the Spanish Civil War and World War Two.
The Jakob Daw character and his stories are intriguing. They add a somewhat mystical element to the novel. I’m not sure – much like Ilana – what they mean, but they provide a texture to the novel. And they are important for Ilana’s growth and development as she comes of age.
From very young, Ilana has to deal with heartbreak and loss. She is not always successful at it but she does seem to find a home in the synagogue and yeshiva. They too, though, end up causing her great pain. One of the best and chilling sequences in the book is her response to the injustice she experiences. I believe, though, that she eventually finds an outlet for her pain and finds peace through her writing and storytelling – as suggested by the hopeful ending.
View all my reviews