My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

Gift from author Shawna Ritchie

The opening chapter of My Name Is Asher Lev tells us that the birth of the title character marks “the juncture point of two significant family lines, the apex, as it were, of a triangle seminal with Jewish potentiality and freighted with Jewish responsibility”.

Asher’s father’s great-great-grandfather was the manager of a Russian nobleman’s estates, transforming them into a source of enormous wealth. When drunk, the nobleman sometimes killed serfs — once he burned down an entire village. In his middle years, Asher’s ancestor (he will become Mighty Ancestor in the boy’s dreams) began to travel: “To do good deeds and bring the Master of the Universe into the world.” That tradition of travelling and devotion to spreading the message of the Torah has continued in the Lev family for generations ever since. Asher discovers the central force of its origin as a boy when he contemplates his father Aryeh studying the Sanhedrin:

“Any man who has caused a single Jewish soul to perish, the Torah considers it as if he had caused the whole world to perish; and any man who has saved a Jewish soul, it is as if he has saved a whole world.”
…..
I asked him once, “Is it only if he kills a Jewish person, Papa?”

“No, Asher. Elsewhere the same passage appears without the word ‘Jewish.’”

“Papa, how can a man who kills one person be like one who kills a whole world.”

“Because he also kills all the children and children’s children who might have come from that person.”

While those children will never come to the real world, the corollary is that the guilt of the travesty will extend through succeeding generations of the perpetrator. For Asher’s father, devoted to following the directions of the Ladover Rebbe in Brooklyn, saving Jewish souls in the early 1950s comes down to two central tasks: getting Jews out of Stalinist Russia and set up yeshivos in the United States. When the Stalinist era eases, that latter task will extend to all of Eastern Europe.

Aryeh is forever departing — or arriving — home on aspects of those missions and Asher’s mother painfully watches both his departures and awaits his arrivals at the front window of the Lev family apartment in Brooklyn. She too comes from generations of Eastern European Hasidim that stretch back centuries with many family members persecuted or massacred. For her, the latest persecution arrives when Asher is six — his mother’s brother, travelling on behalf of the Rebbe, dies in a car accident in Detroit, sending her into her own crisis of faith and guilt.

And then there is Asher, the apex where potentiality and responsiblity meet, the product of generations of faith that extend back centuries: “But he was also born with a gift.”

I have no recollection of when I began to use that gift. But I can remember, at the age of four, holding my pencil in the firm fist grip of a child and transferring the world around me to pieces of paper, margins of books, bare expanses of wall. I remember drawing the contours of that world: my narrow room, with the bed, the paint-it-yourself bureau and desk and chair, the window overlooking the cemented back yard; our apartment, with its white walls and rug-covered floors and the large framed picture of the Rebbe near the living-room window; the wide street that was Brooklyn Parkway, eight lanes of traffic, the red brick and white stone of the apartment houses, the neat cement squares of the sidewalks, the occasional potholes in the asphalt; the people of the street, bearded men, old women gossiping on the benches beneath the trees, little boys in skullcaps and side-curls, young wives in long-sleeved dresses and fancy wigs — all the married women of our group concealed their natural hair beneath wigs for reasons of modesty. I grew up encrusted with lead and spectrumed with crayons. My dearest companions were Eberhard and Crayola. Washing for meals was a cosmic enterprise.

It is this artistic talent that will bring to a head all the tension in the triangle of the Lev family. As it preoccupies young Asher more and more, his father’s frustration only increases: the boy is avoiding study of the Talmud and other texts (not to mention algebra) to indulge himself in drawing, which is not only a waste of time but threatens to take him to the Other Side. Asher’s mother appreciates both the artitistic need of her son and the resulting work, but that merely establishes her as the focal point in growing friction between father and son.

Asher, not yet ten, internalizes this tension, as any child would. It rises to the surface, however, when he meets one of the Russians whom his father has successfully help come to America after “eleven years in a land of ice and darkness” — Siberia. Asher returns home and begins to draw the Russian’s face:

Now there was ice and darkness inside me. I could feel the cold darkness moving slowly inside me. I could feel our darkness. It seemed to me that we were brothers, he and I, that we both knew lands of ice and darkness. His had been the past; mine was in the present. His had been outside himself; mine was within me. Yes, we were brothers, he and I, and I felt closer to him at that moment than to any other human being in all the world.

The first half of My Name Is Asher Lev is devoted to a relentless exploration of those conflicting tensions. The guilt and responsibility, as defined by the Rebbe. Burying individual feeling in the name of promoting the greater goal. Denying any urge or talent that is not directed at those goals. For a reader who is not religious, it is as depressing as reading can get — an illustration that faith sometimes becomes its own version of tyranny. I’ll admit that had I not been aware of the reputation of the novel, I could have easily set it aside.

My Name Is Asher Lev takes a dramatic turn midway through as Asher approaches his bar mitzvah. The Rebbe, knowing of both his artistic talent and crisis in faith, entrusts him to Jacob Kahn, a lapsed Jew who is an artist of some renown whom the Rebbe feels can serve as a guide, even if Jacob and the Rebbe have their differences.

If the first half of the novel is about responsibility and historical guilt dominating individual potential, the latter half is about discovering and realizing potential. The depressing elements of history and dogma don’t go away, but they become part of the background. It is no spoiler to say that the art Asher will produce — and for which he will gain global attention — is anything but cheerful. He remains the apex of competing tensions, but he at least exercises some control over how they will play out.

For this reader, My Name Is Asher Lev was a very unusual experience. I frequently read novels where the first third is very impressive, the middle third slides into some disappointment and the final third provides either recovery or failure. I can think of few that provided an experience like this one — near total frustration in its first half, complete fascination and engagement in the remaining 200 pages. And yes, the author does need to establish that depressing world before he can allow himself to explore the challenges of the comparative freedom of the creative one.

My response to the novel is not an unusual one: just google Jacob Kahn (who does not appear until halfway through the novel) and see how much attention and analysis that character has provoked in the critical literary world. We cannot appreciate how Asher Lev comes to realize his talent unless we recognize the conflicts that threatened to force him to deny it. Even then, of course, he remains the apex of a triangle of tension — but Potok’s great achievement in this exceptional novel is that that is a fair portrayal of the way the world works.

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7 Responses to “My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok”

  1. Kerry Says:

    A novel that needs, and actually takes the time, to set a depressing, perhaps alienating, stage in order to achieve its artistic purpose is a novel that earns my respect. Your imprimatur, as you well know, would alone have been more than enough. But your review does more than convey only the KfC stamp of admiration, you’ve given me a sense of why I might like this.

    I do have a question for you. Are there any parallels between this and Urquhart’s The Underpainter? By that, I don’t really mean plot points or even themes, but I get the sense that, having loved The Underpainter, I might be a particularly receptive reader for this one? Or, maybe, what I am asking is does Potok bring the same combination of beautiful language and deeply subtle themes as Urquhart?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: It has been some years since I read The Underpainter and I confess it did not come to mind while reading this novel. What did was aspects of Roth’s Zuckerman novels, some of Mordecai Richler’s work and Dave Margoshes’ short story tribute to his father which I reviewed a few months ago.

    All of those do have aspects of “growing up Jewish” which is what sparked the mental comparisons. In all those cases, however, the parents are relatively secular compared to Asher’s — I can’t think of a comparison where the religious aspect of Judaism is such a strong factor.

    I suspect if I were to reread Urquhart’s novel, I would find some comparisons with the artistic development that Asher undergoes in the latter half of the book. On the other hand, Urquhart’s exploration of the influence of landscape on art (which I do recall from the novel) is not a factor at all in this novel.

    I still think you would like this novel and hope that inadquate response helps.

    • Kerry Says:

      No, that is very helpful, not least in pointing out other areas of the literary map I need to explore. I am not, unfortunately, familiar with Richler and Margoshes, through personal experience, but, happily, I am through your blog.

      It sounds like the connections of guilt/artist between The Underpainter and My Name is Lev Asher is mostly a surface one, whereas Roth and the others provide better guideposts as to how far up my alley this work may be.

      You know my tastes well, so if you think I would enjoy it, it goes on the list. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful (and wholly adequate) reply.

  3. shawna Says:

    I was terribly curious what you would think of this book! I first read it many years ago and was very drawn to the way Potok explored the tension between individual expression and collective obligation. I’ve re-read the book several times and have always found that it stood up to closer scrutiny. Glad to hear the second half made up for the first!

    Just wanted to note, I agree that the connections between this and The Underpainter are mostly on the surface. The Underpainter is much more about individual guilt and responsibility whereas this book focuses on the role of the individual in a context of collective, religious and historical obligation.

    Thanks for the review!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shawna: Thank you for giving this to me — it is not a book that I would have picked out on my own and I am glad that I read it.

    I’d like to underline your comment about the conflict between “individual expression and collective obligation” that is at the heart of this novel. Asher’s talent happens to be art but it could just as easily have been music or writing — what Potok is exploring is the tension between how he feels about that and an established order of which he is part. And even when Asher does “break free’, he merely establishes a new set of tensions that are equally as challenging.

    I can understand why rereading this book would provide value. I took the obvious view on this first time through and saw the situation mainly through Asher’s eyes. Were I to read it again, I would pay much more attention to his mother. As a character, she might be less developed than either Asher or his father, but she is the true tragic figure of the book — as the Brooklyn Crucifixation paintings illustrate.

  5. sshaver Says:

    I teach Potok’s The Chosen to my college students, and I tell you, to young people who grew up without a father, the character of Mr. Malter is a revelation.

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