In writing about Orthodox Jewish life, Chaim Potok speaks with considerable authority: He was a rabbi and a respected academic, and he served as the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America. In My Name Is Asher Lev, Potok focuses on the role of the artist in a particular community—a community he locates in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and calls Ladover Hasidism. Potok models his Ladover Hasidism on Lubavitch Hasidism.
My Name Is Asher Lev, like Potok’s other novels including The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969), In the Beginning (1975), and Davita’s Harp (1985), probes the specific struggles of one member of a community who comes into conflict with the norms and expectations of that community. Asher Lev’s community expects him to follow in his parents’ footsteps and to work in some way for the preservation and the betterment of Judaism worldwide. Asher, however, is seen as responding to a radically different calling: art. A very familiar pattern of conflict in the world of the novel—the individual versus society—becomes apparent early in the book. On the first page, Asher lists some of the charges he has to face. These include “traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people.” Asher’s own struggle to come to terms with these labels is also sensed when he adds: “In all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed in some way, all of those things.” My Name Is Asher Lev, then, becomes a defense, a defense of the individual and a defense of art.
The particular society to which Asher belongs is bound together by religious beliefs, and the decisions of the individuals and of the corporate body are seen as having eternal consequences. Asher is taught to view all of his decisions, including those of vocation, not simply in terms of how best to fill his days but also in terms of how best to contribute to eternity. To some, including Asher’s father, the world of art is viewed with extreme fear and suspicion; if Asher does not use his art to serve the Master of the Universe, then clearly he aligns himself with the Other Side. Asher’s decision to become an artist ultimately results in banishment from his home and his community. The spiritual parallels of this exile are inescapable.
It is no accident that Asher’s father’s name means “lion.” Aryeh is presented to the reader as a mighty defender of his beliefs and as a protector and a rescuer of those with whom he shares beliefs. His opposition to Asher’s art becomes as fierce as his devotion to his own causes—causes he sees as incompatible with Asher’s worldly pursuits. While both of Asher’s parents devote their energies to the liberation and the resettling of Russian Jews, Asher seeks to master the traditions of Western art, including Christian symbols and images. Asher ultimately establishes a name and a place for himself within that tradition, a tradition that Aryeh views as particularly threatening. In borrowing forms from that tradition, particularly the cross, Asher acknowledges the affront this presents to his father: “The Crucifixion had been in a way responsible for his own father’s murder on a night before Easter decades ago.”
While the role of the artist in society and the relationship of the individual to society are familiar themes in literature, this novel also explores other related themes, including isolation and the search for and the creation of identity. The nature of art and of suffering and the artist as exile are explored through the character...
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of Asher as well. The sacrifices inherent in following one’s calling are traced not only in the character of the young artist but also through Asher’s parents; the parents make great personal sacrifices in order to live out their most cherished beliefs.
Potok begins his novel with an epigraph from Picasso: “Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” This epigraph immediately draws the reader’s attention to such philosophical considerations as the nature of truth. The novel is rich in its exploration of paradox and inherent contradictions; on one hand, Asher pays his parents the highest possible honor by immortalizing them and their struggles in his art; on the other hand, this depiction is viewed as the act of a traitor and blasphemer. Asher’s greatest triumph becomes the source of his greatest pain. Potok continues the story of Asher in The Gift of Asher Lev, published in 1990.