Summary: Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and he has a gift for art. But Hasidic Jews do not value art. When Asher is young, his drawings are considered a foolish waste of time. As he grows older, his paintings are seen as unholy because an understating of art necessitates an understanding of the nude and the Christian crucifixion. Asher must try to navigate the two different worlds of art and religion and convince his community that it is possible to live in both.
Review: Chaim Potok is a visionary author whose gift lies in telling compelling stories that touch the heart of what it means to be human. In My Name Is Asher Lev, the main conflict is often described as being between a boy’s devotion to art and his devotion to faith, but the question is not as simple as whether he should paint or whether he should pray. Asher believes it is possible to do both, but he is almost alone in his opinion, and a number of tensions grow up between him and his family, him and his teacher, and him and the Jewish community.
In a different book, the protagonist might come to some conclusion about “being true to himself” and break away from the past and the people “holding him back.” There is no such simple resolution here, and the subtlety and complexity of the means by which Asher tries to navigate and meld his two worlds makes the book ring truer than a dramatic break would. Asher’s heartache and his attempts to hold his life and family together indicate that there are things more important than pursuing a successful career. (Modern society might say more important than “following one’s dreams.”) In My Name is Asher Lev, fulfillment cannot come from making selfish decisions, and that is a truth most readers will recognize. Besides, there is no positive concept of “answering only to oneself” when the presence of God is so important in one’s life.
Asher cannot completely please anyone. He tries but cannot successfully explain the distinction between a naked woman and a nude to his father. He upsets his teacher by hesitating over whether to paint and then display his nudes. Ultimately he needs to carve a unique identity for himself, but he learns to base his decisions not on what will make people happy (including himself), but on what will be most meaningful. Have you ever known a happy artist? his teacher once asks him. My Name Is Asher Lev, then, is a story not about a man who finds happiness but a man who finds fulfillment. Of all the things a book can be about, it is about one of the most important: living a meaningful life.
Sequel: The Gift of Asher Lev