Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok*
Chaim Potok was born Herman Harold Potok, February 17, 1929, in New York City, and changed his first name to Chaim when he was an adult. He was educated at Yeshiva University, B.A. (summa cum laude), received his Master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. From the University of Pennsylvania.
Chaim Potok is both an established (and best-selling) novelist, accomplished painter, historian, and an ordained rabbi and scholar of Judaic texts, serving as a U.S. Chaplain in the Korean War in 1956-57. Potok's attempts to reconcile these apparently divergent commitments has occasionally resulted in frustration, yet he uses this to his advantage in his novels. As he comments to Elizabeth Duff in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "While this tension is exhausting . . . it is fuel for me. Without it, I would have nothing to say." Although he was raised in an Orthodox family, he was drawn to Conservative Judaism and eventually was ordained in that faith.
His interest in writing led him into conflict with his family and his teachers. His mother suggested that he “be a brain surgeon . . . and on the side write stories.” His instructors expressed their disappointment that he would abandon full time study of the Talmud to read and write fiction. This conflict between secular and scholarly demands is a recurring theme in Potok’s novels.
Potok’s comments on the novel:
“Davita's Harp is a confrontation between two fundamentalisms I would say. The secular fundamentalism represented by Marxism, Stalinism, and communism, and the religious fundamentalism of the extreme right in my own tradition, and how those two fundamentalisms deeply hurt individuals profoundly committed to them, and what those individuals do in the wake of that pain.
To me these are profoundly rich confrontations. As we go about trying to fuse these cultures together, very often, gold is created. We are all of us made richer as a result. I don't advocate this kind of confrontation. I don't have to advocate it. We live these confrontations all the time. I'm only trying to understand them and to track them and to explore the possibilities of resolution that might come from them. I know there are other kinds of confrontations that we experience, more than confrontations from the hearts of cultures.
I'm writing about people caught up in some of the central events of our century. How does one hold onto one's own world, a world one deeply loves, while navigating the wider world beyond our own? In one way or another, whether through ourselves, our children, our friends, or our relatives, it's a problem all of us confront sooner or later. That's the problem, the human adventure that constitutes the heart of the stories I write.“Chaim Potok lecture, March 20, 1986Southern College of Seventh-day AdventistsCollegedale, Tennessee U.S.A.Edited by Dr. Jerry Gladson
Thoughts for discussion:
1. Why does Potok choose a child to tell this story?
2. Was this period of American history a more innocent time? What effect do you think the atomic bomb had on this kind of idealism?
3. Do you think parents have a responsibility to provide some kind of faith or religion for their children? What about Davita’s Jewish background as a cultural heritage? Were they wrong to keep that from her?
4. Do you think children are more “spiritual” than adults? Why?
5. Why is saying the Kaddish for her father so important for Davita? How does the congregation support her in this?
6. At what point does the relationship between Davita and her mother change so that the child becomes the parent and vice versa?
7. How do Jacob Daw’s stories influence Davita? What do you think Potok is saying about the line between truth and fiction? What is the difference between reading scripture as literature and reading it as the word of God?
8. How does Davita’s loss of the Akiva award compare and relate to Channa’s reaction to the Soviet alliance with the Fascists?
9. What does the door harp symbolize to the characters, and to the reader? How do these meanings alter throughout the story? What does it’s being moved to the door of Davita’s room mean?
10. On page 273, Channa says she feels the Communist party’s effect on American life. What else might be responsible for those changes?
11. On page 288, Davita weeps for her father, wishing for once he had not done the decent thing. Do you think he would have behaved differently had he know the outcome of this selfless act?
12. When Jakob Daw says it is wrong to face the world with closed eyes, do you think he means anyone in particular? Channa? Himself?
13. When is religion (or faith) a comfort? When is it a drug?
14. Davita has tried to reconcile all her pasts: her mother’s pain, her father’s rejection of his family, and the new “past” of Jewish heritage she embraces. Can we do this for ourselves, or do we have to give up some part of our own history?
*I'm trying to locate the original reference for this work so I can give proper credit to the author.