Asher Lev is the artist who painted the sensational 'Brooklyn Crucifixion.' Into it her poured all the anguish and torment a Jew can feel when torn between the faith of his fathers and the calling of his art. Here Asher Lev plunges back into his childhood and recounts the story of love and conflict which dragged him to this crossroads.
Another thing about the novel is that the whole thing was impeccably done: the characters believing, the historical and religious aspects fascinating, the drama not overdone. And most impressively of all, Asher's struggles as an artist, his descriptions of the drawing process and his attempts to understand, study and replicate famous artists, paintings and movements, all sounded realistic, true. So true in fact that I found I subconsciously kept trying to find flaws within Asher's personality. Potok's attempt to make Asher think, behave and talk not like a writer - not like Potok himself - but like a painter was truly flawless. As it turns out, there was a reason for this. Potok is an artist as well and he has actually painted one of the two Brooklyn Crucifixions described in the book! If I'd known this as well as the fact that Potok considers Asher Lev to be the one character that most resembles himself, I might've not marveled so much at how real the character of Lev was, how real his fears, his worries, his selfishness, his talent, his inner conflicts. I also found out after finishing the novel that Potok was (or had been) a Rebbe in real life. This was eye-opening: imagine taking the main conflicting forces of the book, represented by the Rebbe (and one could say the father) on one side and Asher on the other and fusing the two sides into the character of Chaim Potok himself! It is no wonder the man has created such a moving, realistic and, yes, strangely compelling book.
Both the mother and father have inherited (literally) a vocation. The mother has inherited her brother's vocation; the father, his father's. The narrator has also inherited a vocation, but it's his misfortune to have inherited his vocation from outwith his community. And worse, it's incompatible with his community. With 'community' and 'incompatibility', Potok constructs something very interesting. The father pursues his vocation squarely within the community; the mother pursues hers outside, but with no conflict; the narrator's vocation simply pushes him out of the community altogether. The mother is therefore midway between the two others, and is anxious for both of them. And for both, she waits anxiously by the window, a figure that inspires the narrator's great painting.
That's the basic construction, and it's very good. It's a more interesting construction than found in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer, where the artist just uses the Jewish community as fuel for his books (though the The Ghost Writer is very good in other ways). The occasional reviewer of this book doubts whether art is incompatible with Hasidism, but what we have is Potok's opinion, and if it's an eccentric opinion I don't really care, since what I enjoy is the author's craft.
This novel offered an interesting glimpse into the Hasidic community through its rich cast of characters. But after finishing this book, I am primarily left with some pretty powerful emotions. I wanted Asher to succeed, but also deeply felt his mother’s pain as she tried to navigate the ongoing conflict between her husband and son. I won’t soon forget Asher’s story.
This is not giving anything away
You feel for everyone in this story. The parents - the supportive mother and bewildered father who just thinks drawing is childish and a stupid waste of time. The understanding rabbi, the jewish artist-mentor - and of course for Asher Lev himself. Beautiful, profound writing It opened a whole new world to me.
Asher Lev is a Ladover Hasid growing up in post-WWII Brooklyn with his parents and surrounded by a loving traditional community. His father travels for the Rebbe, working to assist Jews and establish Ladover Yeshivas in communities in Europe. Asher's mother is studying Russian so that she can assist her husband in his work. Asher is a bright, respectful, and loving boy whose irresistible impulse to draw at the expense of his schoolwork is counter to all that his parents value and believe. He is destined to create art and when he discovers art supplies in the store of a family friend this destiny takes on even greater power. His compulsion to create visual art rents the very fabric of his family as his parents struggle to understand what is, to them, unfathomable. His father particularly struggles, unable to resolve himself to the fact of his son's passion and identity. To the father, dedicating one's life to the creation of art is selfish and corrupt.
As Asher approaches maturity, the Rebbe intercedes and arranges for Asher to be taught by a Jewish artist who is respected and trusted despite the fact that he does not actively practice his faith. Thus begins a transformative relationship that enables Asher to flourish into himself as an artist. He travels to Florence and to Paris to study great masters and he wrestles with the omnipresence of Christian imagery in much great art. He also struggles with his compassion for the deep hurt he is causing his parents by being himself. Asher wrestles with these various challenges to his vision of the world, pulling the story toward a terrible climax that is simple, foreseeable, and inevitable.
The narrative style is deceptively simple, reading as an almost dispassionate first-person narration of life as it unfolds for Asher. This simplicity belies the richness of this novel's exploration of the artist's soul and the dreadful dilemma created when truth to oneself hurts those most loved.
Caught in the middle of all this is Asher’s mother, who tries to keep peace and faith with both husband and son. The book is the story of Asher’s growth from childhood to adulthood and the decisions he faces as he strives to preserve his artistic integrity--and indeed, his very life--despite the terrible pain he knowingly inflicts on those he loves the most.
I consider this the best and most powerful of Potok’s fiction. He always wrote about moral choices, but in this book, the stakes are the highest and the choices the most agonizing. It’s written in his inimitable style, with short, declarative sentences conveying the impression of the rhythm of Yiddish dialogue; his descriptions of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and Asher’s perceptions of something as ordinary as rain are lyrical. I consider that his characters in this book are the most complex and the best-developed of those in any of the other novels, particularly his parents but also others such as Jacob Kahn, his mentor in the art world.
This is a not-to-be-missed book.
The author has drawn a detailed and convincing portrait of a gifted child, driven to draw, paint, and express himself through art, to the bewilderment and anger of his parents. This is not a simple story, but deep, reflective, and full of inner turmoils of a young man who cannot hold back
This book was so good, so engrossing, yet it was like reading it for the first time -- I am surprised nothing else from my earlier reading came back to me this time around. Maybe I was too young/immature then to really understand what was going on in the story. I was probably 13 or 14 then.
Other reviewers here have done a better job than I could in discussing this novel, in where Asher Lev, son of Rivkeh and Aryeh Lev, has a gift that conflicts with his Hasidic Jew upbringing and the obligations to his community that his parents and community leaders feel he should commit himself to. The gift that Asher Lev has is an artistic one -- he is prodigal in drawing and studies painting and eventually has his works exhibited.
As someone who loves art -- both appreciating it and doing it -- I can understand that it is practically impossible to strive to be a great artist (so I haven't tried) if family comes first. Or, in Asher Lev's case, that his religious community is supposed to be first as well. He feels extremely torn throughout the book, and I found the ending somewhat sad. Now that I am aware an sequel was written some years later, I will read it ("The Gift of Asher Lev") to follow up on how things went for him, and his family, later on down the road. I'll be on the look out for Chaim Potok's other novels as well.
A quote from this book:
"That was the night I began to realize that something was happening to my eyes. I looked at my father and saw lines and planes I had never seen before. I could feel with my eyes. I could feel my eyes moving across the lines around his eyes and into and over the deep furrows on his forehead..." (p. 108)
Asher Lev is born into a strictly orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn in the 1950s. His powerful gifts as an artist become apparent when he is a small boy, and he soon learns that his artistic vision is at odds with a worldview which fears and
This novel is sufficiently deep that I could spend a long time discussing its themes (sacrifice and atonement being two of the major topics) and its characters (none of whom I liked 100 percent). But let's start with the pronouncement that seems to center the book for me:
"An artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda."
Yep, it doesn't end well. By the time you've seen Asher grow from an isolated boy to a successful artist, you're pretty sure that Something Terrible is bearing down upon him. And wow, I couldn't have imagined a worse way for him to express his artistic vision if I'd sat down and thought it out with both hands.
I can't say I LIKED this book. It wasn't a pretty picture, by any means. As Asher says as a small boy who refuses to make nice drawings of flowers, "it's not a pretty world". But the writing was quite brilliant, deceptively simple with a wonderful musicality when Asher is inside the Hasidic community where Yiddish is frequently the medium of communication, and then blindingly technical when he is with artists.
What I took away from this novel is that art is necessarily selfish, and the greater the art, the more selfish it becomes. And that there are other kinds of selfishness in the world beyond art, so should we be surprised at art's self-centeredness?
And there was a whole lot more. I'll have to re-read this one a few times.
I'm tempted to just say, "read the book so you can see what I mean!!!1" but alas, no. You will make the right decision and you will not read this book. Potok's writing is fluid and borderline enjoyable but this does not save the novel from a 1-star rating. Again, the concept behind the book was alright but the deliver, in terms of plot structure and character development, was very unsatisfying for me.
My Name Is Asher Lev: A big 1 out of 5 stars.
Before commenting on anything else, I need to comment on the theme and content of the book.
This book also has a lot of great detail about the art world. This is another realm in which I am an inexperienced traveler. I had a better understanding of art than Judaism, but there were still numerous names, periods, phrases and theories that I didn't understand directly.
One suggestion that I would make which added huge depth to me, is to Google the names of the various paintings/sculpures/artists that are referenced and that Asher studies intently. Some are more important than others, but just seeing what it is he's seeing and experiencing brought a huge new depth to the book.
Obviously, Asher is the main character. He is a very deep character with a ton of internal conflict and a lot of passion which he doesn't understand or know fully how to direct. His development throughout the novel was very subtle. I found it very interesting that he was portrayed largely as a pawn in his own life. A few times, he tells his father that he "can't control it", meaning his art. In much of the "dialog" that happens between Asher and most characters, he is largely a character who isn't directing the actions of his world. He is often silent and lets others make their assumptions and their decisions. And yet, through that silence, he imposes his will on those who are closest to him.
Asher's parents are also very lucid characters. Asher's mother is passionate and very torn between her devotion to her husband and to her son. The final climactic work of Asher truly captures his mother's character. His father was also very well portrayed. I found myself frustrated with him at times but also sympathizing with him. There was a section where Asher tries to explain art to his father, going into the technical artistic terms and phrases. That scene was a very profound description of the huge disparity between their two worlds.
The other characters in the book were largely there as tools either for Asher's own development or for exploring the gap between Asher's two worlds, art and Judaism.
There were times that I would have liked the story to pick up the pace a bit. The descriptions were great (very artistic) and the depth that the scenes gave to Asher and his family and friends was huge. I'm not sure what scenes I would have cut or tightened up, but there were times that I would to have liked it to speed up a little.
The plot itself was intense. The novel was divided into "books" outlining different parts in Asher's life and development. Each "book" built on those before it and none of the sections came to a final "conclusion" or at least to a "happy ending." Even though I would not like to see them split into stand alone books, looking back, I see that as a possibility. They each had their own rising action, climax, and hint of resolution. And together through the course of the novel, they provided an overall rising action, with the final book having the greatest climax before the final "resolution."
Even though this book focussed on conflict between art and Judaism, it goes much deeper than that dynamic. I found myself relating many times to things that Asher would say or think. He was conflicted between his religious heritage and the "carnal" world. He was conflicted between respecting his parents and becoming his own person. He was conflicted between Tradition and Growth. He was conflicted between two things that were both "good." So much of his character development embodies principles that apply to us all.
The story and the writing was very interesting and thought provoking. I enjoyed reading it. The final climax made my soul churn as I realized there was no "happy" way for things to resolve. I'm not one to beg for happy endings, but after getting so attached to Asher, I had hoped that things would turn out better. Still (not to spoil the end), things didn't end up as grim as they could have done. I believe Potok wrote a second book about Asher Lev. I may have to read that as well to see what becomes of him beyond this novel.
The reading isn't "heavy", but the tone of the book is heavy. But Definitely Recommended.
To be honest, I was not fond of Asher Lev's character. He
The community he lived in bent over backward to accommodate him, even turning a blind eye when he steals art supplies. And even after all that, he knowingly creates art that will hurt those he loves. I felt a kinship to his father in many respects. Perhaps that was what the author was going for. I don't know.
I feel that My Name Is Asher Lev is like an abstract painting. I understand that others see through the brushstrokes to magnificence, but I can't see it. Jakob tells Asher that painting doesn't tell a story, so maybe that's why I don't really get it. To me, everything is a story to be told, an emotion to be captured and shared, and that without that connection, the art's beauty doesn't jump from the artist to the viewer.
I won't say that I connected with this book, but I'm glad that I read it, especially so that I can see a different method of storytelling from my own.
This is a quiet sort of story, almost a character study, in which I was surprised to find out how much I was invested in the family drama as Asher learns to carve his own path in life and art. I'm sure some references specific to Judaism teaching and thought went over my head, but at its heart it's a universal coming of age story in which a son has to decide whether to be true to himself or fall into line with what his father wants for him. I kept flipping back to the first few paragraphs, which essentially lay out the gist of the story, before Asher explains his family history, his experiences growing up, and ultimately what led to the notorious painting.
Having truly enjoyed Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and its sequel The Promise I immediately sought out more of his writing. I was not disappointed; this is a beautiful story, Asher is a fine boy who loves his family and respects his elders, but he cannot deny what is inside him, his need to create. The characters in the story are sincere and caring, even if they do want different things for Asher Lev. The writing is excellent, Chaim Potok has a very appealing style, and I especially like the manner in which Asher relates his conversations. There is sequel which having enjoyed this so much this I am compelled to read.
Potok’s novels follow a consistent formula. A child is born to ultra orthodox Jewish parents. The child is a genius. The child’s giftedness causes trouble for his family and community. The child pushes the boundaries of his tradition, but without renouncing it. The child grows up and lives with this tension, not having reconciled it but existing nonetheless. My Name Is Asher Lev is no different than the rest. Asher Lev’s gift is art. He is a painter. For several reasons, though, I did not like this book as much as the others.
My first gripe is a nitpick. Potok’s writing style often feels dark, mysterious, and foreboding. His characters develop into trouble - into inevitable conflict with their Jewish tradition, their community, and their own souls. Potok takes whole books to grow his characters up. It’s subtle. You have to keep reading, and reading. In My Name Is Asher Lev he too quickly abandons his style toward the end. Asher’s parents change their attitude too much, too quickly. The subtlety disappears too close to the climax when you know that there would be conflict between Asher and his Jewish community. It feels cheap. And when Asher’s art eventually hurts them, it’s so set up that it lacks power.
My larger complaint, however, is with message. I do not agree with Ashher Lev’s understanding of making art.
Asher and his father both have grieved his mother over the years, causing her anguish and pain. Ultimately as he matures as an artist he feels compelled to paint her pain. And he searches within his experience and his Jewish tradition to find a context to paint his mother and show her grief. Nothing comes to him. And so he reaches outside of his tradition and paints his mother in a crucifix. “There is nothing in the Jewish tradition that could have served me as an aesthetic mold for such a painting. I had to go to - I had to use a...” He paints his mother being crucified because he feels that is the only artistic context that can properly express her grief. And he paints the painting knowing how much it will hurt his mother and father and his community.
Perhaps for ultra orthodox Jews there is no pre-existing artistic mold to paint grief. They do not paint. And therefore there are no paintings in museums painted by ultra orthodox Jews showing grief. While the ultra orthodox Jewish tradition has many sources of pain and suffering, it does not have paintings to match. But I’m not sure. By the time Asher paints his Brooklyn Crucifixion II it is the 1960s. Have there not been any orthodox Jews, or even non-orthodox but practicing Jews, who have painted in the 1950s and 1960s? Any who have created an aesthetic context for further paintings, using perhaps the holocaust? or the horrors of Stalin’s persecution of Jews? I’m not an art historian and not going to take the time to find out if there were no other Jewish artistic expressions of grief. Even if there were not, could Asher not have pulled from his personal story? He painted his ancient ancestor forever tromping through the woods. Could he not have replaced his ancient ancestor with his mother? It’s hard to imagine that the crucifix was the only source he could responsibly use.
And that brings me to a second criticism of the book. The responsible use of art (or anything symbolic). Asher wants to paint art that expresses truth. That, I believe, is a worthy vocation. Asher’s father cannot understand his son’s gift and call. But I agree that such gifts exist and should be pursued. Furthermore, Asher believes that in his quest to paint he will at times hurt people that he loves. That, too, I think is right. The most gifted people always cause some pain, not the least because they do wonderful things outside the comprehension of average people, people who in their ignorance are offended. But there are limits. In this I agree with Asher’s mother and with the Rebbe.
If an artist’s creation is only personal, it is wrong. Asher hints that his painting served himself and God. That, too, it seems to me is wrong. Asher painted a crucifix. Jesus said that the entire Jewish law is summed up in this, love your God and love your neighbor. I agree with Jesus. We must with all our ability do both at all times. Serving only God or serving only neighbor is not the work of Jew or Christian. Practicing Jews and Christians must always serve both God and neighbor. As the Anglican Prayer Book says about vocation, “Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Potok is right, I think, to show how Asher’s vocation is worthy of pursuit. He is right to show the unfortunate conflict that develops when god-given vocations conflict with human tradition. He is right to question human tradition and ask if it is not better to make room for God’s mysteries working themselves out through people. The Rebbe offers the correct perspective, I think, in his final greeting to Asher, “You have crossed a boundary. I cannot help you. You are alone now. I give you my blessings.”
Although to many this might be considered a "Jewish story" - it is so much more than that. Cultural differences, family love, artistic talent, doubt, faith, tradition, and church codes of belief are all explored. This truly is a classic.
Haunting, beautiful and full of memorable characters,