Saturday, January 2, 2010

My Name Is Asher Lev

Where to start with this moving book about the creative impulse and the conflict between individuality and community. Chaim Potok's layered novel about a young Hasidic boy with an artistic gift, so redolent with Jewish arcana, is as universal as the parent-child relationship. The fictional Ladover community, with its Rebbe both menacing and wise, is more defined than most, but Asher Lev's conflict with its strictures would be much the same in a middle class Midwestern community.

How this conflict tears at Asher Lev's soul and how his response to it tears at his parents and his community provides enough dramatic tension for several novels. How Potok brings this to a point in the climax of the book, foreshadowed from the beginning but still so unexpected, makes this a masterpiece.

From an early age, Asher Lev drew things. I did, too, when I was little, though not as compulsively as Asher. "A million people can draw," his uncle told him, so I suppose I was one of those million. It quickly became clear that Asher's drawing was beyond the ordinary and that he truly possessed a gift. The question for his father and the Hasidic community was whether the gift came from the Lord or from the "other side." When young Asher evinced a passion for drawing the crucifixion of "that man" as well as nudes, the question was settled, at least for Asher's father.

In simple family scenes, Potok shows how hostility grew between father and son and how Asher's mother was caught in between, and what it cost them all. Asher refused to go to Vienna when the Rebbe dispatched his father to establish Ladover yeshivas throughout Europe because he needed his familiar neighborhood to nurture his gift. So the father went alone. The Rebbe in his wisdom apprenticed Asher to a Jewish artist, the fabulous Jacob Kahn, in the hopes his pursuit of art, which clearly could not be denied, would not lead him away from Judaism.

If there's anyone who can read how Jacob Kahn schooled Asher Lev in art without being moved, they should not be reading fiction. The summers together in Provincetown, painting and walking on the beach and talking, are as close to idyllic as real life can get.

Asher grows older, but we are so well acquainted with him by this time that we never lose sight of that wondering young boy. Nor does Potok let us get distracted. The action is totally focused on Asher's development as an artist. By the time the artist Asher Lev is ready for his climactic one-man show at a Madison Avenue gallery, your heart is in your throat as you see what inevitably must come to pass. The powerful forces Potok has unleashed -- creativity and religion, filial devotion and artistic integrity, individual and community -- come crashing together in a climax that almost literally takes your breath away.