My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

Image result for reni massacreThe recommendation of this book came after watching the season finale of Shtisel, an Israeli drama about a family of Orthodox Jews living in modern-day Jerusalem. One of the characters, a twenty-something man named Akiva, loves painting and this often runs counter to the interests of his father, his work and his prospects of marriage. My Name is Asher Lev takes place 60 years ago in New York, and yet the Lev family could be next-door neighbors with the Shtisel family. Both feature characters with sidecurls and fringes, speaking Yiddish and Hebrew, observing Shabbat and the prescripts of the Talmud, and invoking often the name of the Lord—though one hears Ribbono shel Olom (Master of the Universe) in one and ha-Shem (the Name) in the other.

Art. One aspect of the book that I loved from the beginning and that continued to impress me throughout is how it gets into the mind of an artist, how he sees and how he creates. Anytime Asher was in front of a canvas or even started doodling with his finger, it was exciting. This reminded me of The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse which starts with a brilliant scene where a child is auditioning for a school and is taught how to play a fugue. As the child plays the violin and the instructor plays the piano, the fugue begins to unfold and so does the child’s wonder and understanding of what is being created. Potok accomplishes the same sort of writing with respect to painting and sculpture, and even manages to extend it through an entire novel without it ever losing its marvelous quality.

Image result for St. Jerome in His HermitageArt and faith. The central struggle of the book seems to be between the realms of art and faith as sources of ultimate meaning. I remember once going to someone’s house for a reading and discussion of one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I was thinking about how much effort people make to understand such poetry and how the benefit of such an endeavor is not always obvious, and so I asked the discussion leader, who was a learned man and a man of faith: “If we know the Scriptures are divinely inspired, whereas we never quite know where other literature will lead, why do we not spend all of our time reading and trying to understand Scripture?” Since I enjoy reading literature, I was hoping for a robust and concise defense of the practice, but he said, “Well, you can just read Scripture. That’s perfectly fine.” I was mildly devastated by the answer. Though I have never been censured for spending as much time as I do reading literature, I often wonder if it is more a distraction than an aid with respect to our ultimate end. I can’t help but be haunted by St. Jerome’s vision in which he hears the Judge say, “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.

Coming back to the novel, there is the similar tension, taken to greater extremes. On the one hand, you have Jewish characters who believe art is from the sitra achra (the Other Side) and completely at odds with fulfilling God’s will; at the same time, there are artists who hold the same conviction from the other side—that one cannot be an artist and hold on to anything else as good or true apart from that art. There was one little dialogue in the book that shines through this violent dichotomy and gives some hope:

What kind of silly question had I asked? Had I ever known of a great artist who was happy?

‘Rubens,’ I said.

He stared gloomily out the tall windows of the studio. Perhaps, he said. Anything was possible with the Baroque.

Image result for pieta florenceA stepping-stone. I love this book for the same reasons I like so many other books: it encourages me to learn more. As I was reading it, it was hard not to take continual breaks to read about all sorts of things: oil painting and watercolors, turpentine, cadmium red and cobalt blue, the Talmud, the Mishnah, the Gemorra, Picasso, Rubens, Robert Henri, the Florentine Pietà, the history of Judaism in Russia, the variety of Jewish sects, the training one receives in a yeshiva, the order of a Jewish liturgy, and so on.

I highly recommend this book to everyone.

[This book is #20 on my classics list.]

4 thoughts on “My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

  1. Maximilian, I have had the same question about Scriptures /Literature among my friends and I have also pondered about it myself. I too know that one of the reasons why I love this book is because that tension art/faith is in it. Likewise, I too loved the art theme and how is engulfed in a wonderfully written novel. I too researched and tried to learn about different things mentioned in the novel which I am ignorant about.
    I also thought a lot about the myth? of the tortured artist.
    In a nutshell, a very similar experience to which you mention.
    About the Scriptures / Books conflict, I know there’s some honest introspection and much prayer I need to engage in, and at the same time, when/if I choke my reading, my scripture reading suffers too. I don’t want to take the easy way out, and justify my own personal desire to read, but others who don’t read lots, won’t they also have to be aware of how they redeem time? (I mean this honestly, knowing that I may appear unbalanced but just yesterday, to give you an example, through books I was discussing with 2 friends, I reflected more about spiritual matters, and did more prayer than days when I have “just” read my Bible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have similar experiences! In my last two years of seminary, I started reading much more literature and was surprised by how much the formation faculty encouraged me to continue such reading, so long as it didn’t take away from my essential studies. Apart from the ideas one encounters, there is presentation of characters and scenarios that are otherwise unfamiliar, so that one is able to be sympathetic (or at least not shocked) when one encounters all the many kinds of people one finds in ministry. The way novels peer into the interior perception of characters gives a sort of demonstration of how a speech or action, though true and good in itself, can be perceived in wildly different manners by persons with different ears and minds. This makes one more careful in preaching.

      I only wish there more examples of such literary reading in the lives of the saints! Certainly Augustine’s study of rhetoric made him one of the most effective teachers in the history of the Church, and one sees the influence classical literature on the writings of St. Basil or St. Gregory Nazianzen. Cardinal Newman is interesting to me for this reason: He was widely read in England and even wrote novels, and yet the Church considers him among the Blessed.

      And yet I still think some day I will give myself completely to the study of Scripture, ancient languages and the Fathers…

      Liked by 1 person

      • What a pleasure to read your reply. I too like the aspect of character development that literature affords. I am eith you, for me too, it’s also a great way to understand others, sympathize with others. Reading also creates community. It keeps my moral imagination active, and forever growing.
        I can easily envision you at a later time just immersed in the Scriptures with more exclusivity.
        I don’t know what way my reading life will evolve, but I know it will keep evolving. (I have times of decluttering and redirecting, but that goes for many aspects of life.)
        Always a pleasure to read your posts and comments.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I meant unbalanced in how many books I read, specially to those who barely read anything outside the Bible. (Which can be something that goes well for them, or not, 😉


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