My Name Is Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

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 leader from the arguments of Zionist Jews and gentiles and attempting to do good works. He returns to a household in Brooklyn where his son is neglecting study of the Talmud because of his personal obsession with art and aesthetics.

The tzaddik, however, is wise enough to allow Asher to follow his destiny and to mediate between his conflicting identities. The tzaddik arranges for Jacob Kahn, an expatriate from the Hasidic community and a world-renowned sculptor, to serve as Asher’s artistic mentor. Asher’s apprenticeship as an artist culminates with a midtown New York showing of his work. Central to the showing is a pair of paintings, Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II, which show his mother, crucified in the venetian blinds of their apartment, her face split into “Picassoid” thirds, looking to the father, the son, and the street. The works assure Asher’s reputation as a great artist but also assure, because of their religious content, that he will have to leave his Hasidic community in Brooklyn, as he does at the end of the novel. With the tzaddik’s blessing, he goes to Paris to board with a Hasidic family and to continue to worship and define himself as a Hasidic Jew artist.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093

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 in school. One day he unconsciously draws a sinister-looking picture of the Rebbe in a religious text. The drawing is discovered, and Asher’s instructor and his classmates view it as a defilement of a holy book. The rift among Asher, his classmates, and his instructors grows. Asher feels increasingly isolated.

Aryeh’s opposition to Asher’s preoccupation with art intensifies, and Rivkeh frequently finds herself caught between her husband and her son. Asher still refuses to accompany his parents to Vienna. Eventually Asher’s father makes the trip alone, leaving Asher and his mother at home together.

Rivkeh takes Asher to the museum, where Asher begins to study the great masterpieces. In his exposure to the history of art, Asher encounters Christian images and themes. Rivkeh buys Asher a set of oil paints from Yudel Krinsky. When Aryeh returns from his travels, he remains unreconciled to his son’s gift, and the gulf between father and son widens.

Asher is sent to talk with the Rebbe. The Rebbe tells him, “A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven,” and arranges for Asher to meet Jacob Kahn, a successful artist who is a nonpracticing Jew. Jacob is in his seventies. Asher is thirteen. Asher begins studying with this great master who worked with Picasso in Paris and who knows many of the century’s great artists. Jacob introduces Asher to gallery owner Anna Schaeffer. Her gallery handles Jacob’s art, and Asher learns that Anna will eventually introduce his art to the world.

Asher spends a lot of time with Jacob and his wife, including summer vacations in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Rivkeh joins Aryeh in Europe, leaving Asher in the care of his uncle Yitzchok, who converts an attic into Asher’s first studio. Asher later joins his family in Vienna for a short time, but the stress and the separation from his world and his art prove too great for him. He returns home.

Anna arranges for Asher to have a show, noting that he is “the youngest artist ever to have a one-man show in a Madison Avenue gallery.” She bills him as “Asher Lev, Brooklyn Prodigy.” Asher’s work is well received, leading to subsequent shows and sales. Asher’s parents return after living abroad for several years, and Asher moves back home. Asher continues to paint with Jacob and in his own studio in his uncle’s home.

After one of his shows, Asher decides that he must go to Europe to study and paint. Following his graduation from college, he travels alone to Italy and France. He settles in Paris and works there. Anna visits him in order to arrange for another New York show. She is particularly moved by two paintings Asher did—crucifixion scenes that depict his mother’s suffering as she is torn between her husband and her son. Anna names these paintings “Brooklyn Crucifixion I” and “Brooklyn Crucifixion II.” Asher knows these paintings will cause his parents and his religious community great pain. He knows that few in his community will be able to understand his choice of the Crucifixion as a way to depict suffering. He knows, though, that to be true to his artistic calling, he has to paint what he sees and what he feels.

Asher is unable to bring himself to tell his parents about these paintings. His parents see them for the first time at his show. The impact on them is as Asher guesses it would be. The show is a critical success. A museum buys the two crucifixion paintings, but the rift now among Asher and his family and his religious community is irreparable. The Rebbe tells Asher that he must leave. Asher understands and accepts what is essentially an exile. He leaves for Europe, taking with him the memory of his parents watching him from their window.

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