by Chaim Potok (Fawcett Crest/Ballantine, 1985; ISBN 0-449-20775-7)
Davita, or Ilana, or Ilana Davita, narrates this coming-of-age novel about a young girl living in New York in the 1930s as Hitler is coming to power in Europe. Her parents, Michael and Anne Chandal, are idealistic Communists who have forsaken their respective religions–his Christianity and her Judaism–and raised their daughter as an atheist and humanist. But living in close proximity to Anne’s Orthodox Jewish relatives has an unexpected effect: Davita feels inexplicably drawn to the music and ritual of her mother’s native faith, and she begins to attend shul and to teach herself Hebrew so that she can follow the service.
The Spanish Civil War is unfolding in Europe, and Michael, a journalist, travels to Spain several times to cover the war. A family friend, writer Jakob Daw, also goes to Spain and then to the United States, where he lives with the Chandals and tells Davita strange stories. Jakob Daw is in fragile health, having been gassed during the First World War. Predictably, Michael Chandal is killed in Spain while covering the horrific destruction of the Basque town of Guernica; later, Jakob Daw is deported and dies in France. With their deaths, Davita has lost the two men she loved the most.
Davita’s mother, like many American Party members, feels betrayed by Stalin’s signing of a non-aggression pact with Hitler. She leaves the Communist Party and sinks into depression, her life’s work suddenly meaningless. Her cousin Ezra Dinn, a devout Jew who has loved her for many years (member of the same community Davita worhsips with), finally persuades her to marry him and brings her slowly back into the faith. Davita attends the community’s yeshiva (school) along with Ezra’s son David, whom Davita has befriended. Both David and Davita are excellent students. One year, David is awarded the prestigious Talmud prize, and the following year, Davita is striving to win the equally prestigious Akiva Prize. However, despite the fact that she has the highest grades in her class, the prize is awarded to a boy–because to give it to a girl, to admit that a girl was the best student in a class that included boys would discredit the entire yeshiva: “What sort of future students of Torah would come out of a class where the best student was a girl? And how could a high academy of Torah learning accept any boy from such a class?” Davita has had a liberal upbringing, and she is devastated to realize that she has smacked into an immovable wall of tradition. Despite her parents’ protests, she has to settle for two lesser prizes instead of the coveted Akiva Prize. Afterwards, she broods, “I lay very still and felt the anger rising within me. How sweet it could have been! How proud I could have made my family! And it was mine, really mine. And it had been stolen from me for a reason I could not control: I was a girl. What else would they steal from me in the coming years? I would accomplish something, and they would tell me I couldn’t have it because I was a girl. I had made this community my home, and now I felt betrayed by it. . . . for the first time I began to understand how a single event could change a person’s life. . . .”
From this novel, I heard for the first time about the Centralia Massacre and the lynching of I.W.W. member Wesley Everest. I learned gruesome details about the Fascists’ destruction of Guernica. I read about the American Communist movement of the thirties. I liked Davita, the narrator and protagonist, and admired her sharp wit and her stubborn streak (all the while wondering at her innate feminism, which seemed unusual both for the time and for her young age). I enjoyed the other characters: Anne/Channah, Michael, Michael’s sister Sarah (who shows up from time to time to use her nursing skills to help the various characters), Jakob Daw, Ezra and David Dinn, and the Helfmans. Although I found the story somewhat less compelling than that of Reuven Malter* and Danny Saunders (in The Chosen and The Promise), the more I read, the more engaged in the story I became. Chaim Potok can really tell a good story, skillfully evoking a time his reader has not experienced.
*I appreciated Reuven’s cameo appearance as a student in Davita’s class competing for the Akiva prize!