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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,546 words.)