is a historical novel by Chaim Potok. First published in 1985, it tells the story of a Jewish woman who finds strength in religious worship after war ravages her world. The novel explores Judaism and what it means to have religious freedom. It is one of Potok’s most popular books among general readers; however, critics take issue with its repetitive narrative. Potok grew up as an Orthodox Jew and started writing at 16. He studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, after which he was ordained a Conservative rabbi. He served in the US Army as a chaplain in South Korea between 1955 and 1957.
The protagonist is Davita Chandal. Her story begins in 1930s New York City. Her father is Gentile and a non-believer. Although her mother, Anne, was raised Jewish, she’s also a non-believer. Davita doesn’t receive a religious upbringing because her parents are very pragmatic, and they don’t believe in indoctrinating their children into organized religion.
Although Davita isn’t raised Jewish, she’s raised Communist. Her parents vocally support Communism and they campaign for the cause in their local community. They believe in equality for everyone and fairness all around. They want children like Davita to grow up in a world where religious intolerance and discrimination is a thing of the past.
The problem is that, although Davita admires her parents, she doesn’t believe in Communism like they do. Davita thinks that her parents are idealistic and living in a bubble.
Although their ideas are well-intentioned, they don’t stand up to scrutiny in the real world Davita inhabits. For example, her neighbors and others poke fun at her family because of their Communist views. Others in the community are persecuted for their various religious and political beliefs.
As Davita grows up, she realizes that her family moves around a lot because their landlords kick them out of the building. This is all because of their Jewish heritage and Communist views. The only constant in Davita’s life is a small golden harp hanging outside their front door. They take this harp with them wherever they move to. It plays a beautiful, sweet sound whenever the front door opens or closes. It’s one of her fondest childhood memories.
Davita often lies awake at night listening to her parents talk about the crisis unfolding in Europe. She hears them describe men like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. She doesn’t understand their political chatter, but she knows that something awful is brewing in Europe, and that it will probably affect her.
More than anything, Davita wants something constant and reliable to hold onto. She turns her attention to religion. Her mother and father refuse to talk about their old religions because it distresses them. If Davita wants to learn about Judaism, she must find the answers on her own. Her neighbors, the Helfman family, offer to teach her Jewish values.
One day, Davita’s journalist father heads to Spain to cover war stories there. Anne doesn’t take his absence well and she throws herself into politics. Alone and lacking guidance, Davita turns to the Helfmans, who take her to the local synagogue and answer any questions she has. For the first time, Davita feels like she truly belongs somewhere. She knows that, even if her parents move home again, there will always be a synagogue to visit.
Davita’s father doesn’t make it home from Spain. He dies in the warzone. Anne decides to pay more attention to what her daughter’s getting up to. When she finds out that Davita is attending the synagogue and exploring Judaism, she takes her anger out on the Helfmans. Meanwhile, Davita refuses to back down. She will not let her mother take her right to freedom of religious expression away.
Davita isn’t just interested in Judaism, but conservative, traditional Judaism. This angers her mother even more. Davita wonders why Anne is so angry with her, but it makes sense when she discovers that she’s sleeping with a Communist historian called Charles. Anne agrees with everything that Charles says, and she finds Davita’s religious fervor tiring. Davita doesn’t blame Charles for anything. Ultimately, everyone is free to believe what they wish.
Meanwhile, the Communist cause crumbles because Hitler and Stalin sign a non-aggression pact. Charles dumps Anne for leaving the Communist party. Alone and rejected, Anne clings once again to her daughter. She decides to take up Judaism again. Davita doesn’t care what her mother does because it’s all for show. Anne supports whatever cause suits her at the time.
The family fate is sealed when Anne marries her cousin, Ezra Dinn. Everyone commits wholeheartedly to Judaism, and they enroll Davita in a popular Jewish day school. She excels at her studies, and she impresses her teachers with her religious passion. Because she’s a girl, however, she doesn’t get the recognition that she deserves. When Davita leaves school, she plans on showing everyone, including the Jewish community, how powerful women can be.