Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Brooklyn. New York City borough in whose Crown Heights neighborhood Asher Lev and his family live. Asher’s home is a small, two-bedroom apartment not far from Brooklyn Parkway and a collection of Jewish establishments. A block and a half from this home stands the three-story, Gothic-style building in which his father, Reb Aryeh Lev, works for the Ladover headquarters of his Hasidic community. From this place the Rebbe, or spiritual leader of the community, sends Reb Aryeh Lev on journeys across the country and to Europe.
The Jewish community in which Asher grows up is populated with a jewelry shop owned by Asher’s Uncle Yitzchok Lev, Reb Yudel Krinsky’s stationery store where Asher buys art supplies and learns about persecution of the Jews in Russia, a yeshiva where Asher attends school, and a synagogue where the family worships. This part of Brooklyn is filled with the people whom Asher first learns to draw and admire. In this place his talents begin to emerge, and he feels his future is tied to this community. When given the opportunity to travel to Vienna with his parents, ten-year-old Asher fights to stay in Brooklyn, where he knows the parks and people.
While his father is away, Asher’s mother takes him to the Parkway Museum for the first time. There, he learns about painting and also encounters scenes depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Although Asher is cautioned by his father against looking at...
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My Name Is Asher Lev is less conventional in technique than Potok's two preceding novels. The first-person narrator, Asher Lev, rather than giving a straightforward account of events, uses as a starting point the furor over his painting, "The Brooklyn Crucifixion." As he defends the painting, the details of his background and experience are progressively revealed. The painting itself serves as a symbol, not only of Asher's art, but also of the conflict within his family (it depicts his mother's agony) and between his Jewish heritage and the Western tradition of art. That the painting is a crucifixion raises disturbing questions about anti-Semitism, conflict between Christians and Jews, and the tension between artistic conventions and religious imperatives.
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My Name Is Asher Lev is a novel of initiation and is particularly influenced by James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Both deal with the growing up of a young man with artistic gifts and interests, and both also deal with the young artist's conflicts with his family, community, and religion. In both, the result of such conflicts is a separation or exile that becomes part of the artist's growth.
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The Gift of Asher Lev portrays Asher in the aftermath of his exile from the Ladover Hasidic community. Since then he has married Devorah and fathered two children: Rocheleh and Avrumel. Against a montage of significant minor characters, the book focuses on Asher, now a prominent and respected (though often hated) artist. At the novel's beginning, Asher acknowledges that his critics may be right in stating that his art tends to repeat itself. And even as these critiques are being published, Asher's life begins to imitate his art. He sees himself in his own cycle, retreading ground he thought he had left.
When he returns to Brooklyn from France for his uncle's funeral, he is persuaded to remain for two months, during which time he learns that his uncle has willed him a priceless art collection (which creates great family dissension) and that Asher's parents and the revered Rebbe want young Avrumel to prepare to succeed the Rebbe. These revelations force Asher Lev to examine his conflicting loyalties and to find some balance between his duties to art and to family. Through what he learns as the cycle of his life unfolds — a cycle that ultimately will replace him with his son — he returns to his art with renewed strength, renewed pain, and renewed anger — all of which revive and refocus his talent and give his work tremendous power.
Like several of Potok's other novels. The Gift of Asher Lev deals with a Jew's place in the...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Abramson, Edward A. Chaim Potok. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Chapter four is devoted entirely to My Name Is Asher Lev and includes sections on “Judaism and the Visual Arts,” “The Individual and the Community,” “Ancestors and Fathers,” and “Artistic and Stylistic Development.” Also of interest are the book’s first and last chapters entitled “From Rabbi to Writer” and “The Writer Arrived.” Abramson includes a six-page selected bibliography.
Kremer, S. Lillian. “Dedalus in Brooklyn: Influences of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on My Name Is Asher Lev.” Studies in Jewish American Literature 4 (1985): 26-38. Finds “the mark of James Joyce indelibly stamped on the third and fourth novels of Chaim Potok,” particularly in the use of “monologue, stream of consciousness techniques, and epiphany.”
Pinsker, Sanford. “The Crucifixion of Chaim Potok/The Excommunication of Asher Lev: Art and the Hasidic World.” Studies in Jewish American Literature 4 (1985): 39-51. Calls the novel a Kunstlerroman, a novel of an artist’s education, and views Asher Lev’s departure at the novel’s end as “a kind of exile, a kind of excommunication.”
Sgan, Arnold D. “The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name Is Asher Lev.” The...
(The entire section is 306 words.)