My Name is Asher Lev

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Novel by Chaim Potok, 1972

My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok's third novel, is a story of the search for truth and of a way to communicate that truth. It is a story of the search for meaning and balance in a world that contains suffering. In the novel Potok continued to work in the bildungsroman tradition, with the main character choosing his place in the world as he matures from childhood to adulthood. As in his earlier work The Chosen , Potok's main character must confront Jewish tradition and make meaning of it in his own life.

As a young boy with a gift for drawing, Asher Lev is driven to his art in the face of his father's disdain: "He seemed awed and angry and confused and dejected, all at the same time." The boy struggles with his internal desire to draw what he sees, what he remembers, what he feels in the face of his community's fear that his gift is from the "Other Side" (that is, from the Gentiles) rather than from Ribbono Shel Olom (from Judaism). In Asher's journey to fulfill the promise of his gift, he connects to the journeys of his family. It is in this connection that he discovers that his art must speak the truth if it is to bring balance to a world with suffering.

Throughout his life Asher had heard stories of how his father's great-great-grandfather had transformed the estates of a Russian nobleman into a source of immense wealth. The nobleman, however, had persecuted his serfs and once burned down an entire village. Asher realizes that his ancestor's later travels had to do with atonement for an ability that led to suffering. His father's father, too, traveled, as does his own father. In coming to understand these journeys as methods of atonement, Asher finds his own meaning: "Now the man who had once been the child asked it again and wondered if the giving and the goodness and the journeys of that mythic ancestor might have been acts born in the memories of screams and burning flesh. A balance had to be given the world; the demonic had to be reshaped into meaning … Traditions are born by the power of an initial thrust that hurls acts and ideas across centuries." And so Asher reshapes the anguish and torment of his people into art: "No one says you have to paint ultimate anguish and torment. But if you are driven to paint it, you have no other way." Yet to paint this suffering, this torment, Asher must journey into another tradition to find the aesthetic mold necessary to convey the pain. This mold is the crucifix he has been studying for much of his life. The master of the universe whispers to him through the leaves of the trees: "Now journey with me, my Asher. Paint the anguish of all the world. Let people see the pain. But create your own molds and your own play of forms for the pain. We must give a balance to the universe."

The themes of balance and truth and journey in My Name Is Asher Lev are played out in the context of a post-Holocaust world. Although his mother wants him to paint pretty pictures, Asher cannot because he realizes that the world is not pretty; rather, it contains suffering, a suffering he must depict, a truth he must paint. When there is silence, where there is a fear of the truth, agony persists. Asher learns this from the Russian émigré Yudel Krinsky, who had been imprisoned in Siberia. The image of his cold, his suffering, is of interest to the young Asher. "Did Stalin send many people to Siberia?" Asher asks. When Yudel replies that he sent millions, Asher wants to know what the world did for this inhumanity. "Absolutely nothing," Yudel responds. It is this nothing, this silence, that Asher cannot allow in his own life, in his art. Risking everything, he must paint the truth. He must bring balance to the world, for such suffering has no meaning if it is kept quiet, if it is not communicated, not set out for all to see.

Once again, in My Name Is Asher Lev, Potok explores issues of confronting the past, confronting cultures, and understanding the self and others. It is as if Potok were saying to the readers of his work, "Journey with me."

—Jan M. Osborn