I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all – in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter 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.
Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.
But I will not apologize. It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.
Asher Lev’s father works to set up Hasidic yeshivas (Jewish schools) throughout post-War Europe while his son Asher stays in Brooklyn continuing to pursue his artistic gifts. Both of these passions collide to become the core conflict in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev. In this novel, Potok does for faith and art what he does for faith and learning in The Chosen and The Promise.
Asher’s father never truly comes to terms with Asher’s gift and passion. As a child, Asher, himself, doesn’t fully understand it. In spite of his parent’s love for him, they don’t know what to make of his drawing and painting. It is interesting, though, that once a week on the Sabbath, all differences are set aside.
Potok portrays Asher and his parents with so much grace and subtlety that the reader understands both sides of this conflict even if Potok’s sympathies are with Asher. It’s also amazing how realistically Potok gives Asher’s Rebbe, the leader of his Hasidic community, the wisdom to know that while Asher will stand out as different, his talent and desire won’t be squashed. The Rebbe does his best to keep Asher within his Hasidic faith even if Asher’s talent moves him into what could be considered dangerous territory. And by the end of the novel, the Rebbe has appeared to succeed. While some traditions may go by the wayside and Asher leaves his community, he continues to practice both his faith and his art.
As Asher’s faith world isn’t sure where his art belongs, his art world isn’t sure where his faith belongs. When Asher attempts to hide his Hasidic side curls behind his ears, his mentor tells him to either keep them where they are or cut them off, but don’t try to hide them. As a teenager, Asher talks to his agent about how his art might influence the world, she tells him:
Art is not for people who want to make the world holy…Do you understand me, Asher Lev? If you want to make the world holy, stay in Brooklyn.
Asher ultimately determines his rationale for painting as he compares his work to his father’s:
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 into words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of color and line and texture and form.
For me personally, I could read this novel over and over again without getting tired of it. Being able to look back over the decades since I first read it, I see how it helps me reconcile my own faith with my love for art and literature.