Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Name is Asher Lev

I will finish this book today. I have read it on and off and it has taken quite some times to complete. I do not necessarily want it to end though it sickens me a bit to read it. It borders on mental illness and for periods of time enters it; a dark world that is uncomfortable to enter. This is a story of broken tradition; of the creation of a new one, but it is also full of darkness, obsession, illness, and sanity.

What is it like to have a gift such as art consume your every breath? I understand Asher's father. He wants his son to study; to study in a way that gives respect even to the books and the desk one studies on. I get that; I even agree with that. Asher does not. He only understands that he pains his father with his art; his all consuming desire to paint and paint some more.

The family is devout. They keep kosher and pray and sing on Shabbot. Slowly and steadily Asher moves away from that for the sake of his art. The reader feels sad for Asher; for having a father who does not understand him; to move toward the secular world, but Asher angers me. It angers me that although he is a brilliant artist, he is also a rebel with a cause that I don't believe justifies his actions. Why must his gift of art consume/dominate every moment of his life? Why must art also dominate and suffocate the love for his family? It is an extreme and extremes worry me.

Asher's father is a man well known for his tireless work to build yeshivas for Russian Jews who can longer live safely in Russia. His job demands travel; is unsafe and fully exhausting had it not been for the morale of it all.

Asher travels only for his art. I do not understand this. There is more to travel for. Asher meets a man on his travels in Florence, a man who knew and worked with his father. The man shows Asher the yeshiva (school) his father built. Asher asks if he can help this man deliver any messages to other yeshivas as he travels on to Rome. It is as if he wants to be part of the story that his father wrote; the book he closed as a child and tossed aside.

Potok writes abruptly in this novel; he does not seem to have time or energy for frivolities which is in contrast to the art Asher so loves. It comes off poetic in a hue of dark gray. I read this in a fog Potok intended the reader to walk through. There is darkness here not so different than life. Though the reader's life differs, it is also the same. As one finds a passion so one finds separation from something somewhere. It is wise to read this book, but you may not find peace here.

At one point Asher settles into a studio in France for a few years after the leading Rabbi asks him to move away from the Jewish community in Brooklyn because of his secular art. He receives a gift from a woman there who owns a gallery. She gives him a beret, but he never wears it, he only wears the fisherman's hat he has always worn. He is his own person. Should that be celebrated? Is it necessary? He moved away from his faith but does not move into any other world either. I begin to like Asher here. He is no longer refusing his father and taking art's outstretched hand. He begins to stand between them without nervousness; he builds a home there. He begins to take in what people say and decides whether it is truth. Years ago he would simply believe.

At the end of my own words, I leave you Potok's...

"Away from my world, alone in an apartment that offered me neither memories nor roots, I began to find old and distant memories of my own, long buried by pain and time and slowly brought to the surface now by the sight of waiting white canvases and by the winter emptiness of the small Parisian street. It was time now for that. I had painted my visible street until there was nothing left of it for me to put onto canvas. Now I would have to paint the street that could not be seen" (My Name is Asher Lev, 322).

No one can tell me Chaim Potok does not know how to write. He writes so beautifully even in darkness it is quite amazing to witness. I thought I was done with Asher for a while, but I fooled myself. I am now in the middle of "The Gift Of Asher Lev" and will write about it soon. I wanted to try to move away from Potok for a bit, certain I would return, but I guess I am not ready to and so I read on.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like he struggled between finding independence and keeping familial ties. I can relate to this in some ways, minus the crazy art interest. It sounds like a good read, except right now I can't imagine ready anything dark. I need all the uplifting I can get. =)