I could swear I attempted Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev way back in college. It would’ve been on one of those long Saturday afternoons, probably in the summer, when I had leisure to walk the eight blocks to the library.
I couldn’t take the dull brown sobriety of Potok’s story world. I probably needed more boy-meets-girl back then.
But this time around, I slipped right into the story.
Thank you, sorrows and complexities of life, for expanding my literary tastes.
Asher Lev grows up in 1950s Brooklyn among orthodox Jews. As soon as he can hold a pencil, he takes up drawing. He draws when he looks out his window. He draws when he sits on a park bench. He draws in waiting rooms, on the subway, and at his school desk. He draws as compulsively as I check Facebook.
What good is this gift? his mother wants to know. “Will you draw me something pretty?” No, many of Asher’s drawing are not pretty. He sketches exactly what he sees, what he feels. This disturbs his mother’s world because she (and probably you and I) copes by not seeing or feeling.
What good is this gift? his father wants to know. Mr. Lev travels the world, rescuing Jews from danger. Stalin is alive, arresting doctors and intellectuals, if not killing them outright. Some storekeepers in Asher’s world land in Brooklyn straight out of Siberia, often due to Mr. Lev’s work. The man saves lives, thus helping the Rabbi save souls. “So, my son, when will you grow out of this drawing business?”
What good is this gift? his uncle wants to know. Well, actually, Asher’s uncle warms up to the idea, buying an early Lev masterpiece (drawn at age 7 or 8) and later renovating an attic into a studio for Asher.
What good is this gift? the rabbi wants to know. The rabbi is a wise man. He knows that God works in many ways. He introduces Asher to Jacob Kahn, an established 70-something Jewish artist.
Nourishing Asher’s gift could cost the boy his faith. It needn’t be so, but the risk is there. Kahn is no longer observant, but where else can the rabbi find excellence to guide the boy?
Drawn into Kahn’s world, Asher observes a master at work:
He drew a room with a window facing a sloping hill and rooftops. He drew a short man painting strange faces and figures onto a huge canvas. He drew a tall man painting square and rectangular objects onto a small canvas. He drew himself carving sharp wedges into a block of stone. He seemed lost in his drawing. I sat and watched him work. His huge hand grasped the pen and gave life to the lines that flowed from it. I saw his street alive, saw its shops, its cafes, its poverty, its bitter winters, its artists. I do not remember how many drawings of that street he made that day. But before he was done I felt the street as part of my own parkway, its trees and benches and lampposts part of what I saw each day as I gazed through the window of my living room onto the world I wanted to create anew with line and color and texture and shape.
Kahn, guiding the boy to the museums, introduces Asher Lev to the Great Ones, to “centuries of Byzantine and Western crucifixions . . . The development of structure and form and expression . . . . I saw crucifixions all the way home and dreamed of crucifixions all through the night.
“I told him the next day that I did not think I wanted to see any more crucifixions. He became angry.
“’Asher Lev, you want to go off into a corner somewhere and paint little rabbis in long beards? Then go away and do not waste my time.’”
Asher must decide if he can pay the price of greatness. It’s a big world out there beyond his yeshiva-boy life. Should he venture into it? Who will it hurt if he does?
You may find this Jewish glossary useful as you read.