15 February 2012

Davita and me (plus Pi)

It's a great comfort to meet people whose experience of faith is something you can relate to, even if they're fictional characters.

Last week, I finished my mom's Christmas gift to me, "Davita's Harp," by Chaim Potok. Apart from the children's book, "The Tree of Here," this is is the only book by Mr. Potok I have read, but considering how much I liked both books, I might have to check out the ones on my mom's shelf when I go home.

"Davita's Harp" is what I like to call a plainsong kind of novel, after "Plainsong," by Kent Haruf. These are the kinds of books that don't really follow the mountain-shaped beginning-middle-climax-resolution curve. Instead, they feel like a long, leisurely stroll with a friend from one end of a wide field (or plain) to the other. The field may have a few hills, but nothing abrupt; walking over these hills feels natural, and your friend talks about life and memory to help pass the time.

For this reason, books like these are easy to dismiss as "dragging" and even "boring;" like any real friendship, they require a good first impression and then some commitment. It's a good thing "Davita's Harp" was well-written and thus rewarding.

In this book, the friend is the titular character, Ilana Davita Chandal, a grade-school girl growing up in Depression-era New York and trying to make sense of her parents' politics, religion, and the Spanish Civil War overseas.

Davita's background is a bit mixed up. Michael, her American journalist father, comes from a conservative Episcopalian family but has stopped practicing his religion and is a Communist (it is not clear which happened first, or even whether he is agnostic or an atheist). Except for his sister Sarah, a devout missionary nurse, and one odd uncle, Michael's family has cut off all contact with him because of his (un)beliefs.

Davita's mother Anne, meanwhile, is a social worker, Polish immigrant, and former Orthodox Jew. She becomes a Communist only after getting to know Michael and is also a scholar in her own right. But, she has long despised all religion after surviving her father's abuse and neglect, the horror of the pogroms in Europe, and torture by Cossacks.

Both Anne and Michael are active members of the Communist party in the US and often go to or host meetings.

In the middle of all this is Davita, of course, who, partly as a result of her parents' leanings, and partly just because she's a smart girl, has plenty of books to read, plenty of curiosity, and more awareness of what's going on in the world than most children her age—yet her experience of world events are still definitely a child's.

The titular harp is a door harp at the entrance to the different apartments that the Chandal family inhabits (for vague, likely political reasons, they never stay in one place for too long). The harp strings ping whenever someone enters or exits the home, but over time, they signal the comings and goings of the people in Davita's life.

This is what a door harp looks like. [image source]

Though Davita has no religious upbringing, she is curious about the faith of the people around her: her Aunt Sarah, who prays fervently to Jesus; her next-door neighbor and playmate Ruthie, whose family is piously Jewish; her cousin David, whose mother's recent death has him reciting a mourner's kaddish daily for eleven months; and the writer Jakob Daw, who has no religion but whose stories involve quests for meaning.

Davita also has an early sense of religion as a possible component of one's identity; when neighborhood gang members threaten to beat her for being a Jew, her father's non-Jewish status has everyone confused—"So, what are you?"—and they let her pass, for now.

What I like about Davita's growing faith is that it seems to grow naturally. Mr. Potok does not actually explain why she is drawn to religion, so we are left to come up with our own reasons, or even to project our own experiences of faith onto her. Perhaps she wants something to fill her time alone, because her parents, loving as they are, must go out and make a living or serve the party. Perhaps she is looking for some kind of center amid all the moving from apartment to apartment. Perhaps she seeks a sense of order under the atmosphere of war and chaos. Perhaps she wants solace from grief and abandonment. Perhaps she is drawn to the religious community and the possibility of friends and family with a shared interest.

Perhaps it is all these things, or perhaps there is no one reason. Davita says nothing at all about any experience of a God drawing her near—yet we are free to believe that this may be it—we just know that she's following her heart. And sure, there are some people who try to convert Davita one way or another, but in the end, she goes to the synagogue because it feels like the right place to be, even if she doesn't understand what the rituals are about. She begins to kneel with her Christian aunt in prayer, even if Davita herself doesn't believe in Jesus, because it somehow feels right.

And because Davita follows her heart when it comes to faith, she doesn't meekly accept every teaching or custom as-is. She wonders why women must remain separate from the men in the synagogue. When someone close to her dies in the Guernica bombing (the Picasso painting has a huge effect on her when she sees it in person), she feels compelled to recite the mourner's kaddish, though Orthodox custom seems to discourage women from doing so.

When Davita transfers into the yeshiva, the Jewish religious school, she challenges her teachers' literal interpretations of the ancient Hebrew texts and researches an unorthodox theologian on her own. When religious authorities further discriminate against her because of her sex, she begins to understand how a single event can change a person overnight; the novel suggests that feminism may yet become Davita's cause, just as socialism was her parents'.

It is extremely refreshing to read about someone else finding faith without having the author spell out what is leading them. Nor does it seem as though Mr. Potok is imposing an unorthodox or feminist agenda. The characters arrive at their respective conclusions because that is how rational yet fallible human beings arrive at their conclusions. I think Mr. Potok's writing thus respects the nature of faith as personal and definitive yet only partially explicable.

Of course, I may be biased, as I experienced religion in much the same way Davita did. I never took the Bible literally and saw it as a literary compilation, even as a child. I had and still have a lot of questions. Many of those questions—as well as a core idea of the kind of god that the Abrahamic god must be, to be truly God—have led me to disagree with a lot of the things taught in or prescribed by the churches I've attended, including the one I attend now. Like Davita, I have little to say today about a personal experience of a God. And yet, for reasons I can't really explain, I believe in and pray to One.

I recommend "Davita's Harp" to anyone else with similar experiences, anyone who knows someone with similar experiences, anyone with a general interest in faith and religion, and anyone who likes a good plainsong novel (try "Certain Women," by Madeleine L'Engle, too).

The other day, I started "Life of Pi," by Yann Martel. I'm just at the part where the boat has sunk, but so far, I've enjoyed Pi's adolescent exploration and acceptance of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. I especially admire Pi's desire to be a Christian despite his hangups about how avatar-Jesus-as-sacrifice is supposed to work. It doesn't make sense to him (it doesn't make sense to me, either), and yet he knows that there is something good there.

I know conservatives may paint poly-religious Pi as a superstitious, fearful boy trying to cover all the bases for his salvation. But, I'd agree with Pi that he simply sees these three religions as different ways to commune with the one God he loves. One could argue and nitpick all day about how incompatible these religions may be with one another, but ultimately, I think faith and its practice is what we make it.