© 1985 Chaim Potok
Are you a Jew? Ilana Davita Chandel gets that question a lot. It’s lobbed at her from Irish and Italian street toughs, and from inquisitive neighbors who see her swimming on the Sabbath. Is she a Jew? Her mother was raised Orthodox, but she left that behind when she embraced Communism and married the exiled son of a timber magnate, a secular goy. Ilana’s home was absent of religion, save her parents’ devotion to socialism, and their Talmudic study of Engels & Marx — so what did it matter that her mom’s ancestry made her a Jew? Davita’s Harp is a coming-of-age story in which a young Jewish girl on the cusp of entering the teen years tries to find what matters. My third Chaim Potok read, it proved just as thoughtful as The Chosen and its sequel.
Illana is a girl caught between worlds: early 20th century New York is a balkanized collection of ethnic neighborhoods, where an innocent walk down the street can get the unsuspecting traveler shaken down or beaten up if their last name is Italian instead of Irish, or Polish instead of Italian. In her own neighborhood, too, Ilana is stared at: she’s Jewish, but she doesn’t know any of the stories. She doesn’t keep kosher, and has no idea what Shabbos is. What kind of Jew is she? Illana’s mind proves her salvation: she turns to books to find the answers to questions that people shake their heads in wonderment that she’d ask. In this she is inspired by her parents, who yearn for a better world and devote themselves to it, studying and working constantly. They offer support to a fellow traveler, a mystic storyteller named Jakob Daw who has come to America to raise money in support of republican Spain. Iberia is embroiled in civil war between various factions of socialists, anarchists, and traditionalists, and that war will haunt Ilana’s life and destroy her parents’ and Jakob’s secular faith.
I found Davita’s Harp of great interest, not only because Ilana’s status as a perpetual outsider, but because of her parents’ passion and tortured break from the creed that gave them meaning. Their devotion to realizing the revolution is unquestionable, as they devote much of their off time to studying arguments and theory and teaching others or helping raise money for the cause of labor. But in Spain, Ilana’s father and Jakob see what happens in a revolution: those who grasp for power over others move to destroy anyone who stands in their way, including fellow leftists. While her parents and “Uncle Jakob” are consumed by their work for socialism, a joint effort that they will dispiritedly abandon, Ilana’s curiosity about the faith of her fathers – or rather, the childhood faith of her mom – sees her more and more involved in the Jewish community around her, though her inquisitive mind makes her as much a challenge to Orthodoxy as Reuven Malter was. Her mom doesn’t like this, but she doesn’t oppose her daughter’s curiosity, and when hope is lost Illana is not alone in listening to the ancient story of their people.