The Conflict between Art and Religious Community

My Name is Asher Lev is about Asher's development as an artist with a focus on the conflicts this raises for him with the religion with which he has been raised. When Asher is younger, this conflict is more external. His artistic impulse drives him to do certain things of which others in his community disapprove. The story explores how a younger Asher deals with impulses that he does not completely understand and with a community that often chastises him for succumbing to them.

As Asher grows, the conflict becomes more overt. He makes more conscious decisions about which trade-offs he wants to make. Toward the end of the book, the conflict becomes one not only of Asher's art, but of his need to express his feelings through it. The only way Asher knows of expressing his mother's pain is through a Christian symbol. Asher's art has led him to adopt a world that is antithetical to his Ladover society, to derive meaning from Christian symbols.

For much of the book, it looks like a balance can be found between religion and art. While Asher is on the fringes of the society in which he grew up, he is at the fringes of that society. However, at the explosive end of the book, these two worlds collide and Asher chooses the world of art over the community of his parents.

 

 

Asher Lev  -  The protagonist and narrator of the book. The book traces Asher's development as a person and an artist. He is immensely gifted as an artist and, when younger, not in control of himself. He often seems detached from the world around him and generally spaced out. As he grows older, Asher becomes more in touch with himself and learns to channel his feelings into artwork. He is not a typical rebel in the sense that he does not want to rebel. He is simply drawn very strongly to produce art. As he gets older, he outgrows his teacher and becomes more reflective.

Asher Lev (In-Depth Analysis)

 

Asher is a fascinating creature with two powerful and conflicting forces pulling him in opposite directions. The first is the community in which he is raised. The Ladover community is tight-knit and all encompassing. A person can live his entire life in this community without ever interacting with someone from the outside. Growing up, Asher's life is filled with religious indoctrination in school, at home, and from the people in his community with whom he interacts. He is inculcated with the values of the community and is taught to love God, Torah, and his fellow Jews. Furthermore, as an only child, he is raised to be particularly close to and dependent on his parents, who are, for Asher, at the center of this community.

Another equal, if not stronger, force plays a large role in Lev's life. From the time he is little, he has an intense desire to create art. When he is little, this manifests itself in innocuous doodling which turns into more structured drawing. As a boy, Lev is unable to control this desire and does not really understand it. Sometimes, he simply spaces out and draws. On one occasion, this desire leads him to steal; the strong influences in his life begin to come into conflict.

As an adolescent, Asher begins his study with Jacob Kahn. Kahn teaches him to channel his emotions into art. Asher begins to grow up and to gain some control over his gift. In these years, Asher balances his commitments to his community and to art. However, he never really thinks much about his commitment to religion and no serious conflict ever arises between the two. In many ways, he remains emotionally and intellectually immature.

As his period of time studying with Kahn comes to a close, Asher is at a crossroad. He has developed significantly as an artist, but is still a child. He leaves his home for Europe. There, free from his parents, he is finally able to understand his community better. He reflects on his upbringing and his parents and grows tremendously.

For the first time in his life, Asher faces serious internal conflict. He is tormented by his mother's anguish. His artistic impulse expresses her anguish in a painting that employs the crucifixion. He is faced with a dilemma—is he to display the painting and share his artistic vision with the world? If so, he will hurt his parents and his community. Asher, knowing the consequences will be dire, decides in favor of his artwork. Still, he is not fully resolved to his decision. My Name is Asher Lev concludes with Asher still, in many ways, unresolved. He was not fully comfortable with his decision to display his crucifixions, not comfortable with bringing pain to his parents. The book ends with him banished from a community, though he is not certain that he is ready to leave. He has by no means come to conclude that his artwork ought always to take precedence.

 

 

Rivkeh Lev  -  Asher's mother. She is kind and supportive. Deeply disturbed by the death of her brother, she worries a lot and is, in some ways, a stereotypical "Jewish mother." She is intelligent, loving, and caring; she cares deeply for the two men in her life—Asher and Aryeh—and is troubled by their inability to get along.

 

 

Rivkeh Lev

Rivkeh Lev is a character dealing with her own torments. Her brother's early and tragic death has imbued her with a sense of urgency. She must complete his work and as quickly as possible. She is also a unique woman in the Ladover community, since she is one of the few permitted to attend college. Placed in a subservient role in society because of her sex, she has much to overcome to succeed. She is able to relate well to her son. She understands what it is like to have a strong desire burning inside and for that desire to conflict with the standards of the community. After all, her desire to complete her brother's work can never be fully realized. She will never be given the responsibilities in the Ladover community that he had, because she is a woman.

Rivkeh is also caught in the middle of the two men in her life. She understands, relates to, and loves them both, but they can hardly speak to each other. Balancing her commitments to the two of them is incredibly difficult and drives her to tears on many occasions. Ultimately, she is more committed to her community and to her husband, driving her to move to Europe to work with him. There is a limit to how much deviation she can accept and will understand. This leads her to side against Asher after his display of the crucifixion pictures.

 

 

Aryeh Lev  -  Asher's father. A well respected, highly intelligent man. He is incredibly driven to work hard for the cause in which he believes. He has a strong sense of morality and is deeply committed to his religion. His son's misbehavior deeply disturbs and hurts him. Though he works with high-ranking government officials, he has a hard time relating to those, like Asher, whose value systems are different from his own.

 

 

Jacob Kahn -  An old and famous artist. When younger, he abandoned the religion with which he grew up, in order to pursue his artwork. He is fully and completely an artist. He is temperamental, and he feels no moral attachments to anything but art and sees a great purpose in producing art and artists. He is blunt, though generally for a didactic purpose.

Jacob Kahn (In-Depth Analysis)

 

Jacob Kahn grew up a religious Jew, but has long since left the faith. He went through a period of torment in his younger life as he was leaving the comfortable life he had always known in order to become and artist. We see Kahn as an old man, after an accomplished career. He has been a major figure in the history of art, the greatest sculptor of his generation. These accomplishments and previous life events inform the way he deals with Asher. He feels a special bond with Asher; after all, Asher is in the position Kahn once occupied himself—he is a gifted, young artist in a religious Jewish community. Kahn is thus drawn to consider Asher feelings—he wants to mold the young man into an artist, but he does not want him to have to undergo an experience as horrific as Kahn's on his way to becoming an artist.

 

 

Plot Overview

Asher Lev is a child with an extraordinary gift for painting. His father, Aryeh, is an emissary for the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Hasidic community. When he is younger, his uncle, His mother Rivkeh's brother, dies and it destroys her. Asher's mother becomes ill. She stays at home sick for a while after being released from the hospital. At this time, Asher spends much time with his father at his office and becomes entranced by the work his father is doing in Russia. Furthering Asher's fascination with Russia is recent immigrant, Yudel Krinsky, whom Aryeh helped bring to the US and whom Asher befriends. As Rivkeh's health improves, she decides that she wants to go to college. Aryeh asks the Rebbe for permission, which he grants.

Asher's early summers are spent in a bungalow colony. There, he has opportunity to grow closer with his mother. Aryeh's work with Russia intensifies. The entire community, Asher included seems obsessed with the Russians and their persecution of Jews. Asher begins visiting with Krinsky more and often returns home late, causing his mother great worry.

The Rebbe asks Asher's father to move to Vienna in order to better perform his work. Asher does not want to move to Vienna and makes this known to his parents, his uncle, and Krinsky. Asher begins drawing again. Asher's parents and teachers are concerned about him. Asher asks if he can live with his uncle. Asher's father begins to worry about his son's drawing. Asher draws a menacing looking picture of the Rebbe in his Chumash one day in class. The Mashpia calls him in to talk to him about how he is doing. Asher breaks down and expresses how distraught he is over the prospect of moving to Vienna. The Rebbe decides that Asher cannot be brought to Vienna. Aryeh moves to Vienna alone.

Rivkeh and Asher adjust to life at home together. His interest in art intensifies and she buys him oil paints. Asher begins to neglect his studies, rousing the concern and ire of his teachers and his father. Asher seems unfazed by the criticism heaped on him. His mother takes him to the museum and explains the paintings of crucifixions to him. Asher begins to sketch crucifixions and nudes. These arouse the ire of Aryeh, who discovers them when he returns home for Passover. When Aryeh leaves to go back to Europe, Asher resolves to improve his scholastic performance. The next summer, Rivkeh joins Aryeh in Europe and Asher stays with his Uncle Yitzchok.

Asher has a meeting with the Rebbe before his Bar Mitzvah. Jacob Kahn, a prominent artist, has been called to the Rebbe's office and introduces himself to Asher as Asher is leaving. The Rebbe has decided that Asher shall study art with Kahn. Kahn gives Asher an assignment and tells him to call him in two months. Asher calls Kahn and arranges to go to his studio for the first time. At this first meeting, Kahn introduces Asher to gallery owner Anna Schaeffer. He also berates Asher and tries to scare him out of becoming an artist. Asher is not deterred. Kahn takes Asher to see paintings of crucifixions. He brings a woman into the studio to model so Asher can paint nudes.

Asher's mother begins contemplating a move to Vienna. Asher, however, refuses to go along. Rivkeh finally decides to move to Vienna without him, so that she can be with her husband. Asher meets with the Rebbe to discuss this move and his developing artistic talent. Around this time, Asher learns that he will one day have his own show. Asher moves in with his Uncle Yitzchok.

Asher spends the summer with Jacob Kahn at his beach house in Provincetown. It is a joyous summer dedicated to painting. Asher maintains his religious observance while there. Toward the end, Jacob Kahn withdraws for a few days, in an awful mood.

Asher begins high school, but continues studying with Kahn on weekends. Kahn has a show opening that fall. Asher's uncle renovates the attic to give Asher more space to paint. Asher and Jacob begin to travel to some exhibitions together. Asher's parents return for Passover, and Asher and Aryeh fight. Asher's family pressures him to try moving to Vienna. He goes, gets sick, and comes back. He has his first art show and it is a moderate success. Asher is now in college. His parents return home after years in Europe.

It is awkward living with his parents again. Asher's parents are unhappy when he includes nudes in his next show. Asher tries to explain art to his father, but it is a miserable failure and they get frustrated with each other. Asher begins to plan a trip to Europe.

Asher goes to Florence and is enthralled by the artwork. He is particularly taken with Michelangelo's Pietà. He moves on to Rome and then Paris. He begins to experiment with alterations in the Pietà, alterations in the artistic form of the crucifix. He decides to move to Paris temporarily, gets an apartment, and sets up a studio.

In Paris he has time to reflect on his past, on his upbringing, on his community, and on his family. He realizes the pain his mother went through during his upbringing. He wants to express this in art—the only symbol he has at his disposal is the crucifixion. He makes two paintings of his mother that employ the crucifix.

At a major show in New York, Asher displays these paintings. His parents are horrified by the paintings, as is the general Ladover community. Asher has crossed a line. His parents become cold toward him as do all the Ladover who one supported him. The Rebbe calls Asher into his office and asks him to leave the community. Banished, Asher moves back to Paris.

 

 

 

 

Motifs

Travel

Travel plays a central role in the book and appears in very different places. Early on, it is Asher's father who is traveling. He jets around America, working for the Rebbe. Later, he travels around Europe, sometimes accompanied by his wife, to fulfill his holy mission. He is impelled to travel because of his strong belief that in doing so, he is spreading God, Torah, and Truth. Asher, as he grows older, also begins to make travel a central part of the fulfillment of his life's mission. Jacob Kahn takes him traveling around the United States to attend art exhibitions. On these trips, Asher is exposed to a large variety of art he might not otherwise have seen and learns things critical to his development. Continuing in this vein, Asher feels the need to make a trip to Europe, to see large parts of the artistic heritage that were created and remain there.

Unfinished work

When Rivkeh's brother dies at the beginning of the book, she feels a terrible pain. The work that he set out to do for the Rebbe remains unfinished. She feels the need to go to college and study so that she can go out and finish the work he began. She cannot bear the thought of allowing his work not to be finished. Asher picks up on this idea at the end of the book. His first crucifixion is unfinished. He feels like he will be a fraud—a fraud to himself if he does not create another one that more fully expresses the feelings he is trying to convey. Both Asher and his mother are driven, at different times and in very different circumstances, to perform significant actions in order that something important to each of them not remain unfinished.

Symbols

Earlocks

Asher's payos, his earlocks, are an important symbol of how he feels about Judaism and art. The uncut tufts of hair growing from the side of his head above the ear are a distinctive feature of how he and most Ladover appear. They set him apart visually from the society of artists of which he wants to be a part. When he tucks them behind his ears, the first summer he spends in Provincetown, it shows confusion on his part. He wants to fit into the artistic world and is worried that the earlocks might prevent him from doing that. Yet, he does not have the conviction to simply chop them off. He still bears an attachment to them. The summer after his parents have returned from their years in Vienna, Asher is far more mature. A college student and a much more accomplished artist, he feels much more confident of himself and his decisions. He expresses his independence by cutting off his earlocks. He also expresses disregard for tradition and distance form his father. After all, Asher has noted that his father wore earlocks because his father did. For Asher, this is not sufficient reason to perpetuate the hairstyle.

The Rebbe

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The Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the Ladover community, takes on an almost divine status. To the people in the Ladover community, he is an omniscient leader, to be listened to in all circumstances. He is a father to all, one whose permission needs to be asked before one deviates from the standard path. We see specific instances of this in his interactions with the Lev family. First, Rivkeh, because she is a woman, needs to ask the Rebbe's permission to go to college. Aryeh is highly respected and his travel seen as special because it is done in the service of the Rebbe. Finally, Asher's life path is severely influenced by the Rebbe. The Rebbe decides that Asher will study with Jacob Kahn, against the wishes of Asher's father. Even as Asher gets older, the Rebbe is able to tell him to study French and Russian. Still, the Rebbe knows his limits. He does not, for instance, tell Asher to stop painting. Nevertheless, the Rebbe appears as a dominating and all-knowing force in the Ladover community.

Asher's Mythic Ancestor

When Asher is little, he is told the story of his great-great-great-grandfather, a man who created immense wealth for himself and his employer and who, in middle age began to travel a lot. He traveled, his parents told him, to spread the word of God and to comfort those in need. This man appears to Asher many times in dreams as a representative of his past, his history. As history is a vital part of Jewish life, this man becomes a symbol for Asher of the ways he is supposed to act. The man haunts him when he steps out of line. When Asher is away in Europe, he rediscovers his mythic ancestor and appropriates him for his own use. He imagines that his ancestor had unbalanced the world and was traveling in order to right the wrongs he had done. Asher finds a new way of connecting with his heritage, with his past. He imagines himself aligned with this man, as he, too, feels that he has unbalanced the world. Through his need to create art, Asher has created much tumult. He, too, hopes to correct the way he has left the world out of balance.

 

Quote::

Away from my world, alone in an apartment that offered me neither memories nor roots, I began to find old and distant memories of my own, long buried by pain and time and slowly brought to the surface now…. Now I would have to paint the street that could not be seen.

 

 

"My Name is Chaim Potok"


Chaim Potok has been a lifelong painter much like his fictional character Asher Lev.

 
Brooklyn Crucifixion: Scribe: Wilderness of Sinai: Canal 
          

 

by Marius Buning

Free University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Post-war Literatures in English
March 1995
Groningan: Nyhoff

Biography

Chaim Potok was born in the Bronx, New York, on 17 February 1929, to Polish Jewish immigrants, and was educated in Jewish parochial schools. At the early age of ten he showed talent in drawing and painting but was dissuaded by his father and Talmudic teachers from pursuing this interest. Instead, he undertook a serious religious and secular education, first at the Orthodox Yeshiva University, New York, where he received a BA in English (summa cum laude) in 1950; then at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, where he received his rabbinic ordination in 1954; and finally at the University of Pennsylvania, where he obtained a PhD in 1965.

Potok served as a chaplain in the United States Army with front-line units in Korea from 1955 to 1957. During that time, he made a number of trips to Japan, which turned out to be a crucial experience since it forced him to rethink his religious and cultural position. In an interview Potok has said that all of his books came about 'as a result of that moment in time when I stood in Hiroshima, trying to figure out where I was and what I was doing there, and what it all really meant to me'. He then began a distinguished teaching and publication career in Jewish studies; he became editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America and collaborated on the new authorized translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was finally completed in 1982.

Meanwhile Potok had started writing, first in diary form, on his experiences in Korea. This work appeared in strongly revised form as I Am The Clay more than thirty-five years later; it was followed by the first draft of what was to become his best-known novel, The Chosen, written in Jerusalem during the fall and winter of 1963-64, and published after major revisions in 1967. Basically dealing with the interplay of the Jewish tradition and Western secular humanism, it had an extraordinary world-wide success. The novel was turned into a major film in 1982. It was followed two years later by The Promise a sequel that continues to examine in fictional form the complicated relationship between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. In 1972 My Name Is Asher Lev appeared, a novel about a Hasidic painter as a young man in conflict with his family and his religious community. This further established Potok's literary reputation.

From 1973 to 1977 Potok went to live with his wife and three young children in Jerusalem. In 1975 In the Beginning appeared, which deals with anti-Semitism both in Europe and America. In 1977 he returned to America and settled with his family in Merion, a distinguished suburb north of Philadelphia, where he now lives in a lovely Tudor house, with a large painting studio on the second floor. Potok is a self-taught painter, who since the late sixties has produced a considerable number of idiosyncratic paintings.

In 1978 Potok published a non-fiction work, calledWanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews which is a highly personal and imaginative account of what Judaism is, what it borrowed from surrounding cultures and what it gave back to the world. It was followed in 1981 by The Book of Lights, which centers on the apparent contrast between the constructive 'light' of Jewish cabalistic mysticism and the destructive 'light' of the atomic bomb, co-developed by Jewish physicists. ln 1985 Davita's Harp appeared, the first Potokian novel with a female protagonist, who reclaims her Jewish heritage during its course. Published in 1990, The Gift of Asher Lev takes up the further developments of his earlier eponymous fictional hero, who now appears to be in a personal as well as artistic mid-life crisis that is ultimately resolved by an uneasy compromise between the demands of his family and the Jewish community on the one hand and those of his artistic calling on the other.

With I Am The Clay, which he had started writing before The Chosen but subsequently strongly revised and rewrote during the period of the Gulf War, Potok entered a new phase in his literary career. Although the Holocaust and the themes of suffering and survival have been thematically present in all his work, they become central in his latest fictions, The Trope Teacher (1992) and The Canal (1993). Both works show the devastating after-effects of the Holocaust on the respective main characters, neither of whom is an observant Jew any more. These novellas have still to appear in America, but they have already been published in Dutch translation. They show a remarkable change in style and tone; there is a greater spareness of language, a more flexible narrative technique, and above all a much more pessimistic outlook on the world than in Potok's earlier work. As he stated in a recent interview, 'we must learn to live with the possibility that there are no answers any more, at least no Answers with capital letters'. It may be more than accidental that his most recent publications include two children's books, The Tree of Here (1993) and The Sky of Now (1994), illustrated by the Pennsylvania artist Tony Auth. At present Potok is working on several projects, including a non-fiction work, that traces the tribulations of a Jewish family through several generations in modern Russia. He also continues to teach contemporary literature and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.

Note: I should like to record my gratitude to Chaim Potok for the hospitality with which I was received in his Merion home, for allowing me to see his paintings, and for the many conversations we had both in America and in The Netherlands. I am also grateful to Professor Lillian Kremer of Kansas State University, whose several articles on Potok have been of great value to me.