Book Review: Portrait of the Artist as a Young (Jewish) Man: “Asher Lev”

My Name is Asher LevAs a college English major way back when, I absorbed lectures about different novelistic techniques, including the “first person” narrator’s perspective, point of view, etc. While I didn’t retain many of the details as I rejoined the real world after graduation, I’ve gravitated towards “first person” in my reading ever since. But I was recently reminded of just how powerful a personalized voice can be when I experienced Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, published in 1972.

Asher is a Hasidic Jewish boy growing up Orthodox in New York during the early 1950s. His parents are both deeply invested in their religious community, especially his father, who works tirelessly for his “Rebbe”. From an early age, Asher displays a remarkable gift for drawing, and this passion quickly dominates all his waking hours to the chagrin of his parents, who expect school and proper Orthodox conduct to be their one child’s top priorities. When it is apparent that Asher is nothing like other boys, they feel only shame.

Parent-child conflict escalates as Asher grows older and both his technical gifts and fledgling artistic philosophy also mature. When, several years hence, he becomes the protege of Jacob, an older, non-observant Jewish artist, the clashes at home become even more intense. When Jacob’s mentorship eventually inspires Asher to create a work using crucifixion symbolism to represent his mother’s torment—i.e., as she is torn between nurturing her beloved son, and supporting her uncompromising husband—Asher’s psychological separation from his immediate world becomes literal, as he is asked to leave his community permanently. He does so, following a muse’s call far stronger than either filial love or religious duty. (His later journeys are described in a sequel, The Gifts of Asher Lev.)

What made this novel so remarkable for me was Asher’s narrative voice—ranging from precociously impressionistic at his youngest, to deeply conflicted yet resolute in his late teens and early 20s. As a reader, I truly felt myself to be inside both his brain and his aesthetic vision, which I confess has not often happened for me in fiction. Potok also raises universal issues with which we still grapple: the conflict between creativity and conformity; the roles of art and religion in culture; parental expectations versus encouragement of free expression.

Asher states at one point: “I looked at my right hand…There was power in that hand…the demonic and the divine at one and the same time…Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine…Art was demonic and divine…I was demonic and divine.” To coin a tired cliche, I felt Asher’s pain deeply, and marveled at Potok’s ability to delineate simultaneously a brain and a soul, along with the unique world surrounding them both.

I am so glad to have met Asher Lev. This particular “first person” will not soon leave me.

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