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.