My Name Is Asher Lev

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My Name Is Asher Lev
Asherlev cover.jpg
First edition
Author Chaim Potok
Country United States
Language English
Genre Kunstlerroman
Publisher Knopf
Publication date
March 12, 1972
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 370
ISBN 0-394-46137-1
OCLC 221242
813/.5/4
LC Class PZ4.P86 My PS3566.O69
Followed by The Gift of Asher Lev

My Name Is Asher Lev is a novel by Chaim Potok, an American author and rabbi. The book's protagonist is Asher Lev, a Hasidic Jewish boy in New York City. Asher is a loner with artistic inclinations. His art, however, causes conflicts with his family and other members of his community. The book follows Asher's maturity as both an artist and a Jew.[1]

Potok asserted that the conflict between tradition and individualism is constant and that the tension between religion and art is lifelong. His personal struggle seems apparent in "Brooklyn Crucifixion." And yet despite this seemingly agonizing struggle, Potok remained active as an artist/writer and engaged in the religion of his upbringing until his death in 2002.".[2]

Potok continued Asher Lev's story in the book The Gift of Asher Lev.

Plot[edit]

This is the story of Asher Lev, a boy born with a prodigious artistic ability into a Hasidic Jewish family, set in the 1950s in the time of Joseph Stalin and the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. During Asher's childhood, his artistic inclination brings him into conflict with the members of his Jewish community, which values things primarily as they relate to faith and considers art unrelated to religious expression to be at best a waste of time and possibly a sacrilege. It brings him into particularly strong conflict with his father, a man who has devoted his life to serving their leader, the Rebbe, by traveling around the world bringing the teachings and practice of their sect to other Jews, and who is by nature incapable of understanding or appreciating art.

In the middle is Asher's mother, who in Asher's early childhood was severely traumatized by the death of her brother, who was killed while traveling for the Rebbe; she suffers anxiety for her husband's safety during his almost constant traveling. It didn’t just affect her, but it affected her whole family and community. After her anxiety had passed, she decided she wanted to continue her brother’s work.

The Rebbe asks Asher’s father to travel to Vienna, since it would make his work easier. Asher becomes very upset about this and complains that he doesn’t want to go to Vienna. His mother decides to stay in Brooklyn with Asher, while his father goes to Vienna. While Asher’s father is away, Asher gets more into his paintings and neglects his Jewish studies.

Asher begins to go to art museums where he studies paintings. He becomes very interested in the paintings, especially the ones of the crucifixions. He starts copying the paintings of the crucifixions and nudes, but this would only get him into trouble. Asher’s father returned home one night after a long trip to Russia for the Rebbe. He then sees Asher’s paintings of the crucifix and nudes and is furious. Asher’s father thinks that his gift is foolish and from the Sitra Achra, or Other Side. Asher’s mother doesn’t know whether to support her son or her husband. She is torn between the two of them.

Yet the gift will not be denied, and finally the Rebbe intercedes and allows Asher to study under one of the greatest living artists, Jacob Kahn, a non-observant Jew who is an admirer of the Rebbe. Asher grows up to be a formidable artist as an apprentice of Jacob Kahn, and even his father cannot help but be proud of his son's success. Jacob Kahn becomes more than just an art teacher to Asher. Jacob Kahn also teaches Asher about life and they eventually become very good friends. However, the gift finally calls upon Asher to paint his masterpiece—a work which uses the symbolism of the crucifixion to express his mother's torment. This imagery so offends his parents and his community that he is asked to leave. Asher goes away not wanting to hurt the ones he loves further.

Setting[edit]

My Name is Asher Lev is placed in the 1950s in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Asher also studies art outside his community in New York, Massachusetts, and Europe.

Characters[edit]

Asher Lev – Asher is the protagonist and narrator of the story. The book takes you through the first segment of Asher's life, ending when he's around 22 years of age. During his childhood, Asher is overwhelmed with his passion for drawing and painting so much that he becomes apathetic towards most of the world around him. Because of his lack of dedication and focus towards his education, the people surrounding him (mainly his father) begin to feel ashamed of what he has become. Asher isn't rebelling intentionally, but he has grown too strongly attached to his art that he can't help himself. As Asher grows older, he learns to channel his emotion and energy into his artwork and becomes immensely successful.

Jacob Kahn – Jacob Kahn is a successful artist. He freed himself from all conditioning forces such as religion, community, and popularity in an attempt to create a lifestyle in which he could express himself freely. He believes in creating balance between inner emotions and true identity. He became Asher's mentor and taught him fundamental techniques that would influence and improve the overall progression of Asher's artistic future. He is extremely firm, and usually so in a demeaning manner.

Aryeh Lev – Asher’s father and an important member of the Jewish community. Deeply committed to his work for the Rebbe, he travels throughout Europe building yeshivas and saving Jews from Russian persecution. Aryeh holds a master's degree in political science[3] and speaks English, Yiddish, French, and Russian.[4] He highly distrusts gentiles due to his father’s death at the hands of a drunken axe-wielding Christian.[5] Aryeh doesn’t understand art and can’t comprehend why his son would spend his life making art. He gets in many disagreements over Asher’s gift which causes him to dislike his son. Aryeh is close-minded, stubborn, and has difficulty with value systems other than his own.

Rivkeh Lev – Rivkeh Lev is torn between her love of her husband and son. She struggles daily with the conflict between them. After she recovers from her illness, she returns to school to finish her brother Yaakov’s work. She receives a Masters degree and then pursues a doctorate in Russian affairs. Rivkeh is torn, but ultimately sides with her husband, and goes with him to Europe leaving Asher behind to live with his uncle. Rivkeh doesn’t always understand Asher’s art work.

The Rebbe – Leader of the Ladover Hasidic Jews, it is he who orders Aryeh to travel. The Rebbe understands Asher's gift and arranges for him to study under the tutelage of Jacob Kahn.[6]

Reb Yudel Krinsky – The proprietor of the shop where Asher buys supplies, he was rescued by Aryeh after spending years in Siberia. Krinsky feels that Asher shouldn’t cause a good man like his father so much trouble.[7] Despite this, he tolerates and enables the art because he is friends with Asher.

Yaakov – Asher’s uncle who died in a car crash when Asher was six years old. His death had a very profound effect on Asher’s mother. Rivkeh became very ill and depressed because they were very close. Like Aryeh, he travelled for the Rebbe, and this disturbs Rivkeh.

Yitzchok-Asher’s wealthy uncle who supports Asher and his art skills. He is kind and generous, and gives Asher a place to stay while his parents are in Europe. Yitzchok is one of the first to recognize that Asher’s ability can make a fortune, and he invests in his work. Asher lived with him for a while.

Anna Schaeffer – A very sophisticated woman and owner of the art gallery where Asher’s art is displayed. Anna's work to promote Asher's works results in much recognition for Asher. She is introduced to Asher through Jacob Kahn. She is impatient, but cares about her artists.

Mrs. Rackover – The Levs' housekeeper. She is important to the story because she knows about Siberia and the suffering that Reb Yudel Krinsky went through there. She also is one of the first people to understand Asher's artistic gift.

Themes[edit]

Conflicting traditions[edit]

This book explores conflicting traditions (in this case the tradition of Judaism and the tradition of art), father versus son, contentedness with one's life versus peace in the family (the Jewish value of "shalom bayit"), the traditional Jewish world versus secular America.

Suffering[edit]

My Name Is Asher Lev explores the nature of suffering. The discrimination that Asher’s father has against his artistic tendencies can be related to the suffering of the many Jews in Russia and Germany that were oppressed by the government. Just as they were oppressed and punished for their beliefs, Asher is negatively viewed by his Father, his teachers, and his peers. Art is Asher’s real religion, and not only he, but his mother suffers for it. When Asher tries to portray his mother’s suffering, “his search for a motif reveals none powerful enough in his own tradition, and so he turns to the central theme of suffering in the Christian tradition: crucifixion.” [8]

Beauty[edit]

Asher Lev's pursuit of art is complicated by his upbringing and training to see Jewish perspectives on beauty. Via his training, Asher Lev explores aesthetic traditions of beauty.

Self-identity[edit]

The book title itself signals Asher's issue with self-identity. Jacob Kahn tells Asher, "As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it.”

Reception[edit]

Considered one of Potok's best works, it has a sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev. The first "Brooklyn Crucifixion", a work by Asher which plays a central role in the novel's conclusion, is an actual painting by Potok, who was an accomplished artist as well as a novelist and rabbi; the second Crucifixion, which is described in the book as being superior to the first, does not have a real-life counterpart.

The book is a thinly disguised depiction of the Lubavitch community.[9] "Brooklyn Parkway", with its heavy traffic and island promenades, is a reference to Eastern Parkway. However, contrary to popular opinion, the character of Yudel Krinsky is not meant to refer to Chaim Yehuda Krinsky, one of the assistants to Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Adaptation[edit]

In January 2009, Aaron Posner's adaptation for the stage premiered in Philadelphia at the Arden Theatre Company.[10] It was subsequently produced by the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland in March and April 2010.[11] In 2012, the play was staged at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven [12] and by the Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta.[13] The first New York City Off-Broadway production of the play opened at the Westside Theater on November 28, 2012.[14] The play won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play and the John Gassner Award.[15]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ My Name is Asher Lev to play Westside Theater
  2. ^ Fujimoto-Johnson, Sharon. "Art: Chaim Potok's "Brooklyn Crucifixion"." The Spectrum Blog. 02 July 2006. Web. 25 Feb 2010. <http://spectrummagazine.typepad.com/the_spectrum_blog/2006/07/art_chaim_potok.html>.
  3. ^ My Name Is Asher Lev pg. 9
  4. ^ My Name Is Asher Lev pg. 24
  5. ^ My Name Is Asher Lev pg. 5
  6. ^ My Name Is Asher Lev pg. 194
  7. ^ My Name Is Asher Lev pg. 103
  8. ^ "On Being Proud of Uniqueness, Chaim Potok". Potok.lasierra.edu. March 20, 1986. Retrieved November 30, 2010. 
  9. ^ Potok in an interview said that the Ladover Yeshiva in the novel was the real life Lubavich Yeshiva. Conversations with Chaim Potok. pg. 17. University Press of Mississippi (July 9, 2001)
  10. ^ Arden Theater Company website, retrieved October 26, 2012
  11. ^ Round House Theater website, retrieved October 26, 2012.
  12. ^ THEATER REVIEW: Long Wharf ends its season with a masterpiece in ‘Asher Lev’
  13. ^ Theatrical Outfit
  14. ^ Healy, Patrick, "My name is Asher Lev coming to Off Broadway, The New York Times, September 19, 2012, retrieved October 26, 2012.
  15. ^ Gans, Andrew. " 'Pippin' Is Big Winner of 2012–13 Outer Critics Circle Awards" playbill.com, May 13, 2013