My Name is Asher Lev is the story of a young boy whose gift for drawing leads him on a course that sets him apart from family and friends. The book belongs to the classic literary genre of the Bildungsroman, or novel of education, in which a young person, through struggle with his environment, learns about the ways of the world and gains an identity.
In this novel, the Hasidic community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn forms the backdrop for Asher Lev’s journey into manhood. For young people living in California in the nineties, that world is as exotic and distant as the eastern European shtetl, and shares some features with it. The strenuousness of the Orthodoxy, the close-knit family structure, the life of the yeshiva, and the ubiquitous presence and influence of the Rebbe will need to be explained to students. The text assumes knowledge of the origins of Hasidism and the fate of Hasidic communities during World War II and in the Soviet Union, and these are discussed in the student guide.
Asher’s father’s work for the Rebbe on behalf of Soviet Jewry will require some historical background, which is only hinted at in the text. Discussion of the Doctors’ Plot and the Night of the Murdered Poets can be useful lessons to bring to class, and the bare outline of that history is provided in the student guide.
The materials in this guide are designed to make teaching My Name Is Asher Lev easier and more rewarding. The contents include Understanding the Novel, Examining the Themes in a Jewish Context, Questions to Consider, A Brief Sketch of the Hasidic Movement, Post-War Jewish Life in the Soviet Union, a Glossary, and Suggested Sources of Additional Information. The students’ guide does not include Understanding the Novel, and Examining the Themes in a Jewish Context.
Understanding the Novel
The book centers on the growing separation between Asher and his family and community as he devotes himself to his painting. In discussing the book with students, it is important that the nature of this conflict be understood.
In relating how Asher has alienated his family and community, you might focus on the following dimensions of his activity:
His choice of vocation
Asher’s devotion to painting is at odds with the values of his family and community:
Painting human figures is not a tradition among religious Jews. As Asher’s mother says bluntly, “Painting is for goyim. Jews don’t draw and paint.”
Painting distracts Asher from Torah study (which his community sees as the proper way for a boy to spend his time), and that is most sharply delineated by the episode in which he draws a picture on a page of the Chumash.
Asher’s absorption in his art turns him away from the service to the Rebbe and Russian Jews that the other members of his family have accepted as their responsibility.
His choice of subjects
If the practice of spending his time painting sets Asher against his family and tradition, the subject matter he chooses makes it much worse:
By painting nude women (first copying pictures in the museum, and subsequently using live models in Jacob Kahn’s studio), he violates the religious standards of his community, which emphasize modesty as an important virtue.
By exhibiting paintings of nudes, he increases the distance between himself and his parents. His father would like to support Asher by attending one of his exhibitions, but expresses repeatedly that he is unable to because of the Hasidic insistence on modesty.
Asher’s Brooklyn Crucifixion paintings are even more problematic than the paintings of nudes:
In representing his own parents prominently in the painting (so realistically that they are recognized by onlookers at the opening), Asher makes them unwilling spectacles, bringing negative public attention to them and the Hasidic community.
In adopting the crucifixion to express the anguish of his home life, Asher uses an image which is disturbing to many Jews who associate it with Christian antisemitism. This image has painful connotations for Asher’s father, who feels that “the crucifixion had been in a way responsible for his own father’s murder on a night before Easter decades ago” (p. 366).
Disobedience and Disrespect
Hasidic children are expected to be obedient to their parents and to the Rebbe. Whereas his parents have agreed to take on tasks which the Rebbe assigns to them, Asher Lev repeatedly acts against the wishes of his parents, teachers, and religious leader. This independence puts him at odds with virtually everyone at home and at the yeshiva. It is not because of The Brooklyn Crucifixion itself, but because of the damage that Asher has done to his relations with people in the Ladover community that the Rebbe sends him away to Paris at the book’s end.
Examining the Themes in a Jewish Context
Many of the themes introduced in the book (e.g., conflicts between the individual and the family, the individual and the group, the artist and society) are ones found frequently in literature. What is striking about My Name Is Asher Lev is the specifically Jewish context in which these issues are developed. Like Danny Saunders in The Chosen, Asher follows a path in conflict with the values of his Jewish family and community.
The other members of Asher’s family are not only deeply observant but give of themselves immeasurably for the sake of fellow Jews. Both his grandfather and his uncle died while helping Russian Jews. Asher is told by the mashpia that his grandfather and father believed that “All the Jewish people are one body and one soul….If part of the body hurts, the entire body hurts&emdash;and the entire body must come to the help of the part that hurts” (p. 132). This explanation echoes the teaching in the Talmud that all Jews are responsible for each other (Shebuoth 39a).
Asher is not driven by these values, as it is art that has captured his imagination and energies. His desire for artistic expression seems to draw him away from Jewish observance and Jewish concerns. It draws him out of his home and his close-knit Hasidic neighborhood, first to Manhattan and its museums, and then to the New England coast, where he spends entire summers with his mentor Jacob Kahn. Finally, it brings him to Europe. His father travels to Europe to set up institutions of Torah learning; Asher spends most of his time there studying representations of Mary and Jesus.
Is it inevitable that the path of art is a path away from Judaism? Such a thesis is promoted by the book Asher’s mother gives him, which states that “every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race.”
Asher himself, however, doesn’t embrace this universalism. He continues to regard himself as an observant Jew. He is drawn to the crucifixion as a central element in his painting not because he is sympathetic to Christianity, but because he believes that the Jewish artistic tradition does not have a sufficient vocabulary with which he can express his feelings. He elects to live with these contradictions. As he imagines telling his uncle (with little hope of being understood), “You will see strange crucifixions painted by a Ladover Hasid who prays three times a day and believes in the Ribbono Shel Olam and loves his parents and the Rebbe” (p. 341).