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.)
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.)