A review of My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok.
This book is narrated in the first person by the fictional title character, who grows up as a Hasidic Jew. The author invented this particular Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but we can take it as an accurate picture of Hasidic life. The book is a great read if for no other reason than that we get a window into the tight-knit and deeply conservative Hasidic community.
I strongly recommend this book. It is a work of literary fiction, so I won’t bother trying to place it for you in a readily recognizable genre. Enjoy it for the craftsmanship, the unwasted words building one atop the other, sentence by sentence building a world and drawing you into it.
I was almost a hundred pages in when I paused to put on my author hat and think about the construction of what I was reading. What made it so compelling? It wasn’t the plot, certainly. At that point little had happened, plot-wise. An observant Jewish family, somewhat insular in its community despite its location in Brooklyn. There’s a telling scene in which Asher at age 13 adventurously takes the subway uptown. His sidelocks and hat and black-and-white clothes draw more and more looks, the further he goes from Brooklyn. All that is really happening at that point in the book is this boy growing up, feeling the first stirrings of tension between his “gift,” a talent for painting, and the expectations of his family and religious community.
This tension is the driving conflict in the book. I won’t say more about its resolution or irresolution. Instead, I want to say something about the premise. The premise is that this “gift” is a burden, too, and it must drive out all other human considerations before it. Potok entirely buys into a thoroughly modern perspective of the artist as a god. He has a responsibility to develop his “gift,” and this responsibility is so strong, so compelling, that it must be pursued at all costs. All costs.
George Bernard Shaw wrote:
The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.
Think about the implications. Irresponsibility is the mark of genius? Beethoven famously refused to bow for a princely cortege on grounds that the ancien’ regime must fade away. But that is only half the story. The other half is that it was to be replaced, this time by a nobility of artists. Like Beethoven. A meritocracy, you might think, and therefore an improvement, but was it really?
This new aristocracy is more about attitude, than merit. We wouldn’t hesitate to crown Beethoven as a genius and therefore a member of this new aristocracy, but most of its members are would-be strivers, geniuses in their own mind only. The attitude is what matters. Put on a black beret, dangle the Gauloise from your lips, smirk knowingly, walk on air a few inches above your fellows. You’re in. Bryonic flair, Whitmanesque excess. These count more than the work product.
Potok could be trying to examine this premise, I suppose. I am after all, writing about it now. But I don’t think that’s what he is doing. I don’t think it was Potok’s intent to really question this artist imperative. It is a given; essential as a plot device.
Still, irony within ironies, Potok is a genius. His art is writing, but guess what? It’s painting, too. Potok was himself a painter of not inconsiderable talent, and he even painted a scene like that which is pivotal in the book.