Year of First Publication: 1972
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2003
Number of Pages: 369
Publisher: Anchor Books
Sub-Genres: Jewish Literature, Bildungsroman
Subjects: Art, Hasidism, Families, Mothers, Fathers
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I would put all the world into light and shade, bring life to all the wide and tired world. It did not seem an impossible thing to do.
— Chapter 1, pg. 36
My Name Is Asher Lev is the story of a young Jewish artist caught between his love of art and his obligations to his community. As the descendant of many celebrated Hasidic teachers, Asher is expected to follow in their footsteps and devote his life to the service of a spiritual leader known as the Rebbe. Instead, he spends his time studying and creating things he has been taught to deplore. After a master artist takes the boy under his wing, Asher must decide whether to pursue what he believes to be true or to let his people define truth for him.
To begin with, this is a beautiful novel, on many levels. The writing itself is vivid and poetic without being too over-the-top, and Potok’s ability as a storyteller is formidable. I especially love the way he weaves together elements from Asher’s own life and from the lives of his friends, family, and even distant ancestors in order to tell Asher’s story. As I later found out, one of the main features of Hasidic life is an interconnectedness between people; Potok brings this idea to bear marvelously in his novel.
Though Potok is a slow, plodding writer, it is amazing how much he can say in only a paragraph, or even just a few lines (when he wants to, that is). Here’s an author who gets to know his characters inside and out and is able to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes even in just a snippet of narration or conversation.
Another thing that I appreciated about this book was its even-handed portrayal of Hasidism. A story like this could have easily turned into a hit piece on how backwards conservative religious minorities are; Potok does nothing of the sort. Even though Asher disagrees with some of his fellow Hasidic Jews, he never turns his back completely on his faith, expecting instead to “live and let live.” As it turns out, Potok himself was raised by Hasidic parents and, like his protagonist, he bristled at the strictures his family’s faith placed upon him. How refreshing to find an author who can disagree with people without attacking them!
Of course, the book was not without its faults. There were a few places where the story seemed to meander needlessly. The dialogue also seemed a bit stilted at times, particularly during a discussion about art between Asher and his father. The author certainly gets his point across in these moments, but in a less subtle way than I would have liked.
My last complaint entails a few spoilers: towards the end of the book, while a grown-up Asher is working in Paris, Potok introduces a new character (we never learn her name) with whom Asher falls in love. Later, Asher’s mother Rivkeh informs him that if he wants to marry the girl, he has his parents’ blessing to do so. After that, nothing happens. What might have turned into a subplot goes nowhere. I can’t think of a reason why the author might have introduced that character, unless it was either to hint that Asher might have something of a life outside of the community he grew up in or to set up the sequel Potok would eventually write. Either way, I’m not sure if the introduction of that character was really necessary.
Its imperfections, though, still can’t diminish the power that this book has. My Name Is Asher Lev is not an easy read, nor will it suit all tastes, but it is profound, beautiful, and strangely engrossing. As soon as I finished this novel, I immediately added Potok’s The Chosen to my “To Be Read” list. I’m looking forward to reading much more from this author in the future.
P.S. Anyone trying to read this book who isn’t familiar with Jewish culture, customs, etc. will find this glossary invaluable. While it doesn’t cover all of the Hebrew and Yiddish terms used in the book, it is the most comprehensive list I’ve found yet.