Sunday, May 7, 2017

Book Review: My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

What price will you pay to be true to yourself? What price will you pay to let your child be who he/she is? Where should our loyalties lie first? Loyalty to faith vs. loyalty to family vs. loyalty to self. These are all themes explored in Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev. I first read this book almost a year ago. I felt emotionally wrung out by the end of it (in the best way), and didn't have the power to review it. Even now, I know I'm going to struggle to find the right way to talk about it. This post is going to go through many iterations before it finally makes it to print. There's so much I could say, but this is one book I don't want to spoil by saying too much.

I came into this book completely blind: I had no idea what it was about. I wanted to read something by Chaim Potok, and fortunately chose this as my first foray into his books.

My Name is Asher Lev is the coming of age story of a young Ladover Hasiddic Jewish boy, Asher Lev, who is driven by his need to make art. He needs it like he needs air to breathe. He feels about art the way his father feels about his faith. When he is young, this isn't a problem, since the young are allowed to be foolish. But as he grows and the passion grows with him, it becomes a problem with his parents and with his community, who say that a Hassidic Jewish boy should be pouring all his passion into studying Torah. To his father and the Hassidic community, art has no value. At its heart, this is the story of a boy who's passion/vocation for art run counter to his religion's dictums and mores, and the impossibilities of bridging that gap. But it is also the story of a family and the relationship between parental expectation and a child's need to live their own life, on their own terms.

Asher is an art prodigy, and as such is a slave to his art. That's something average Jills like me can't fully understand. But I feel fortunate that I got to live it vicariously through Asher. For a brief while, I got to be inside the mind of a genius. It was exhilarating, and depressing. I love how Potok was able to show the price of genius that those who have it agree to pay, not because they want to, but because they have to; they have no choice, else they die inside. It really captured what I think must be the euphoria and despair that live in symbiosis inside the artist.

Chaim Potok's writing in My Name Is Asher Lev is quietly breathtaking. It's subtle and complex, with a deftness to his turn of phrase that is magical: simple, powerful writing.  I feel like it is his literary masterpiece. I have not read another of his books, so far, that I like nearly as well. (Sadly, even this book's sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, didn't have the deftness, caliber, or emotional impact of this book. I decided to next tackle The Chosen, because it's probably Potok's most famous, and widely read book, but I was disappointed in it.)

I'm wondering - and this is pure speculation on my part- if Potok felt dissatisfied on some level with his first book, The Chosen, which has very similar themes and situations, and he felt the need to revisit the same themes from Danny's perspective. But since Potok himself was also a painter, and knew the world of art, he decided to make the story about an art prodigy instead of an intellectual prodigy like Danny was.  My Name is Asher Lev was the kind of book I'd hoped The Chosen would be and wasn't. It has a depth of thematic exploration and nuance that never gets fully explored in The Chosen.

(My 13 year old came upon me sobbing -and I am not given to sobbing, as a general rule- during a particular, emotional scene in the middle part of the book, and wondered if she might read it. I am strangely reluctant for her to read it, not because of anything I object to in the book, but because I think this is the kind of book that's "wasted" on the young. She doesn't have enough life experience to grasp the depth of the themes, and I want her to read it for the first time when she's ready for it. But of course, ultimately that is not my decision.)

There are so, so many themes to explore in depth, but I won't, here. Go read the book.

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