This powerful novel, My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok, focuses on Asher Lev, an artistic prodigy coming out of a conservative Jewish culture. The overriding theme is the struggle between artistic expression and religious beliefs. While not necessarily at odds with one another, when artistic expression challenges the artist’s religious beliefs, a struggle emerges.
Asher is the son of a prominent member of their Ladover community, working closely with their leader, the Rebbe (rabbi). But from a young age it is seen that the young Lev has an artistic gift, which brings him into conflict with his father, his teachers, and ultimately, himself. While the father wants to squash the artistic impulse, the Rebbe recognizes that God, “Ribbono Shel Olom: Master of the Universe,” can be present in art. As a result, Asher is sent to study with Jacob Kahn, a Jewish painter/sculptor who no longer follows his faith, but still respects his community.
Kahn, a friend of Picasso and other great artists, immerses Asher in the world of art. Early on, Asher is shaken by Picasso’s great work, Guernica. He spends hours drawing the figures and coming to know the power of art.
We watch as Asher grows up and struggles with his faith and painting. Especially at odds with his father are his painting of nudes, which are not allowed in his faith.
“There’s a difference between naked women and nudes, Papa.”
My father looked at me intently. He turned to my mother. “Rivkeh, did you know there is a difference between a naked woman and a nude?…Asher, I’m a reasonably intelligent man. Tell me what the difference is between a naked woman and a nude.”
“A naked woman is a woman without clothes. A nude is an artist’s personal vision of a body without clothes.”
“Is such a personal vision important in your art?”
“That’s what art is, Papa. It’s a person’s private vision expressed in aesthetic forms.”
Additionally, Asher’s study of Crucifixion art upsets his father. His father’s father had been killed by a Christian on Easter, because he was Jew. He points out all the damage to the world and the Jewish people as a result of “this man” who was crucified. For his son to draw these works, he must be entertaining the evil one.
But the art education and work continue, and we see Asher grow into a young, successful artist as the book progresses. Yet, his father never sees a show because of his painting nude women. The culmination of the book comes when Asher, now a successful artist recently returned from Paris, gains acclaim for his Crucifixion paintings which feature his mother as the Christ figure, with himself and his father depicted in the works. While purchased by a museum for permanent display, the paintings cause great issues for Asher, his family, and his community. We watch as Asher debates putting the paintings in the show and struggling with whether to tell his parents or not. He does not tell them, pushing the conflict toward its culmination.
I am not especially knowledgeable about the Jewish faith or culture, but it is not necessary to be in order to understand Asher’s struggles. The book raises questions about how faith and art, obedience to parents, our role in the community, and the role of art in the world. Potok gives you a vision of what this struggle must be for like him, a rabbi and writer who looks to the conflict which emerges when the secular and religious worlds collide. Any person of strong religious beliefs, including Christians and Muslims, will know what this experience feels like. For those whose very appearance signals their faith, those conflicts come to light immediately.
Potok (1929-2002) was not only a writer and rabbi, but a painter as well. He even painted one which could be the painting that Asher creates at the end of the novel.
Potok himself was part of the Jewish conservative movement throughout his life, which may mirror some of the challenges seen in the novel (I have nothing to back that up — just a thought). He is best know for his first novel in 1967, The Chosen, which also became a popular movie and was continued in his novel, The Promise. Asher Lev’s story is continued in the novel, The Gift of Asher Lev.
On a personal note, I heard Potok give a great reading at Hope College in 1995 and he even signed my copy of The Chosen (which I can no longer locate!).
This is a book I strongly recommend and will use in my class next fall — we are exploring writing, art, and faith. Perfect!