A perennial theme in Potok’s work considers the place of the artist (painter or writer) within the Hasidic community. In My Name Is Asher Lev, the controversy is over representational art. Asher is born in Crown Heights in Brooklyn in 1943, and as he grows it is evident that he has a gift for drawing and painting. Asher’s father is frequently away on trips for the rebbe as the Ladover Hasid community (patterned perhaps on Lubavitch Hasidism) seeks to expand throughout Europe. While Aryeh Lev is arranging help for Jewish families emigrating to the United States, Asher and his mother spend long nights in loneliness. (Asher had refused to join his own father in Europe.)
When his mother’s brother is killed on a mission for the rebbe, Rivkeh Lev suffers a breakdown. Later, taking up her brother’s uncompleted work, she surrounds herself with her Russian studies to help her forget her heartache. Images of work completed and uncompleted pervade the novel, and Asher finds as he develops his gift that he must complete his understanding of the world by painting not only what he sees with his eyes but also what his inner vision shows him.
The pictures he paints often depict the reality of evil. At the end of the novel, Asher has revealed two crucifixion paintings to his parents. In both, the face of his mother stares from the cross, looking in abstract fashion at the ever-traveling husband on one side and at Asher the stranger on the other. Asher’s parents are horrified, and the rebbe tells Asher that the artist has passed a boundary beyond which even the rebbe is powerless to be of help.
Earlier, sensing Asher’s talent, the rebbe had turned him over to painter Jacob Kahn, a nonobservant Jew, who introduces Asher to the work of Pablo Picasso, especially Guernica (1937), the painting of the horror of the German bombing of the Basque capital during the Spanish Civil War.
In time, Asher...
(The entire section is 797 words.)