In such books as The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, the American novelist Chaim Potok (1929-2002), explores the lives and struggles of young men from the ḥasidic world as they find themselves drawn away from it. Wesley Hill, who left the devout evangelical Christian milieu of his childhood while maintaining his commitment to the Christian religion, has found that “Potok’s characters” have helped him “to understand [his] complicated feelings.”
But Hill finds particular relevance in Potok’s lesser-known Davita’s Harp, which is not a tale of the rejection of and return to religion, but of coming to religion from outside it. The eponymous heroine is the child of a secular Gentile father and a Jewish Communist mother, and finds herself anything but at home in a synagogue:
Yet in 1937, . . . after learning of her father’s death in the bombing of Guernica, where he had been working as a journalist, . . . Davita goes back to a synagogue and, finding herself in a kind of daze, says softly aloud the kaddish, the traditional doxology that asks for the sanctification of God’s name. Davita mouths the words in memory of her father. She can see the men’s side of the synagogue through the curtain. She watches the men rise.
Maybe it is because I think about [the French philosopher] Paul Ricoeur’s diagnosis of modern readers of the Bible and would-be believers in its God—“Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again”—that I am tempted to regard Davita’s budding curiosity about Judaism as one of the most immediately relatable entries into Chaim Potok’s work as a whole. A religiously observant life is less and less accessible or intelligible to modern Westerners, yet many of us remain haunted by its possibility. Even the demographic designation “nones” invokes religious sensibility by naming its absence, tacitly acknowledging that, even in the desert, faith’s echo can be heard. Davita’s halting entry into an observant life dramatizes a journey we too might take. Her story makes the prospect of finding a home within a religious tradition, even in a secular age, a live, beguiling one.