The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Gift of Asher Lev is a lovely, evocative book. It is my first time reading the sequel to My Name is Asher Lev, which I consider one of the closest examples of a nearly perfect novel that I can imagine (with due respect to greater works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Chaim Potok himself).
My Name is Asher Lev (1972) is the story of a Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn as the child of immigrants who have escaped the dangers of the Holocaust (ha Shoah) and the continual threat against Jews in the Ukraine and Russia. Devoted followers of the Rebbe in the fictional Ladover community of Orthodox Jews, Asher Lev’s father is a rising figure, tasked with helping Jews escape the Soviet Union and helping European Jews open their own education-centred communities. Asher’s mother, following a great tragedy, is an exception among Hasidic women as she follows an academic vocation, becoming an expert in Russian political history. The Levs are deeply invested in the faith and traditions of this ultra-Orthodox community as they work tirelessly to resist the twin destructions of the world: persecution and assimilation.
And then there is Asher, born into this faithful household. But Asher is born with a gift that the community cannot easily reconcile themselves to. In a community devoted to the commandments–at the centre of which is a command to cast away images of the divine–Asher is clearly one of the great geniuses of fine art painting of the 20th-century, nearly an equal to Marc Chagall and a spiritual heir of Picasso for his generation. The divine law against graven images has not only bred a millennia-old resistance to visual art among devoted Jews (other than word-art and Bible story pictures), but the Christian world that defines the art of Chagall and Picasso and Asher Lev is goyisch, and specifically Christian. The Crucifix, the Pieta, images of heaven and hell, Eden and the world–all of the great artistic tradition is Christian or post-Christian.
In the midst of this, Asher Lev is born with a gift from Master of the Universe that faithful believers cannot understand. Many cannot accept this gift, including Asher’s own father.
While they cannot understand each other, each of the three Levs have a vocation that cannot be resisted. Asher’s father must travel for the Rebbe, starting schools and saving families. He grows ill and despondent when he cannot do what he must do. Asher’s mother must complete the work of her deceased brother, becoming a leading expert on Russia and being a Jewish light in the Gentile world of the university. The illness that almost takes her life is broken when she discerns this vocation. And Asher must paint the truth–not pretty pictures, not stories, not even the beauty of Torah, but the truth in all its forms. His fingers itch and his heart aches until he begins to draw the truth from image.
All three share this burning, inescapable need to use their gifts–leadership, intellectual, artistic–to express their calling from God to transform the world. Yet, they cannot understand each other. The tensions pull at their family until they splinter … until oceans separate them. All along, Asher’s mother tries to hold together the geniuses of her son and husband without losing her own genius. Disastrously, inexplicably, inescapable, Asher must paint this tension. And the only symbol he has to paint the truth is the Cross of Christ. Asher paints his family in a series called Brooklyn Crucifixion. These paintings are featured in his inaugural exhibition in New York City, thus earning Asher exile from his family, his Ladover community, and his American home.
My Name is Asher Lev is a stunning book. Like much of Chaim Potok’s work, the world of Asher Lev is a thinly veiled romanticization of Jewish life in America, this time focussing upon the Lubavitch community of New York. Potok was a rabbi, but rejected the Orthodox tradition to become a Conservative (i.e. liberal) Jewish leader, writer, and teacher. Though I do not share his faith, I have never in my life encountered a text that so intimately explores the tensions of faith and the world–and does so with “vocation,” one’s gifting and calling, at the very centre of the story.
And yet the world is so foreign to me. I think that is partially where the My Name is Asher Lev‘s power remains. It is true that Potok’s prose is elegant, his voice is evocative, and his sense of cultural relevance is prophetically present through his entire corpus. Beyond this, though, Potok makes us strangers to our world, opening us to a foreign land in our midst. And, in doing so, causes us to rethink our everyday lives–these workaday lives where we impress ideas upon our children, where we sit at home and walk along the road, where we go to sleep and where we wake. This is why the krias shema is one of the concentrating images of My Name is Asher Lev. I don’t know what Potok’s books do for Jews, but they are like tefillin and mezuzahs for Gentile souls, both providing a blessing and realigning our worlds.
Perhaps I go too far. I know My Name is Asher Lev is not Chaim Potok’s most important work. But it has been a transformational novel for me, and one I love (and fear to) teach.
The sequel is very good: evocative, immersive, poetic, emotional. The Gift of Asher Lev picks up precisely where the first book ends off, so that the first word is “Afterward….” The voice is similar, though the setting is twenty years later. As The Gift of Asher Lev is filled with the tensions of My Name is Asher Lev, that means that poor Asher has lived with these tensions for twenty years, through marriage and the raising of children and his success as an internationally renowned artist. In that time, Asher has refused to let the threats of the world and the pressures of his community cause him to abandon either faith or his art. He lives the rhythms of his Jewish faith, and prays for guidance from the Master of the Universe.
And, yet, the tension is bound up with his family–and this tension he cannot escape and he cannot reconcile, as much as he tries. Ultimately, he is faced with the problem that he cannot solve when he was younger–a problem that he can only express in the kind of art that makes the problem worse. The symbolic image in Gift, though, is not the Crucifixion, as in Name. This time, the guiding image is the Sacrifice of Isaac. Except in this version of the story, God does not provide a ram in the thicket.
The Gift of Asher Lev is a stunning book, though it cannot approach its Ur-text for me. It has the danger of being an “Afterword,” and perhaps deserves four rather than five stars. However, these books are, to me, a gift.
But the books are also a curse, quite frankly. I want to read Davita’s Harp, but I must stop. Potok’s writing invades my dreams, like an ancestor storming into my present. I cannot sleep. I dream Hasidic romances and paint my nights by number. And, in looking at a 2016 lecture on My Name is Asher Lev, it appears that I was having dreams when I read the book then as well. I can’t keep living this way–reading until ideas and images and thoughtful doubts and doubtful thoughts and intense love shred my mind. I am exhausted.
So, beware. These are gorgeous books, essential works of American literature and transformational stories about art, faith, and love. But like great art and integrated faith and verdant love, they are hard. Perhaps these are tensions you cannot authentically escape if you want to live meaningfully in the world, but reading about Asher Lev has a cost.
I may need to reread My Name is Asher Lev and then read The Gift in light of your insights. I read My Name well over thirty years ago and what I remember about my dislike of the main character as he pushed everyone around with his neuroses. If his family moved, he would grow so sick they would need to move back, no matter what their needs and desires were. And then he deliberately slapped them in the face. He could have painted that painting and sold it to a private buyer, but no, his feelings and desires overrode all considerations of other people. So, yeah, I did not read the book in the same spirit you did. Maybe I should have viewed the mc the way I view my daughter. She dictated that I could not work outside of caring for her and where we bought our homes (far enough from neighbors that her screaming would not bother them). She deformed nearly all our major life decisions, but it was not her fault, so I never yelled at her for that. I yelled a lot at God instead. Anyway….maybe I should have seen Asher’s squashing of everything in his way as a mental condition that he could not help either. Still, it’s interesting that I identified with the parents and not him. Yes, My Name deserves a reread and The Gift deserves a first read.
Thank you for giving me a lot to think about this morning.
That is certainly a way to read the text. There is a good amount of yelling at God–more subdued in My Name is Asher Lev, and overt in The Gift of Asher Lev. The tensions are great–though not in literal screaming or desperate illness.
How interesting that you would post this now. I’ve been thinking that I need to read more Montgomery (based largely on your posts about her) but now I’m conflicted. I’m currently reading “My Name is Asher Lev”( about 90% through it) after being introduced to Potok by Tim Mackie (The Bible Project) and reading “The Chosen” followed by “The Promise” last month. I’m about 90% through Asher Lev and had decided it was now time to start my yearly reading of LOTR. Now that will be postponed until I read “The Gift…” Tim Mackie said that reading “The Chosen” would change your life, and while I loved it, that may be a bit overstated, although it was by far the best of that set.
Thanks for the note, Kenny. For me, Potok is one of the “greats” (I put LOTR in that category, but not Lewis or Montgomery, though Lewis’ Till We Have Faces and Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon are close; likewise, Lewis’ Lion and Montgomery’s 1st Anne are classic children’s books). The Gift is a nice follow up … but try to sleep well!
Really appreciated this, Brenton. “The Chosen” is the first novel I taught as a college literature teacher, and I still love it. Even though Potok deals with a foreign world for Gentile Christians, the power of his novels for me comes from his variations on the universal theme of what do you do when you begin to believe in ways that don’t match your family’s beliefs? Or what happens when you realize you’ve been created differently from your family in some significant way? It’s an often-repeated story–even for those who stay within the faith but choose a different tradition (e.g., George MacDonald leaving his Calvinist upbringing, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s conversion to Catholicism). This makes me want to read “The Gift of Asher Lev.”
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Thanks Gary. The Chosen is a challenging and rewarding novel. I think our thoughts are similar in how we read the novels. And I think the experience (i.e., of MacDonald or Hopkins) is the defining moment today. We are an age of conversion. But we are also an age of tensions. As a teacher at a secular university, I feel it intensely.
Wow, now I have to read these. Not because I want to have dreams, but I just read “The Chosen” in August and loved it. I’ve been putting off reading “The Gift” because the first book was so intense. Now I need to read it and the Asher Lev books too. Potok is a great writer and his work has a weird effect on me–I am a Jew, but Messianic. (This has caused some tension in my family too, as you can imagine, although we’re hardly the ultra Hasidic or anything. It’s kind of like the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other…” I gave my rabbi a jokey-joke poem once:
You can be Hasidic
And bounce your head about
And you can be a Reform—
A nice guy filled with doubt
And Orthodox, Conservative
From Law will never stray
But if you’re Messianic,
Just stay the heck away!
BTW I would very much like to read the lecture on Asher Lev…or Gary Tandy’s thoughts on “The Chosen.” I love reading “the writings on the writings.”
Ha, yes, if that’s your experience, Asher’s story in both books will make some difference to you. I can only imagine the feeling of betrayal that religious Jews have when their loved ones follow Jesus of Nazareth.
The Asher Lev lecture is part of my class on C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Sex & Love at Signum University, which I think is purchasable as downloadable class.
You might be interested in the real-life story of a Jewish artist who drew the crucifixion of Christ and was charged with blasphemy here.
Thanks for that, Steve. I knew some of the story but that was told well.
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This does get me wanting to reread the first and go on to the second, which I knew of but have not yet read.
It also makes me suddenly think it would be worth pondering why two such wonderful and powerful novels about painters as My Name is Asher Lev and Joyce Cary’s The Horse Mouth are such books of deep and devastating sorrow, as well. (And where might Kipling’s The Light that Failed fit into this as group?)
Sorry: The Horse’s Mouth! (Of which, curiously, a great humorous, joyous film version was made by leaving things out.)
I do encourage reading these … if you don’t need to sleep. I don’t know Cary … I don’t know Kipling, though I will get there.
Just started something which turns out to be (so far, in good part) about a noble second son who via his wet nurse ends up learning a lot from her stone mason husband, shines as woodcarver, and aspires to design and build a church – The Heaven Tree (1960) by Edith Pargeter (later more famous as Ellis Peters), starting in medias res in 1200 in the Welsh marches (and the first book of a trilogy: The Green Branch (1962) and The Scarlet Seed (1963) are the further two volumes).
And so, down the years, having variously enjoyed Dorothy Sayers’ play, The Zeal of Thy House, William Golding’s The Spire, and tangentially Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Witch’s Brat (1970) and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), I find myself embarked on a book where medieval architecture plays a significant part…
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I could add Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris to that assortment, but somehow never finished it (having enjoyed various movie versions!)…
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Wow, once again, you have extended my reading list. How do you keep up … with yourself?
Once again, my comment disappeared…
I don’t know why that is, Dana. Can you remember a particular word in it so I can search my spam folder (though your name is not there).
One thing I do when posting online is CTRL-A, CTRL-C–copying the comment before posting it. I use these online boxes a few hundred times a week and have lost countless bits of info, so I always copy when working online. If in doubt, I think paste it into a doc and wait to see what happened to my post.
The internet is getting smarter about this, but it may be unsolvable.