My Name Is Asher Lev
In Chaim Potok’s novel My Name Is Asher Lev the title character Asher goes through the common struggles of a minority trying to find his identity in America. Adapting to Western culture often means Asher has to make a choice between the Western culture and his Jewish heritage. The choices that Asher often makes builds an ever-growing chasm between Asher and the community he was born to be a part of. Art is the ultimate symbol of Asher’s own identity and maturity. Asher’s drive to be a Western artist inevitably drives him away from his Jewish community. As a Jew, Asher is expected to follow in his father, Aryeh’s footsteps, and dedicate his life to the work of the Lord. However, living as Aryeh does is a future Asher is reluctant to embrace.
Instead, from a very young age, Asher aspires to be an artist. When Asher was only four and had just begun to draw, Aryeh chastises him for it and told him, “Your grandfather would not have liked you to waste so much time with foolishness” (12). Asher goes on to tell the reader that Aryeh “was indifferent to my drawing; he thought it something children did when they were very young and then outgrew” (12). From this time on, though Asher cares for his father, the distance between Asher and Aryeh grows. However, art is something that Asher never gave up. It is something he embraced with the help and partial support of his mother, Rikveh. Unfortunately, Rikveh fails to fully understand Asher’s art.
At one point in his life, she asks him why he does not draw pretty pictures. He tries to explain that art is not supposed to be pretty, that it is supposed to evoke emotions. Though Rikveh does not fully understand, she does support Asher’s decision to draw by allowing him to buy pencils and notebooks. In essence, Rikveh is feeding Asher’s need to find himself in the confusing world he lives in. In the world Asher lives in, everything must be done with the approval of the Rebbe. When the Rebbe decides Asher’s family is ready to move to Vienna, Asher tells everyone he does not want to go. Yudel Krinsky reminds Asher, “The Torah says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’” (103). Mrs. Rackover also tells Asher that he is “driving us all crazy with your pictures and your stubbornness” (115). Already, at the age of ten, Asher is being ostracized by his community.
Asher’s drive to find himself through his art is so powerful that he steals the paints and brushes that he cannot afford. Asher begins to hate his artistic gift, and he says, “The gift was making me ill and causing everyone around me to suffer – and I hated it, despised, it, wanted to burn and destroy it, felt toward it a mountainous rage” (148). After speaking to the Rebbe, Asher was officially given the permission to continue to study art. This marks a turning point in Asher’s life, the point in his life that invites him to enter the secular world as long as his life “is lived for the sake of heaven” (192). Soon Asher becomes the understudy of Jacob Kahn, who he had met in the waiting room of the Rebbe’s office. Jacob serves as Asher’s spiritual guide into the secular, pagan world. He encourages Asher to draw pictures of nude women and takes him to art exhibits for study.
During his time studying art, Aryeh and Rikveh are living a life of their own, a life that does not include Asher. Likewise, Asher’s life is becoming one of his own. While in Europe, Asher comes to an understanding of his father’s work and the work of his grandfather. In his apartment in Paris, he is forced to reach deep within himself for “memories of my own” (322). Asher realizes he has become separated from his community. However, for the first time in his life, he feels a close connection to his ancestors. He feels that he is to bring a balance to the world just as his ancestor had tried to do. After returning home, Asher visits his ill mentor, Jacob Kahn. Jacob commends Asher on his crucifixions that he has drawn. He tells Asher, “I sculptured a David. I am proud… I created a new David… A breathing David.” This alludes to Asher’s growth and maturity, for Asher has surpassed his teacher.
When Asher finally meets up with his parents, Aryeh tells him, “Wherever I travel now, there is always someone who knows your name. ‘Are you the father of Asher Lev, the painter?’ they ask me. It’s a very strange feeling. Asher Lev, the painter” (352-3). This alludes to a reversal of roles between Asher and his father. Several times in the first half of the book, people call Asher “Asher Lev son of Reb Aryeh Lev.” Now, Asher’s father is known for who Asher has become. Being an artist adds additional strain on the relationship between Asher and his father, and Asher and his community. Because of the stress put on the lives of all the people close to Asher, the Rebbe decides to send Asher to the yeshiva in Paris. He tells Asher that he is now alone. Throughout the novel, the drive to become a successful artist was also a quest for Asher to find himself. He was driven to become an artist by his gift, and this drive led Asher toward maturity and a sense of self.