Chaim Potok’s Asher Lev is a dual being trapped inside a little boy. On one side there is the family’s beliefs, the religious traditions and his great ancestor role-model, who Asher is expected to take after, if not surpass. On the other, there is art encompassing the artist’s emotions and portraying them in form more beautiful than anything else Asher has access to. These sides clash almost throughout “My Name is Asher Lev”, but even though those close to him teach, reinforce and often force religion and traditions on to him, art eventually prevails.
Asher does not make the inevitable choice alone and even then there is no single choice to make. Instead, he squirms around the issue until his personality is fully formed with the help of the people around him, specifically, his mother and father, his mentor Jacob Kahn. The personality that he does form seems to be the best of both worlds in a world where dualism rules all. The first agent of change in Asher was his mother. Throughout the novel, she did her best to stay between her husband and her son, but still enforce Asher’s abilities.
If not for her interest and love towards Asher’s drawings as well as their trips to the museum and her buying most of the art supplies, Asher would not have had the support he needed to go on instead of giving in to his heritage. Not only that, but Rivkeh was also Asher’s muse. She was often the focus of most of his artwork, even being the centerpiece in his (for now) magnum opus – the two paintings of the crucifixion. In addition, she also gave Asher something to reach for: “You should make the world pretty, Asher” (Potok, 30), because at that time, Asher’s drawings were the only beauty Rivkeh saw in life.
Possibly the most obvious push for Asher was Jacob Kahn. Not only an art mentor, Kahn also shared his philosophy and views of religion. However, Asher took only the techniques to heart. He understood and acknowledged Kahn’s viewpoint, but his silence during most of their discussions did not seem to be of a thoughtful nature. In the long run, Kahn did not seem to have much impact on the boy’s morality and he soon started focusing more and more on producing art instead of religious meditation.
Asher was not only influenced by Kahn’s philosophy, but was also exposed to a world previously unknown to him: “Asher Lev, you are entering the wrong world” (Potok, 184). Asher did not take to the new world. He was a spirit, existing in the artists’ world, but not being part of it. He was his own man, the same as his philosophy was his own, if a mix of the ones he’s been exposed to and the ones which he acknowledged as being true. An unlikely force of change was Asher’s father – Aryeh. Throughout the novel, he was nothing short of an impenetrable wall for Asher’s ambition.
Only a few glimmers of hope came up, when it seemed like he would be willing to accept his son’s gift or, at least tolerate it, but something always came up between them and their relationship fell back to where it was or often even further. At the beginning of the story, it seemed like Aryeh’s distaste and disapproval of Asher’s drawings would be a forbidden fruit for the boy and actually make him want to evolve his gift further, but that was not the case. Every time his father scolded him, Asher compared his abilities with something that he perceived to come from the Other side, or abhorrent.
However, Aryeh has a special role in the novel and that is comparison with a hint of hypocrisy. The reader first found out that Aryeh worked in an office arranging something on the telephone, often in another language. It later became apparent that Aryeh hated what he did and wished he could be out there, physically talking to people and helping them that way, instead of crammed up in an office building: “I should be there, not here. How can I spend my life talking on the telephone? Who can sit like this all day? (Potok, 29). It was also made clear that he took the job upon request from the Rebbe. In fact, most of the family’s important future decisions were made by the Rebbe. Where Aryeh’s and Asher’s situations start to seem familiar is that both men were doing something they loathed on the account of the Rebbe (as well as most people, in Asher’s case). They both were expected to serve the Ribono Shel Olom in the way they were prescribed to and they both disliked it, wishing they could act upon their true calling.
The difference lies in the fact that Aryeh was eventually allowed to act on his wish at the price of hurting his family by being so far away, while Asher hurt his family by disobeying their wishes and in most cases, being near. Asher does not make a complete transformation. Unlike what Aryeh believes, Asher does not seem like he will ever hang his kippah as he does still holds on to the traditions he has grown up with. His conflict was never with his beliefs but with what the ones closest to him perceived a proper Jewish boy to be.
Therefore, Asher does not leave his home without any regard to his faith. He accepts the Rebbe’s wishes and does not hold any grudges; he simply does what the hierarchy demands, once more, not unlike when he was a child, leading to question whether Asher transformed at all. Asher Lev in Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev does the impossible – he fused his religious beliefs and familial values with the artistic world of the Other side. He lives his life through his art by producing his deepest feelings onto canvas from the childish drawings of flowers, to his mother, to his painting of the crucifixion.
The way he was taught and treated by those around him eventually shaped who he was, but instead of religion being a choice, it became an integral part and instead of art being a choice either, it turned into a goal. Asher never had a crippling choice to make, nor did he transform. He simply grew up with the values he was instill either by his family or by God and even though there were the few who pointed him in certain directions, he would never have turned out any different than he was.
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