Years ago I became interested in the writings of Chaim Potok, a rabbi and author who wrote novels about modern-day Orthodox Jews, trying to find their identity, their way and their place in today's society. Three of his books that I read were The Chosen, My Name is Asher Lev, and Davita's Harp. I just finished reading Potok's final book, Old Men at Midnight - his final book because it was published not long before he died, at age 73, in 2002.
Old Men at Midnight is different from his other books, in that it is actually three distinct novellas, connected by one recurring character, Ilana Davita Dinn (known as Davita), and several recurring themes. Of his books that I have read, I found Old Men at Midnight the most challenging.
The stories themselves are not so much about Davita as they are about three Jewish men she meets at different times in her life. In each case, Davita becomes the catalyst who helps these men remember and tell their stories. To one of the men, Davita says, "Without stories there is nothing. Stories are the world's memory. The past is erased without stories."
The first encounter is with a young boy, named Noah, who is a holocaust survivor living in America with his aunt and uncle. The second is a Russian Jew who is a defected KGB officer, haunted by his involvement in the purge of Russian Jews during Stalin's regime. And the third is an aging American-born Jewish professor and expert in war history, who struggles with repressed memories as he tries to write his memoirs. War, connections, the human conscience, memories, and the importance of telling one's story are among the themes that are woven throughout the three novellas.
Although they are compelling stories, written in simple language, and with occasional glimpses of hope; they are also rich in symbolism - some of it enigmatic - and deal with disturbing topics. I found that a single reading of the book left me with as many questions as it did answers; it deserves a second reading. This book won't be everyone's "cup of tea." It is not for those who prefer a book with a beginning, a middle, and a neatly-wrapped-up conclusion. But for those who enjoy thought-provoking reading about the complexities of the human psyche, I would recommend it.
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