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.