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...
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