Study Guide

My Name Is Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok

My Name Is Asher Lev Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

My Name Is Asher Lev, perhaps Chaim Potok’s greatest novel, is an excellent example of the Künstlerroman, which is a novel about an artist’s development. It confronts issues of Jewish and family identity in the post-Holocaust world. Asher Lev is a child prodigy artist, the only child of a Hasidic Jewish couple that lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Aryeh Lev, Asher’s father, serves as a personal emissary for the rebbe or tzaddik, the “righteous one” or religious leader of the Hasidic community.

The orthodox Hasidic Jewish culture into which Asher is born approves of creativity only in the context of interpretation of Talmudic passages. Asher finds it difficult, and at times embarrassing, to follow his muse; he finds it natural to draw and to create pictures. Rivkeh Lev, Aryeh’s mother, initially supports Asher’s desire to draw, but she soon sides with her husband, who believes that drawing and the fine arts are products of a gentile culture. In the years during and immediately following World War II, Aryeh Lev travels the world to minister to Hasidic Jews who have been displaced by the Nazi Holocaust. Since Hasids believe that the Jewish state will be re-created in Israel only with the coming of the Messiah, who has not yet arrived, Hasidic Jews generally did not support the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Aryeh travels about the world for the tzaddik, defending himself and his spiritual...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

My Name Is Asher Lev Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Asher Lev is the only child of a devout, Orthodox Jewish couple, Rivkeh and Aryeh Lev. By the age of four, Asher shows an unusual talent for drawing. His mother urges him repeatedly to make pretty drawings, while his father views Asher’s preoccupation with suspicion, labeling it “foolishness.”

When Asher is six years old, his family receives the news of the death of his Uncle Yaakov, Rivkeh’s only brother. Yaakov, who was studying history and Russian affairs, died in a car accident while traveling for the Rebbe, a religious leader. The death plunges Rivkeh into a prolonged depression. Asher’s father works and travels for the Rebbe, and Asher is often left alone with a housekeeper.

While visiting Asher’s family, Asher’s uncle, Yitzchok (Aryeh’s brother), notices his nephew’s drawings and proclaims the boy “a little Chagall.” He tells Asher that Chagall is the greatest living Jewish artist, and he adds that Picasso is the greatest artist of all. Uncle Yitzchok buys one of Asher’s drawings so that he can own an “early Lev,” but Asher’s father opposes this gesture and insists that Yitzchok return the drawing.

During Rivkeh’s depression, Asher begins to be haunted by nightmares of his father’s great-great-grandfather. Asher comes to regard this figure as his mythic ancestor. The figure appears to him repeatedly at night and comes to symbolize Asher’s religious and cultural heritage and the accompanying burdens and expectations.

Rivkeh eventually recovers and becomes convinced that she must continue her brother’s work. She receives special permission from the Rebbe to attend college and to study Russian history, eventually earning a doctorate. With both his parents so involved with the post-World War II affairs of Jews around the world, and particularly in Russia, young Asher is often alone. He stops drawing for a time and later comes to view this period as the time when his gift is taken away. He vows never to let that happen again.

Asher befriends Yudel Krinsky and often visits the stationery store where Yudel works. Asher encounters artists’ supplies for the first time. Krinsky also answers Asher’s many questions about life in Russia.

With the death of Stalin, Asher’s father is able to travel more freely in Europe. The Rebbe asks Aryeh to move to Vienna, but Asher refuses to move with his family. Asher’s attachment to his home and neighborhood is fierce, and he fears that he will lose his artistic gift if he leaves. Asher begins to draw again and senses that “something was happening to my eyes. . . . I could feel with my eyes.”

Asher is doing poorly...

(The entire section is 1093 words.)

My Name Is Asher Lev Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

A perennial theme in Potok’s work considers the place of the artist (painter or writer) within the Hasidic community. In My Name Is Asher Lev, the controversy is over representational art. Asher is born in Crown Heights in Brooklyn in 1943, and as he grows it is evident that he has a gift for drawing and painting. Asher’s father is frequently away on trips for the rebbe as the Ladover Hasid community (patterned perhaps on Lubavitch Hasidism) seeks to expand throughout Europe. While Aryeh Lev is arranging help for Jewish families emigrating to the United States, Asher and his mother spend long nights in loneliness. (Asher had refused to join his own father in Europe.)

When his mother’s brother is killed on a mission for the rebbe, Rivkeh Lev suffers a breakdown. Later, taking up her brother’s uncompleted work, she surrounds herself with her Russian studies to help her forget her heartache. Images of work completed and uncompleted pervade the novel, and Asher finds as he develops his gift that he must complete his understanding of the world by painting not only what he sees with his eyes but also what his inner vision shows him.

The pictures he paints often depict the reality of evil. At the end of the novel, Asher has revealed two crucifixion paintings to his parents. In both, the face of his mother stares from the cross, looking in abstract fashion at the ever-traveling husband on one side and at Asher the stranger on the other. Asher’s parents are horrified, and the rebbe tells Asher that the artist has passed a boundary beyond which even the rebbe is powerless to be of help.

Earlier, sensing Asher’s talent, the rebbe had turned him over to painter Jacob Kahn, a nonobservant Jew, who introduces Asher to the work of Pablo Picasso, especially Guernica (1937), the painting of the horror of the German bombing of the Basque capital during the Spanish Civil War.

In time, Asher...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

My Name Is Asher Lev Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Asher Lev introduces himself as a famous artist, notorious for being a Jew who paints crucifixions, blasphemous for manipulating the details for his own purpose. His ancestors can be traced back to the Middle Ages. His great-great-grandfather has taken on a mythic persona, traveling all over Russia to make the world a better place. Asher himself is born in Brooklyn to Aryeh and Rivkeh Lev.

From an early age, Asher has the gift of artistic talent, drawing on everything. Asher’s mother, who was only nineteen when she gave birth to him, seems more like a sister to him. His father is gone frequently, traveling in connection with his work for the Rebbe of the Ladover movement, which brings European Jews to America.

As he gets older, Asher draws his memories of his parents. His mother has some appreciation for his art, though she does not like it when he draws her unawares. His father thinks drawing is a waste of time. When Asher is six, his uncle (his mother’s brother) is killed in a car accident in connection with his work for the Rebbe. The day after she learns the news, Mrs. Lev begins screaming uncontrollably and is taken to the hospital. A housekeeper, Mrs. Rackover, comes to cook and to clean the house, as well as watch over Asher during the day. When Mrs. Lev returns from the hospital, Mr. Lev stops traveling and works in the Landover offices. Mrs. Lev has changed drastically, not only physically but mentally. She seems disconnected from the world around her, even her husband and son. Asher’s aunt comes to talk to her sister, begging her to get up and take care of her family, saying that Asher will be scared when he grows up. Asher begins to go with his father to his office to get him away from his sick mother. He hates sitting in an office, feeling that he should be among the people.

When Mrs. Lev asks him to draw pretty things to make the world pretty, Asher refuses, stating that the world is not pretty. He...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

At the yeshiva, Asher is treated with special care because of his parents’ close relationship to the Rebbe. He still refuses to draw. When his mother asks about it, he simply tells her that he does not feel like it anymore. During the summers, the family goes to a bungalow up in the Berkshires, where Mr. Lev joins them on the weekends. Mrs. Lev regains her old happiness during the summer, but she has become less like a sister to Asher and more of an organizer.

Mr. Lev resumes his travels on behalf of the Ladover Hasidic movement. He is devastated when he learns that the Soviets have killed the Jewish writers in Russia. During that winter, a snowstorm shuts down the East Coast. Mr. Lev is in Boston and cannot return....

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Mr. Lev learns that Stalin has had a stroke and is dying. He warns his family, “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice.” It is difficult, however, for them not to feel that a major threat to the Jewish people has been removed. On the way home from school, Asher sees a group of six men get out of a car and go into the Ladover offices. His father does not come home that night. The next day, the radio announces that Stalin is dead. Mr. Lev comes home and says that Simcha has managed to get out of Russia and has arrived in London. When Asher asks who Simcha is, he is told simply that Simcha is a Jew from Kiev.

Mr. Lev asks Asher if he knows where Vienna, Austria, is. Asher does not even know that it is a city. He tells...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

Asher continues to draw pictures of Stalin in his coffin, changing the details with each drawing. His father and mother see them. His mother thinks they are good drawings, even though they are not about pretty things. However, she is concerned that his art is keeping him from his studies. She tells him that they are going to get their passport pictures taken the following Monday, but Asher again announces that he is not going to Vienna. He asks Reb Krinsky if he knows what a passport is. Krinsky tells him that Asher’s father is going to Vienna to do important things and reminds him of the Torah’s command: “Honor your father and mother.” Asher is drawing with charcoal now as his preferred medium, and Krinsky shows him how to...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Asher draws pictures of buildings in flames. Mrs. Lev takes him to a doctor, but there is nothing physically wrong with him. The eye doctor sees nothing wrong with his eyes. Asher is taken to a psychiatrist, but Asher does not learn what this doctor said, only that his mother is very quiet on the way home. In school, Asher draws a picture of the Rebbe in his copy of the Torah, though he is not aware of what he is doing until his horrified schoolmates question him. The teacher is only disappointed, but the head of the school (mashpia) calls his father. Asher is to meet with him the next day. After school, Asher goes to the stationery store and asks Krinsky about the oil paints. When he learns the price of them, Asher feels that he...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Asher misses his father, especially on the Sabbath. He thinks about telling his mother that he wants them to go to Vienna after all, but he cannot bring himself to do this. Mrs. Lev sets up a table and bookcase in the living room to be used as her study. She has graduated from college and is now working on her master’s degree in Russian studies. She brings home a box of oil paints, painting supplies, canvases, and an easel for Asher. He takes to oils as if he has been painting with them all his life.

Mrs. Lev talks to Asher about his studies at school. His teachers say that he is not even trying. He continues to draw during class and is subject to the sarcasm of his instructors. His Uncle Yitzchok talks to him about...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

Asher begins to prepare for his bar mitzvah. The Rebbe will meet with each student before the ceremony. Asher has lessons in the Torah and Hasidus with the mashpia (head of the school) every day after school in preparation. They study the three kinds of Jews: the one who sins and has evil thoughts, the one who acts without fault but cannot control his thinking, and the one who has control over his heart. This last one can only be born. They study the verse in Proverbs that states that the candle of God is the soul of man. They also study the Other Side, the realm of evil and darkness. Asher does not understand many of the things that he studies, but he enjoys his time with the mashpia.

Mr. Lev comes home in January...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

In the middle of March, Jacob Kahn calls Asher to see if he has been studying Guernica. Asher tells him the depth of his studies, and Jacob is suitably impressed and asks him to come to his studio the following Sunday afternoon and to plan to stay through dinner. He also tells Asher to read about the Massacre of the Innocents in the Christian gospel of Matthew, as well as study a painting depicting the story. Asher goes to the library after school and reads from the Christian Bible, which makes him feel very uncomfortable. He sees no connection between this, the Massacre of the Innocents painting, and Guernica. He tells his mother what Jacob had him do. She tells him to ask him about his reasoning when he goes to...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

A week after Passover, Mr. Lev calls from Vienna. He is vague in his revelations of what he has been doing, but he asks his wife to come to Vienna for the summer. Jacob Kahn flies to Europe to see an old artist friend of his. When he returns, Asher comes several times a week for lessons. Since Jacob often takes off his shirt when he carves, Asher begins to do the same. He is staying with his uncle, who tells him to get dressed when he catches him shirtless.

Asher paints one of the bullies at school. Jacob tells him not to be afraid to paint his hate. When Asher does, Jacob tells him that he hopes he is never hated by Asher Lev. Jacob announces that a girl is coming to the studio to model for Asher. He says that the...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Asher spends the summer on Cape Cod with Jacob Kahn and his wife, Tanya. Asher is faithful in his prayers. Jacob says that he has lost the faculty of prayer. Nowadays he talks to God through his sculpture and his painting. Asher says that this is also a form of prayer.

Mrs. Kahn speaks English with a heavy Russian accent. She spends her days on the porch, reading books in Russian and French. Asher will not eat food that is not kosher, so he has a small stove and refrigerator in his room. He wonders how his father managed to stay kosher in all his travels.

Each day after breakfast, Jacob and Asher would set up their easels on the beach and paint. Jacob shows Asher some of the styles of earlier painters. He...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

When Asher enters high school, he is ordered to take French, though he does not see the point. He continues to study with Jacob Kahn, spending his summers with him in Provincetown. On one Jewish holiday, he and Jacob dance with the Torah. Jacob later turns this into one of his sculptures. Jacob has a showing of his work, arranged by Anna Schaeffer. A sculpture of Asher’s head is sold to a famous individual. Asher finds it strange that his likeness is sitting in someone’s home. Jacob wishes he could have stayed home, but he came only for Anna’s sake. Anna is well aware of Jacob’s feelings.

Asher’s uncle redesigns his attic into a studio for Asher. In gratitude, Asher paints a portrait of his uncle and his...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

When Asher’s parents return from their years of living apart from him in Vienna, they seem to be speaking in a private language to each other. Asher notices the physical changes in his parents, usually for the better. They seem healthier and happier. Mr. Lev reads the reviews of Asher’s work in art magazines. He does not like the one critic who did not like Asher’s paintings. Mr. Lev tells Asher that he has made his parents proud. Mrs. Lev asks when his next exhibition is to be and, more importantly, if there will be nudes. Asher tells her it will be a year from January and there will probably be nudes. Mrs. Lev says that her husband would like to go to his son’s show but will not go if there are nudes. She begins to speak...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

In Florence, Asher lives in cramped quarters, taking his meals with a woman recommended by his father. He becomes obsessed with two sculptures: the Pieta (which shows the Virgin Mary holding the crucified Jesus) and David. He begins to draw the Pieta on everything, even the tablecloths of cafes he visits.

A man approaches him one day and asks him to deliver a letter when he goes to Rome. The man is from the Ladover, and the message is for one of the other members. Asher is once again a carrier for the Rebbe. In Rome, he delivers the letter to a bearded man, who runs a yeshiva that was founded by Asher’s father. The two of them have a few conversations about the work of Mr. Lev before Asher...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Asher returns home to find his parents’ apartment empty. He calls a family friend and learns that they are at the University of Chicago, dealing with student unrest there. He looks at his old room through a flood of memories. After a restless night, he goes to the synagogue, where he is warmly welcomed home. He sees Rav Yosef Cutler, the mashpia of the school where he studied.

At home, Asher receives a long-distance call from his parents in Chicago. They are upset that they are not there to welcome him home. Afterward, he walks the streets of Brooklyn and visits some of his old spots. He meets Reb Krinsky, who has a daughter now and another baby on the way. Asher’s uncle is very fat now and asks if there will be any...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster