Thursday 24 October 2013

My Name is Asher Lev

'My Name is Asher Lev' by Chaim Potok
Apparently (according to wiki) Chaim Potok's book 'The Chosen' sold 3,400,000 copies. I read it many years ago, probably when in the sixth form and it is one of the few books from that period that left an abiding impression on me. I requested this from the library after reading a review recently. This book was quite hard work to read, stylistically it is very straightforward but it demands that you think about the characters quite a lot and that you work to understand their motivations and intentions. It is a book about relationships and principles; the story of Asher's growing up is, to some extent, merely a vehicle to examine the ideas that drive the relationships. 

Told in the first person the story follows Asher through his childhood, a rather lonely one I felt, though he never expresses it as such, when he discovers a passion for drawing, through the deep depression and eventual recovery of his mother, through a rift with his father over his desire to paint and a long uneasy peace when he rejects his father's authority in favour of a mentor, Jacob Kahn. Having recently done a MOOC on social psychology it was interesting to find that the main characters are all suffering from cognitive dissonance; they hold two beliefs that are in conflict with each other. Asher wants to be a good son, he wants to be a good Jew, but he also wants to be an artist, not just 'wants', is driven to be, which is completely at odds with the other wants. His father is a devout orthodox Hasidic Jew who wants to be a good father, who loves his son, but his traditions dictate that certain things are not permitted, one of which is his son's obsession with art and painting. It is the father's inability to reconcile his faith with his love for his son that creates the conflict within the story. Eventually the Rebbe intercedes on Asher's behalf and arranges for him to work with Jacob Kahn, and because of his respect for the Rebbe Asher's father agrees. I found myself liking the Rebbe; he has a position of respect and authority over the community, people defer to him in decisions, even significant ones about their lives. At times I found very strange, but he has the element of being removed and somewhat objective, and he is benevolent and wise and humane and does not abuse the trust placed in him. Part of the conflict is also about the conflict of attitude; whether the individual is more significant than the community, how the needs of the many might outweigh the rights of a person to decide their own destiny. It is a very difficult thing to grasp when your society is based on the cult of the individual and the right to decide the course of your own life, the idea that another person might know better is alien, and yet for this community the Rebbe is considered to know better, to be in a position to make a choice for you: Asher's mother wants to go to university to study and continue the work of her brother, but she will not do so without the agreement of the Rebbe. And so Asher grows up, he tries to study hard at school to keep his father happy, but is often distracted by drawing, spending long hours at the museums and art galleries and making his mother anxious by his absences. He grows, he studies, he paints, he and his father regard each other across a gulf of misunderstanding. Jacob Kahn and his agent provide Asher with a route into the art world but mostly he teaches himself by studying great works of art and drawing, drawing, drawing. His parents go to live and work in Europe and he goes to live with an uncle who allows him the freedom to paint without feeling he is betraying anyone. Nothing much happens for large chunks of the book except there remains this brooding cloud hanging over the father/son relationship. You hope that with success will come reconciliation, and there is a hint of pride, but when Asher paints the pain and suffering of his family the final betrayal is a step too far.

What I loved about the story: the relationship between Asher and Reb Krinsky, a man who arrives in their community from Russia and who befriends Asher. The relationship between Asher and Jacob Kahn, a true meeting of talents, and he gives help and support unstintingly, without jealousy, recognising what they share in their passion for art rather than begrudging his youth and prodigy status. I loved Asher because he accept the conflict he is living with, accepts the talent that drives him to paint but does not reject his faith or his traditions, he somehow finds a way to accommodate them.  
What I did not love about the story: the character of Asher's mother. It seems almost clich├ęd that this kind of male writer writes women like this. She is frail and delicate, and beautiful, idolised by her son and a representative of what are proper feminine qualities. While her husband works and acts because he believes it is the right thing to do for his faith and his community she works and acts in response to his work and actions, to support him, not as an agent in her own right. She stands between her husband and her son trying not to take sides in their conflict, suffering for each of them while they deal with their anger and resentment. She is a there as a foil for her husband and son; the image, repeated throughout the book, of her waiting at the window for either of them to come home is somehow symbolic of the story. The 'Brooklyn Crucifixion' that Asher paints, based on his mother at the window, sums up the story in one image. Potok says that Asher is the character he most identifies with and was himself a painter as well as a writer, and he created for real a painting of how he imagined the crucifixion painting might have looked. 
(picture credit Chaim Potok website)


  1. I read The Chosen and Asher Lev so many years ago, I hardly recalled what they are about. Potok spoke at the local synagogue around that time, and I do remember one thing he said. Speaking of the holy books and what can or cannot be placed upon each of them, he said, "And upon a novel you may place . . . anything." Thank you for reminding me how much I had enjoyed those books.

  2. Sometimes I find books about religious belief quite difficult, the ritual and symbolism of so much of how they live their lives is quite unfathomable to me. At one point his father comes home and takes off his hat and puts on a skullcap and I wondered at what point the 'need' for a head covering became this tiny symbolic piece of material that does not actually serve to cover the head in any meaningful way. But it is written about so matter-of-factly that you just accept them as normal parts of life; it is what I liked about his writing is that I feel I get an inside perspective on his worldview.


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