My Name Is Asher Lev
is a novel by American author and rabbi Chaim Potok. The book’s protagonist, Asher Lev, is a Hasidic Jewish boy who lives in New York City. Asher is described as being a loner, spending most of his time alone focusing on his artistic pursuits. His art proves to be a matter of controversy within his family as well as his community. The novel is a coming-of-age story that follows Asher as he matures and comes into his own, both as an artist and a Jew.
From a young age, Asher demonstrates extraordinary talent as a painter. He is the only child of a devout Orthodox couple Rivkeh and Aryeh Lev. His father is an emissary for the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Hasidic community. While his mother tends to nurture his artistic abilities, encouraging Asher to make pretty drawings for her, his father regards his son’s creative pursuits with disdain.
When Asher is six years old, his family receives news of the death of his uncle Yakov, his mother’s only brother. Yaakov was studying history and Russian affairs. They are told that he died in a car accident while he was traveling for the Rebbe, a religious leader. The death sends his mother into a tailspin, resulting in a prolonged depression. Asher’s father works and travels for the Rebbe, and Asher is often left alone with a housekeeper.
When Asher’s uncle Yitzchok, Aryeh’s brother, comes to visit, he takes note of his nephew’s drawings and proclaims him a young Chagall. He explains to Asher, who had never heard the name before, that Chagall is the greatest living Jewish artist, with Picasso being the greatest of all time. Uncle Yitzchok purchases one of Asher’s drawings, believing that it will be worth something someday. When Asher’s father finds out, he tells Yitzchok that he does not approve of this kind of encouragement of such a foolish hobby, and insists that he return the drawing.
As Asher’s mother sinks deeper into her depression, Asher is tormented with nightmares of his father’s great-great-grandfather. The vision of this mythic ancestor comes to represent Asher’s religious and cultural heritage and the accompanying burdens and expectations felt by the young boy. When Rivkeh’s depression finally begins to subside, she decides that she must continue her brother’s work and goes back to school to study Russian History.
Asher spends much of his time alone, and at this point, he stops drawing. He comes to view this period as the moment when his gift was taken away, and he vows to never allow it to happen again. After Stalin dies, travel within Europe becomes more accessible to Asher’s father. The Rebbe asks him to move to Vienna, but he refuses. Asher is fiercely attached to his neighborhood, and fears that if he loses the connections he has made there, he will lose his artistic abilities as well.
Aryeh grows increasingly impatient with his son’s artistic pursuits, and Rivkeh frequently finds herself caught in the middle. Aryeh spends much of his time in Vienna, while she stays with her son in Brooklyn, causing a rift in the family. Asher begins spending much of his time at museums, where he becomes acquainted with great art through the ages. He notices that many of the paintings depict images of Christianity, which intrigues him.
Asher goes to speak privately with the Rebbe, who recommends that he meet with Jacob Kahn, a successful artist in his seventies who is a nonpracticing Jew. Asher begins to study under the masterful artist. He learns that Jacob worked with Picasso in Paris and knows many of the century’s great artists. Jacob introduces Asher to gallery owner Anna Schaeffer. Her gallery handles Jacob’s art, and Asher learns that Anna will eventually introduce his own art to the world.
While Asher makes his first foray into the art world, his mother decides to leave for Vienna, charging his uncle Yitzchok with caring for the boy. Anna arranges for Asher’s first art show, billing him as a prodigy. His work is well received, which leads to more shows and sales of his artwork.
Following his graduation from college, Asher decides that he must go to Europe to study and paint. He travels by himself, first to Italy and then France. He settles in Paris and works there. Anna visits him to arrange for another New York show. She is particularly moved by two paintings Asher did of crucifixion scenes representing the struggle of his mother, torn between her husband and her son. Asher knows these paintings will cause great controversy within his family and the members of his community.
The impact of his paintings on his parents and the rest of his community is as Asher guessed it would be. The show is a critical success. A museum buys the two crucifixion paintings, but the rift now among Asher and his family and his religious community is irreparable. The Rebbe tells Asher that he must leave. Asher understands, accepting what is essentially an exile. He leaves for Europe, taking with him the memory of his parents watching him from their window.