Chaim Potok’s novel Davita’s Harp centers on a young child growing up in 1930’s Brooklyn. Based on this, one would not say this is a departure for Potok because almost all of his novels begin with a young child growing up in 1930’s or 1940’s Brooklyn. The departure in this novel is that the protagonist is female as opposed to the male protagonists in his other novels.
What one might also consider a departure is that in most of Potok’s novels, the young child is born into a faith community that as he grows up he moves away from (although never completely leaving) to embrace at least some cultural and societal aspects that are outside his faith in the secular world; however, in Davita’s Harp, Ilana Davita Chandal is raised by Communist parents of the 1930’s who disavow all religion and as she grows up she explores Judaism from the outside moving in.
Using a female protagonist from a secular family sheds some light on the role of women in Jewish culture. As Ilana decides to say the Kaddish at her friend’s synagogue for a loved one who has died, she is told that women don’t say the Kaddish, only men. As the reader has gotten to know Ilana, it doesn’t come as a surprise that she says it anyway. What is more of a surprise is how several of the Jewish women from the synagogue actually support Ilana in her prayer.
The loved one for whom she is saying the Kaddish died in the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. When the new Guernica painting by Pablo Picasso visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ilana’s class takes a field trip to see it and she becomes slightly overwhelmed by it:
…I did not know what I was saying. I ran back and forth through the town, holding the bird to me…Fires and bombs and airplanes and screams and a bridge somewhere and a river. He was here and I could not find him. I turned a corner – and there was the bull, staring, and the horse screaming. I held the bird, felt its warm and terrified pulsing.
…I wondered if all the rains in all the world could ever put out the fires of Guernica.
As she grows up, Ilana takes an interest in telling stories – from her imagination as opposed to the Talmud, something else that sets her apart from her Jewish friends. This imagination,this place inside her mind, comforts her from the distress and disillusion she finds in the world in which she lives. Many of the adults in her life make comments such as “this has been such a century”.
Interesting perspective from a story set almost 100 years in the past from our present time.