The Gift of Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1872

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.

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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. Any consideration of Conservative Judaism, which adheres to tradition but is not fundamentalistic (Potok himself raised in Orthodoxy, became a Conservative rabbi), is unthinkable within the context of the novel. Instead, in the very act of giving up his son to be trained by the Ladover community, Asher gains both “salvation” for his people and a kind of resolution that helps him begin to paint (not just draw) again. But it is certainly not a resolution without pain, and underlines two recurring images in Potok’s work.

The first is that of the young genius at odds with his tradition but who will not abandon that tradition. Such a stance is painful; in The Gift of Asher Lev Asher notes that a book written about him “quoted the Timemagazine critic who claimed that I was using my art to attack in a mean-spirited way the religious tradition in which I had been raised and which, he claimed, I unconsciously detested.” But it is the artist who must pay the price for his refusing to abandon his community; as Asher reflects on his heritage,

In my sealed world, a problem person who crossed over to the outside was briefly mourned and soon forgotten: an enemy all knew how to handle. They stood away from such a person. But a problem person who chose for whatever reason to remain inside became a feared and troubling liability, and ultimately a demonic presence.

Yet Asher reaffirms to his wife that he cannot remain in Brooklyn with the family, for that is part of his past and work he might produce there would simply be repetitious:

I don’t want to continue painting in the same way over and over again like a computer. But why do I have to keep pushing against the boundaries?… No boundaries. No repetition. The opposite of what the Rebbe wants. The Rebbe seeks fixed boundaries, perfect balance, eternal repetition. Asher Lev caught between the two.

There is much repetition in Potok’s book: from references to the previous Asher Lev story, to mystical appearances of Jacob Kahn, the artist who had trained Asher, to Picasso, the Rebbe, and others. There are long descriptions of Asher’s walking tours in Paris and Brooklyn, long lists of the paintings Asher sees at a museum, the people on the street, collections of art books. The repetition proves tedious, as if the author himself was waiting in the novel for a kind of inspiration to solve the riddle of Asher’s conscience.

The second image or theme common in Potok’s works is that of a mystical vision which enables the protagonist to live with the tension created in the story, if not reconcile the conflicting demands of tradition and creativity. There are references in My Name Is Asher Lev to Asher’s dreaming of his “mythic ancestor,” a Jew who served a nobleman only to have his master bring evil upon the world. The mythic ancestor began to travel the world to bring what good he could out of evil, and so bring a kind of balance; it is the task of the artist to do the same. At the end ofThe Gift of Asher Lev Asher hears his mythic ancestor once again, shouting in triumph as Asher symbolically hands his son Avrumel over to the Ladover community for his training. Earlier, Asher had seen the Rebbe in a vision: “It is sometimes possible,” says the Rebbe, “for a man to acquire all of the world to come by means of a single act in this world.… You will redeem all that you have done and all that you are yet to do.”

A symbol of this redemption is light. Devorah must sleep with the light on after her experience during the Occupation of being sealed in an apartment with her cousin Max Lobe, waiting together in fear of the approaching Nazis. The Rebbe, speaking at Yitzchok Lev’s funeral, explains that the Ladover community was waiting for the Messiah, a light in a time of chaos, just as when the Master of the Universe created the world, bringing order to chaos, he created light as a sign of that order. In the end, back in his studio in southern France, alone, Asher removes an empty, brown-washed canvas and instead puts up a large white canvas. “It glows in the sunlight that filters through the glass brick roof of the studio.” After Asher’s one supreme moment of sacrifice to those he loved, his creative energies are once again released; paradoxically, in giving the gift of his son to maintain the boundaries of the Ladover community, Asher is once more able to push those boundaries. Perhaps the wise Rebbe knew what would come to pass when long ago he had put Asher into the capable hands of another artist, Jacob Kahn, and had continued to befriend Asher when the artist brought much pain to his family and the Ladover community.

The revered Yitzchok Lev, it turns out, admired Asher’s work, and amassed an important art collection, bequeathed to Asher. Asher will pay the storage fees for the collection for the next twenty years, he tells art dealer Douglas Schaeffer, and then Avrumel will know what to do with the pieces. All profits made from their sale must go to the Ladover community. Asher grew up a Ladover, yet his gift must result in self-exile. Asher’s son was reared in the world of art, but also to observe the Commandments. When Avrumel reaches his maturity, perhaps, Potok seems to hint, there can be a reconciliation between strict orthodoxy and art, because in its depiction of truth (even the sad truths of the present age), great art is a gift from the Master of the Universe, a way for him to illuminate a new kind of order he is bringing into the world.

Though Potok’s novel itself does not represent progress in his own art—he does not successfully push against the boundaries set up by his now familiar style—The Gift of Asher Lev is a satisfying engagement with the vexing question of God’s gift of creativity—and its cost.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, February 1, 1990, p.1050.

Chicago Tribune. May 6, 1990, XIV, p.7.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 15, 1990, p.214.

Library Journal. CXV, March 15, 1990, p.115.

Los Angeles Times. August 25, 1990, p. F14.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 13, 1990, p.29.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, March 16, 1990, p.61.

School Library Journal. XXXVI, September, 1990, p.268.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 2, 1990, p. 1182.

The Washington Post. April 30, 1990, p. B2.

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