Book club: My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

07 December 2018

Richard Harries on Chaim Potok’s novel about a young Hasidic artist, My Name is Asher Lev

Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy

Chaim Potok (1929-2002): American Jewish author and Rabbi

Chaim Potok (1929-2002): American Jewish author and Rabbi

MOST people will at some point have seen Hasidic Jews with their distinctive form of dress. Men wear long black coats, unusual hats (sometimes of fur), and have curls (payot) dangling down their cheeks, while women are also in black and wear wigs.

Stemming from religious revivals in the 18th century in what is now Western Ukraine, they are the fastest-growing form of Judaism, and, in Jerusalem, for example, form more than one third of the population. As they are a highly enclosed group, this novel by Chaim Potok offers a welcome window into one such community, fictionalised as the Ladover, but based on the Chabad of Brooklyn Heights in New York.

We first encounter Asher Lev, whose story this is, as a young boy who is growing up as a member of this community. From a young age, he discovered in himself not just a talent, but an overwhelming passion, for drawing. Everything he saw along the streets of New York, every person, comes in his head as something he sees in a particular way and wants to depict. Instead of concentrating in class, he draws — sometimes on the pages of sacred books, to the horror of his teachers at the Yeshiva.

Home life is not easy: his mother is ill, and his father travels a great deal, delivering messages for their beloved Rebbe, or spiritual leader. Tensions increase steadily throughout his adolescence, because his father disapproves, on religious grounds, of his son spending his time on art.

It all comes to a head when his father is sent abroad by the Rebbe to rebuild Ladover communities in Europe, after the devastation of the Holocaust, and also to provide a spiritual home for Jews trying to get out of Russia, where they are having a hard time under the Communist regime. Asher absolutely refuses to go to Vienna with his parents, and, furthermore, prevails on his mother to stay with him in New York rather than support her husband in Europe.

In addition to giving a not unsympathetic picture of a Hasidic community, the novel vividly conveys the strength of an artistic vocation, and how art enables us to see the world differently. These passages, when Asher sees some scene in a visionary way, and wants to draw or paint it, are some of the most powerful in the book.

All this comes to a climax when Asher, much to the disapproval of his family, studies with a world-renowned Jewish sculptor, Jacob Kahn, who is non-observant and thoroughly secular. With him, he learns to distinguish between working with true artistic integrity, and simply following the fashion, or doing what will sell. At the same time, we get a vivid picture of the fashionable New York art scene in which both Asher and his mentor want to succeed and make money.

Although Asher puts his art above every other consideration, he remains, in all other respects, a loyal and observant member of his community.

The most intriguing character in the book is the Rebbe, who has absolute direction over the lives of members of his community. He even ensures that Asher learns first French, and then Russian. Contrary to the wishes of Asher’s family, the Rebbe encourages his art and his studying under Kahn. The assumption is that the Rebbe has some insight into the will of “the Master of the Universe” which is denied to others, and members of the community do what he directs them to do.

What particularly upsets Asher’s family is that among his works are some nudes; then, when the novel climaxes with a big show in New York, there is an even greater horror in store for them and other members of this devout Jewish community: the outstanding paintings in the exhibition are two crucifixes.

Asher has discovered in the image of the crucified Christ the most sublime expression of the agony he has seen in his mother, torn as she is between him and his father. He knew he had to paint this, even though it would be hurtful to his family and community.

These two crucifixes are a step too far even for the Rebbe, and he directs Asher to leave New York and live in Paris, which he does, much to the distress of himself and his mother — and perhaps even his father. Asher looks at his hand and reflects on the nature of the gift he has been given. “There was power in that hand. Power to create or destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time.”

He has been told that he will be a great painter; so he reflects further: “Then be a great painter, Asher Lev; that will be the only justification for all the pain you will cause. But as a great painter I will cause pain again if I must. Then become a greater painter. But I will cause pain again. . . Master of the Universe, will I live this way all the rest of my life? Yes, came the whisper from the branches of the trees. Now journey with me, my Asher. Paint the anguish of all the world. Let people see the pain. But create your own moulds and your own play of forms for the pain. We must give a balance to the universe.

“Yes, I said. Yes, my own play of forms for the pain.”


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok is published by Penguin Classics at £9.99; 978-0-141-19056-3.

 

MY NAME IS ASHER LEV — SOME QUESTIONS

  1. “Art is not for people who want to make the world holy.” Do you agree?

  2. Asher’s art is consistently represented as both great and dangerous. Could Asher be a great artist without causing his family pain?

  3. Why does Jacob Kahn try to warn Asher off his chosen route as an artist? How else does he counsel him about staying true to himself?

  4. What is it, do you think, that drives Asher to draw, both as a child and as an adult? Why is his father so against it?

  5. “They’re not the truth, Papa; but they’re not lies, either.” How can art cross the boundary of truth and lie?

  6. What did you make of the book’s representation of grief and depression?

  7. “You should make the world pretty, Asher.” What should and should not be depicted in art, do you think?

  8. In what ways does the shadow of the Second World War and, in particular, the Holocaust hang over the characters in My Name is Asher Lev?

  9. Why is it so important for Asher’s artworks to be “complete”? How else does the notion of completeness appear in the novel?

  10. Rivkeh appears to live her life entirely for others — even finishing a Ph.D. in Russian history to “complete” her brother’s studies. What do you make of the part she plays in the novel?

 


IN OUR next reading-groups page on 4 January, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Song of Hild, by Vibeke Vasbo, translated by Gaye Kynoch. It is published by Sacristy Press at £12.99; 978-1-910519-86-8.

THE BOOK

The Song of Hild (2018) follows the story of Hild, the eventual Abbess of Whitby. She is to become one of the most influential women of seventh-century Britain. In the tumultuous political climate of Anglo-Saxon England, brutality is everyday, and Hild finds support in her faith in the new religion of Christianity during the bleakest periods of her life. This is also a story of the integral place of women in the spread of Christianity in an England that is still largely pagan. It is translated from the original Danish by Gaye Kinoch.


THE AUTHOR

Vibeke Vasbo was born on the Danish island of Als. She studied German and English at the University of Copenhagen before working as an assistant nurse, crane operator, and, later, teacher. She was also an active member of various women’s and LGBT-rights organisations.

As an author, Vasbo is known for her non-fiction writing as well as several prize-winning novels, a poetry collection, and short stories. In the 1980s, she spent four years living in Yorkshire during her marriage to Leo Thomsen, a Danish seamen’s chaplain. Hildas Sang (translated as The Song of Hild) was written shortly after her return to Denmark.



BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

February: The Librarian by Salley Vickers
March: The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes

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