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On the frontispiece of this book is a quotation from Picasso, “Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” The same can be said of fiction.
Asher Lev is a great painter and this novel tells his story, and the trials, tribulations and heartbreak on the way. Through the memories of a four year old Asher we are introduced to the very private world of a Jewish Hasidic community in Brooklyn in the 1950’s.
It is quite a culture shock and certainly a different kind of world, Yiddish words and phrases are used without explanation and a certain knowledge of Jewish traditions and festivals is assumed. It is possible to read the book by accepting that this is simply another world but a little background knowledge does help.
Hasidism was a renewal movement in orthodox Judaism in 18th century founded by a rabbi who is now legendary, Baal Shem Tov. He taught that purity of heart and the love of God is superior to study. It is very much a mystical tradition and within the community lays emphasis on joyous songs, prayers and stories. The Hasidim usually study kabbalah and have a slightly different theological approach than some other Jews although they keep the Torah and traditions.
Hasidism is not the most well understood branch within Judaism. It has many branches and the most well known are Labavitch (Chasad) and Breslover. The names derive from the area, usually in Eastern Europe where the community started. In the book Asher Lev belongs to a community called Ladover which come from Poland. Each group has a spiritual leader called a Rebbe, not to be confused with Rabbi.
Until recently I assumed that Hasidim were an ultra orthodox branch of Judaism, recognisable by strange clothes, beards, sidelocks, hats and an avoidance of any contact with unclean gentiles. I had seen them on the streets of Jerusalem carefully avoiding even the gaze of the tourist let alone any physical contact. But this is a stereotypical viewpoint and now I know that not every Jew who dresses this way is a Hasid and not all Hasidim dress like this or indeed avoid mixing with secular world.
Asher’s father works for the Rebbe helping to get persecuted Ladover Jews out of Russia and is away from home a lot. When Asher is six years old his uncle who also works for the Rebbe is killed in an accident and his mother, utterly devastated by the loss of her brother, enters a deep depression. Asher draws pictures.
His talent is recognised by another uncle who compares him to Chagall but Asher replies: “No, my name is Asher Lev.” It was then Asher had his first inclination that his father was not too happy about his remarkable gift.
His mother gradually recovers and asks permission from the Rebbe to go to college. (It was unusual then and even now for women to study in some Hasidic communities). Asher goes to the local Ladover Yeshiva and stops drawing. His mother asks him why he has stopped and he replies, “I hate it, it’s a waste. Its from the sitra achra like Stalin.”
(The sitra achra, the ‘other side’ is a Yiddish term expressing that which we see as evil in the world.)
Stalin dies and the Rebbe tells Asher’s father to go to Vienna. Asher does not want to go and complains to everyone who will listen. He begins to have vivid dreams of his mythic ancester and begins to draw again. At ten years old Asher discovers he has another way of ‘seeing’ he not only could see but could ‘feel’ what he saw. In class one day he finds himself drawing in his Hebrew notebook a picture of Stalin dead in his coffin.
On another occasion he causes shock and horror at the Yeshiva by drawing an ugly picture of the Rebbe in a holy book and his father, furious, tells him to stop this foolishness.
His father goes to Vienna alone. Asher draws and neglects his studies. Asher discovers paintings in a museum and doesn’t understand them. He takes his mother and asks her to explain. She is embarrassed at the nude paintings and has difficulty explaining the paintings of the crucifixion which had so captured her son’s imagination.
Asher continues to visit the museum and copies the pictures. When his father discovers them on a visit he is beside himself with rage - “Did I know how much Jewish blood had been spilled because of that man?”
The Rebbe calls Asher and says ”A life should be lived for the sake of heaven. One man is not better than another because he is a doctor while the other is a shoemaker. One man is not better than another because he is a lawyer while the other is a painter. A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven. Do you understand me Asher Lev?”
The wise Rebbe realises that Asher cannot be stopped from the path of his gift and even against his father’s wishes makes it possible for Asher to study art but remain within the community. He introduces him to one of the greatest artists in New York who is also from the community but no longer practising.
Jacob Kahn is passionate about art and warns the young teenager,” This is not a toy. 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.” He goes further, “Asher Lev, it is a tradition of goyim and pagans. Its values are goyish and pagan. Its concepts are goyish and pagan. In the entire history of European art, there has not been a single religious Jew who was a great painter. Think carefully of what you are doing before you make your decision.”
Asher studies with Kahn for five years and every moment carries the terrible tension of the two worlds he inhabits. His soul is crying out as it battles between them. He knows his father is angry but that the Rebbe is not and questions Kahn who says:”Do not try to understand. Become a great artist. That is the only way to justify what you are doing to everyone’s life.”
Asher reflects on this:
“I did not understand what he meant. I did not feel I had to justify anything. I had not wilfully hurt anyone. What did I have to justify? I did not want to paint in order to justify anything; I wanted to paint because I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint the same way my father wanted to travel and work for the Rebbe. My father worked for Torah. I worked for – what? How could I explain it? For beauty? No, Many of the pictures I painted were not beautiful. For what, then? For a truth I did not know how to put in words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of colour and line and texture and form.”
He does become a famous artist and his work is exhibited but his family will not come to see it because he has painted nudes. He travels to Europe and lives in Paris for a while returning for another exhibition. There are no nudes in this exhibition so his family go to see it.
My name is Asher Lev begins with a confession:
“I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflictor of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.”
What did he do that was so terrible and what were the repercussions? You will have to read it yourself to find out.
Chaim Potok was a superb writer and I consider this book to be one of the best novels I have ever read. Something about it touched me deeply. Potok paints with words how one would expect Asher Lev to paint on canvas. There is so much depth of feeling in this novel it does not seem like fiction – if Potok didn’t experience something like this in his own life then he is an even greater novelist. The conflicts in this novel set in a Hasidic community are the more poignant because of it but the ideas transcend that and reach any reader. I think some people might read it differently and get upset by the way Asher seems to be treated but if you can empathically enter their world you will feel for Asher but hopefully you will also feel for his family and community too.
There is evidently a sequel to this book and I hope it can live up to this one or I think I will be very disappointed.
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You just brought the whole thing flooding back to me. It was an exceptional book. My wife read the sequel and thought it disappointing. I can recommend also The Chosen and its sequel The Promise which had a big impact on me as a teenager. Thanks.