(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Gift of Asher Lev is a continuation of the story begun in My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), which ended with the self-exile of the young artist to France after the showing of his two crucifixion paintings shocked and angered his parents. Raised as a Ladover Hasid, part of a strictly Orthodox, fundamentalist Jewish movement, Asher remains an observant Jew even as he seeks to express his artistic gift; a gift from the Master of the Universe which paradoxically brings heartache among Asher’s people and estrangement from Asher’s parents.

The Rebbe is the focal point of each Hasidic sect; in his wisdom he provides the spiritual vision for the community and ensures its stability.The Gift of Asher Lev opens with the funeral in Brooklyn of Asher’s uncle Yitzchok, an influential Ladover, and the subsequent question of the successor to the Rebbe, now approaching ninety. It seems obvious that the mantle must fall upon Asher’s father; but at seventy, Aryeh Lev himself must also have a successor. It is equally obvious that Asher—world renowned as the Ladover Hasid who paints, whose painted truths have created grief and shame in his community—will not renounce his gift. Therefore, there must be another chosen, and it is slowly revealed by the Rebbe—at first only in riddles—that Avrumel, Asher’s young son, has been selected.

The Hasidic community is uneasy with artistic creation; save for portraits of the Rebbe and other spiritual leaders of the closely knit community, art is widely regarded as mere foolishness, doing nothing to advance the Ladover cause. During World War II, Ladover Hasidim brought many Jews to the United States from persecution in Eastern Europe; in peacetime they sought to extend their influence through the development of schools and synagogues around the world. Author Chaim Potok patterns his Ladover Hasids after the Lubavitch Hasidic movement; ironically, despite their abhorrence of visual art, both are considered “liberal” in their strict Orthodoxy because of their use of modern communications methods (such as radio, television, and computers) to link their followers.

Asher is headstrong, self-absorbed, self-centered, but never is there any question of forsaking the Rebbe, of turning his back on the teaching of the Ladover. He has been reared a Ladover and is a follower of the Rebbe, and it is in the context of fundamentalist Judaism (as it was in the first Asher Lev novel) that Asher must come to terms with his gift and the needs of his family and community of a sense of stability, of order, of succession. Asher wrestles with the question of why the Master of the Universe would provide such an artistic gift and then exact such a price, that of Asher’s son. Avrumel must stay in Brooklyn, and thus so must his mother and his sister Rocheleh, but Asher finds he cannot paint within the confines of his boyhood home.

Asher Lev is driven again to France, though he promises his family he will return in several months to visit them. “What kind of God creates such situations? Re gives me a gift and a son, and forces me to choose between them.… Self-exiled to this Garden of Eden!” Yet if Potok’s parable of the artist and the cost of one’s art is to have cogency, Asher Lev must be portrayed as a genius, without which the world would be poorer. If Asher were merely a competent artist, self-exile would be self-indulgence, and the tension Potok wants to demonstrate between tradition (which assumes a fixed order) and true creativity (which may reveal ambiguity or even chaos) would lack credibility. The difficult task of convincing the reader of Asher’s genius is achieved, not altogether successfully, by the responses of others to Asher’s drawings and paintings. Time magazine has reviewed his work; there are books written about his paintings; New York art dealer Douglas Schaeffer, a friend of Asher, knows the paintings are of great monetary value. Asher’s own thoughts carry him often to “The Spaniard,” Pablo Picasso, and Potok makes clear that both artists can be spoken of in the same sentence without doing disservice to either.

Yet the reader is never privy to the deepest thoughts of Asher Lev, though Asher himself narrates the story. The artist is laconic, and the turbulent emotions that might be expected within a genius confronting his beloved tradition are only hinted at. Asher knows his gift, and he knows the Rebbe wants him to give up his son, and he often asks whether the Master of the Universe could have a plan in all this, but beyond these thoughts there is merely silence....

(The entire section is 1872 words.)