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A review of My Name is Asher Lev

                          The conflict between Asher's religious world and the art world. 

By Ahmad Jenkins

In “My Name is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok, Asher Lev; a young Jewish boy with an exceptional artistic gift struggles with the cultural differences between his Jewish world and the artistic world that beacons him. The conflict that unfolds in “My name is Asher Lev” reflects familiar challenges within religious communities when two competing cultures meet one another.   

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At the novel's beginning, young Asher Lev discovers his artistic talent, around the age of five. At this time his mother was quick to indulge in and support him, while his father tolerated it at first as a childish pastime. Due to Asher and his family practiced Ladover Hasidism and closely connected with their community and its leaders the idea of art is considered sinful and of ‘goyish activity. Asher’s grandfather was a Jewish scholar living in Eastern Europe and later an emissary of the Rebbe of Ladov, we learn that ‘while on his way home from the Rebbe’s synagogue late one Saturday night, he was killed by a drunken axe-wielding peasant. Somehow Asher’s grandfather had forgotten it was the night before Easter.’ 

 In a subtle twist to the story Asher’s father is employed in the same work for their Rebbe and enjoyed a particular status in their religious community that would later in the novel cause conflict between Asher, his art, and community. We see that through book one Asher is raised in a scholarly Jewish home and expected to behave and believe much like the rest of his community. Yet, Asher’s mother encourages him to continue making the world beautiful through his art. While much of Book one has Asher’s father travelling to different places in the United States or working in the Rebbe’s office. we see that Asher’s mother, Rivkeh interacting with him and his gift more. Asher was given the opportunity on their errands and outings to draw different scenes. There are instances where Asher and his father, Aryeh do bump heads on the issue of his drawing; but his father patiently allows him to continue his hobby. One of the first conversations Asher and his father have on the subject, goes from zero to one hundred as his father reprimands him for what he considers to be a waste of Asher's time “You have nothing better to do with your time, Asher? Your grandfather would not have liked you to waste so much time with foolishness.”

 When Rivkeh, Asher's mother; begins dealing with depression following the death of her brother, it begins to test Asher's faith and bring his father’s attention to his art more. The apprehension his gifts bring in contrast to his faith begin to eat away at him mentally affecting his academic work, and He begins to have dreams about the criticism his ancestors would give concerning his art. As this pressure further builds, Asher soon feels disconnected from his art during his time at the Ladover yeshiva. As the strain between Asher and his father continues to build Yudel Krinsky that ran the grocery store in his neighborhood. Later in the novel, he meets his art mentor Jacob Kahn, who by the end has shaped Asher into a promising artist. These two people opened Asher’s eyes to some diversity in Jewish beliefs outside of the more devout members of his community. It’s by visiting Yudel Krinskey that Asher begins to learn more about the different tools and types of paints that help him further develop as an artist, so Asher becomes a frequent visitor to buy pencils and notebooks while asking Yudel of his experiences in Siberia and trying to imagine how he would be able to paint such an oppressively cold place. After learning of Stalin’s death Asher draws a picture of him dead in his coffin, and it’s soon discovered by his father.

“What is all this?” he asked. “Drawings.” “Don’t be disrespectful to me, Asher. I see their drawings. You can’t study Chumash, but this you have time for.” 

We see the back-and-forth Asher goes through to reconcile his art with the spiritual expectations of his family and community. It isn’t until Asher makes the mistake of drawing a picture of the Rebbe in a religious text that his art comes to the attention of the Rebbe and other religious leaders in his community.

 “The next day, the boy sitting to my right in class leaned over and whispered in Yiddish,

“Asher, what are you doing?” I heard him but could not understand what he was saying and went on working with the pen.

"Asher,” I heard him say, still in a whisper but a little louder than before. “How could you do that?” 

The picture Asher creates is found to be so abhorrent that Asher begins to see harsher criticism. The scandal of that drawing further alienates Asher from his father, causing Asher to begin questioning whether his obvious talent isn’t from God but a thing of evil. To help Asher save face, the Rebbe allows Asher the opportunity to study with Jacob. It’s at this point that Asher comes face to face with many of the conflicts that exist between his two worlds, that of art and Ladover Hasidism.  

 

Jacob lays out the kinds of sacrifices and choices he’ll have to make in his efforts to create great art. "This is not a child scrawling on a wall. This is a tradition; it is a religion, Asher Lev. You are entering a religion called painting. It has its fanatics and its rebels. And I will force you to master it.". The cultural challenges that Asher Lev faces in My Name is Asher Lev produced many life changing incidents. Our most strongly held values and traditions come from our spiritual faiths. When we have gifts and talents that are beautiful and worthwhile to us yet conflict with our strongly held spiritual beliefs, we can relate to most of what Asher had to confront. 

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