My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Availability: Amazon, Los Gatos, San Jose, San Jose, Santa Clara County

Our member Dawn Gringorten writes:

Asher Lev is a Ladover Hasid boy living in Brooklyn post WWII.  Ladover is a fictitious sect of Hasidic Judaism based on the Chabad-Lubavitch sect; a large Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism based in Crown Heights – Asher’s neighborhood.

Asher is raised in a very religious world where he keeps kosher, attends the yeshiva and believes in the Ribbono Shel Olom, the Master of the Universe.  He also showed artistic genius as a young child and cannot stop himself from expressing it by constantly and compulsively drawing and painting.  This talent causes family conflict because the Ladover Hasids believe art is a waste of time and some works can be an abomination to God.

His father works for the Rebbe – the leader of the Ladovers – and travels to Europe, passionately dedicating himself to God’s work; setting up Ladover yeshivas for Jewish youth.  Even though everyone in Asher’s life recognized his immense talent at a young age, his father views Asher’s choice to pursue art as selfish and foolish; squandering his talents when he could be serving God. He tries to understand Asher but ultimately cannot accept that Asher won’t just stop painting when it causes so much family pain. Asher’s mother is caught in the middle; wanting to support her husband and also trying to allow Asher to follow his destiny.

The Rebbe is the charismatic leader of the Ladovers.  In the Chabad movement, the Rebbe serves as a teacher and advisor. He is there to recognize the vocation of each of his followers, guide them towards it and rejoice in their achievements.

Chabad philosophy teaches that every aspect of the world exists only through the intervention of God. Through an intellectual approach and meditations, one can attain complete control over one’s inclinations; emphasizing mind over emotions.

As Asher enters religious school, fortunately the Rebbe acknowledges that his gift can’t be denied and makes sure that he gets the artistic education he needs, despite the disapproval of his father.  He introduces Asher to Jacob Kahn, a renowned Jewish artist who was a contemporary of Picasso. Asher develops into a great artist when Kahn, a non-observant Jew, takes him under his wing and mentors him, encouraging him to express himself and remain honest with his art; even when it leads Asher to blasphemy.

The ongoing struggle within Asher to acknowledge his responsibility to his family and the Jewish people vs his responsibility to his gift grows.  He characteristically resolves it with his art and this leads to a devastating climax with some pretty severe consequences.  The story continues in Potok’s sequel The Gift of Asher Lev.

The book offers the reader a rich and detailed glimpse into Hasidic family life, traditions and spirituality as well as an education into the creation of art and insight into how driven a genius can be.

Chaim Potok was an accomplished artist as well as a novelist and rabbi.  The first “Brooklyn Crucifixion”, a work by Asher which plays a central role in the novel, is an actual painting by Potok.

Brooklyn Crucifixion I painted by Asher Lev author Chaim Potok