The Manhattan art world meets Brooklyn’s Hasidic community
By Alex Hansen (’17)
“I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy…Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. I was demonic and divine.”
The minute the reader opens up the pages of Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev is the minute the reader becomes entangled with the intricacies of exploring a talent in a strictly religious environment. Told in first person flashback, Asher Lev takes us through the journey of how he learned to embrace his fantastic artistic talents. Asher Lev, son of Aryeh Lev, a stubborn man devoted to spreading the Rebbe’s teachings, and Rivkeh Lev, a fragile woman shook with grief, grows up in the Brooklyn Hasidic community.
From a young age, Asher understands that his artistic gift is something those around him are not proud of. He fears his prodigal talents are truly from the “sitra achra”, or “The Other Side.” Chaim Potok does a fantastic job of juxtaposing Asher’s thoughts and memories of conversations with those who influenced Asher to be the person he became. The book highlights his struggle between his love of his own art and his religious obligations to his fellow Jews, especially his parents and the Rebbe. Throughout the novel, his artistic mentor reminds him of his obligation to only one person: himself: “As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it.”
The Hasidic community that Potok taps into believes in the interconnectedness of all the Jews and all people. Potok brings this interconnectedness into how he wrote Asher Lev’s story, elements of flashback, conversation, and dreams all flow together to create a world in which the reader can get lost. It is remarkable how with one word or a phrase, his stream-of-consciousness paragraphs can take on wholly different meanings. There were slow parts, sometimes entire pages that could have been discounted from the novel, whereas some parts seemed to progress the plot too rapidly.
Overall, Potok presents a balanced view of Hasidim and isn’t too critical of the community in which he was raised by Hasidic parents and where he grappled with questions of his faith. His ability to keep readers on the edge of their seats throughout the entire novel is admirable. The book is not easily understood but if one takes time to truly explore its pages, the experience will be extremely engrossing. Pick up this book for yourself to deeper explore the beauty of appreciating different ways of living.