My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok
Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew in 1940’s and 50’s Crown Heights, Brooklyn (a neighborhood very close to my own!). He is also an extremely talented artist, which is apparent from the first time he picks up a pencil as a young child. Unfortunately for Asher, art and aesthetic beauty are not considered worthy pursuits by his family or community in general. His “hobby” is foolish, nice at best and a curse from the sitra achra at worst. Asher’s father is a well-known and very respected in the community for the work he does for the Rebbe, helping to bring Jews fleeing persecution in Soviet Russia to the U.S. and establishing yeshivas around Europe. He is toughest on Asher; hurt that his son shows more interest in drawing than in studying the Torah, that he has greater ambitions for his artwork than he does for his people.
But art is not an interest to Asher, it is a compulsion. He simply can not help himself. His mother, already emotionally fragile following the sudden death of her brother, finds herself stuck between her husband and her son, and it weighs on her. She shares her husband’s values and concerns, but quietly encourages Asher’s passion by buying him paints and taking him to art museums when her husband is away, travelling for the Rebbe. The Rebbe is surprisingly supportive of Asher’s gift, and just before Asher’s bar mitzvah he sets him up with a mentor, a successful world-renowned artist in Manhattan. Jacob Kahn is a non-observant Jew but a trusted friend of the Rebbe. The Rebbe gives Asher his blessing, warns him to remember that he is a Jew, that he should allow himself to be influenced by the art world and corruption of the goyim. But when Asher begins to draw and paint nudes and makes copies of paintings of Jesus so that he may learn to replicate his expression, the tension between himself, his family, and his community becomes a monster threatening to devour them. The tension comes to a powerful, painful conclusion when he attains fame for his portraits entitled Brooklyn Crucifixion, parts I and II (not a spoiler; you learn this from the first page).
This book is amazing. The Lev’s family dynamic is so quietly taut and difficult, and so well communicated. I really felt for all of them, even when I didn’t agree with them. Their difficulty accepting Asher’s talent and his passion, which may at first seem absurd to some readers, becomes completely understandable, and is reasonable. Each character, even the minor ones, were fully-fleshed out and real, as is the compassion I felt for them. In reading this book, I learned so much about the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, one which I previously knew almost nothing about despite my physical proximity to it. I also learned a bit about art, another subject I know very little about, and one I’m now greatly determined to increase my knowledge of! I love the easy, reverent way in which Potok was able to describe a painting, drawing, or sculpture…so that I had a perfect image of what it all looked like.
This was one of my favorite kinds of family drama, in which a greater socio-political reality is reflected in the intimate family sphere. The tension that revolves around Asher’s art, his family, and his community in Crown Heights is a perfect mirror image of Jewish insecurity in the face of post-WWII persecution in Russia. It is also a perfect coming of age tale in which an orthodox Jew must learn to reconcile tradition and passion for expression–or not. Either way, someone will suffer.
I loved this book and I hope I’ve convinced some of you to give it a go. You won’t regret it.