Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

When I read Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev (Knopf, 1972; 369 pages) years ago, I loved it at least enough to buy a copy so that I could read it again someday. So, without anything else I wanted to read the other day, I picked it up and reread it. I hadn't been expecting it to capture my attention in the way it did, and spent a couple of nights up reading much later in the night than I should have done because I couldn't put it down until I got so sleepy that my eyes wouldn't stay open any more.

It is the story of Asher Lev, an Orthodox Hasidic Jew, who also happenes to be, almost despite himself, an artist. He shows promise in his drawings from a very early age, but in his community his talents - his genius, for he is a child prodigy - are not valued and in fact are considered a waste of time better spent doing other things. Those other things, in Asher's case, include following in his father's footsteps in promoting his branch of Judaism all over the world at a time (during the Cold War) as well as bringing Russian Jews out of the Soviet Union, which was a difficult and hazardous undertaking in the 1950s and 1960s, when the story takes place. He does this at the behest of his Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the branch of Hasidic Judaism that Asher's family belongs to. Asher is expected to go to school and learn the things he must to take over for his father someday, as Asher's father took over for his own father in doing this work on behalf of the Rebbe.

But art has hold of Asher and, after not drawing at all during the first years he in school, the art does not just take hold of him again. It seizes him. He sometimes draws without even knowing that is what he is doing. This is not just a problem for Asher, but for his whole community, which is very conservative and has set ideas of what boys like Asher should and should not be doing, with the "should not's" including drwaing picutres of the Rebbe in one of his religious books.

As Mr. Potok pointed out in a talk in 1986, "The Jewsih tradition is essentially an anti-iconographic tradition for the most part. Certainly it opoposes the making of any human image." He explained that this goes back to Mosaic monotheism and continued, saying "Therefore Jews have never participated in art of any kind that was connected to worship."

The Rebbe, though, sees that Asher has a talent that will not be denied and arranges for him to study with Jacob Kahn, an acclalimed artist who is a non-observant Jew but who counts the Rebbe as among his friends. Inevitably, the clash between Asher's artistic vision and his community becomes too much for the community to take, and as the book ends, Asher, still a young man, has acclaim as an artist but is asked to leave the Brooklyn community he grew up in and to return to Paris, to the yeshiva there where, the Rebbe says, "You did not grow up there. People will not be so angry in Paris."

In Mr. Potok's hands, Asher's story becomes about being an artist in a community that does not approve of being a visual artist and does not really understand what it means to Asher to be an artist. It is also about being an alien child to one's own parents. This is something I understand very well, having been my own mother's "alien child", who she did not understand after having grown up in a family that did not value any of the things I was interested in as a child and still am interested in as an adult. She never disapproved of my interests, as Asher's father does in Mr. Potok's novel, but she did not understand, either, why I couldn't be a "normal" child. We used to have what became a sort of ritual exchange when I was growing up.

My Mother: (to me, when I was reading, which was most of the time): "Go do something."
Me: "I am doing something. I'm reading."
My Mother: "Go outside and do something."

She wasn't a reader and to her, reading wasn't "doing something."

My Name is Asher Lev is a good book, told in Asher's voice and from his point of view. He never strays from his religious beliefs but, after his childhood break from drawing, never seriously strays from his determination to be an artist, although he wonders from time to time if his gift is, as he is told from time to time by others, from the Other Side, meaning that it is not from God but from more malevolent forces in the universe. The main flaw of the novel, from my point of view as a reader, is that sometimes years are glossed over in a few sentences. It is a trivial complaint, though, and I recommend this book highly.

There is a sequel, by the way, called The Gift of Asher Lev, and I'm looking for it right now so that I can read it again, as well.

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