Review: The Gift of Asher Lev

the gift of asher lev

The Gift of Asher Lev, Chaim Potok. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Summary: Asher Lev, exiled from a Brooklyn Hasidic community over a scandalous artwork portraying crucifixion, returns after twenty years with his family for the funeral of his uncle, only to find that he is being called upon to make a far greater sacrifice than the pain of exile.

I first became acquainted with the work of Chaim Potok in the 1980’s. His novels were set in the Ladover Hasidic Jwish community of New York. One of these was My Name is Asher Lev and describes the awakening of a Jewish boy in this community to his artistic gifts, and the conflicts with his beliefs this raised, culminating in the scandal of painting a crucifixion scene set in Brooklyn as a portrayal of pain and suffering in the world. For this he was exiled to France, where he pursues an increasingly successful art career while remaining an observant Ladover, heeding the teaching of its venerable Rebbe.

Twenty years have passed. He is married to Devorah, who after several miscarriages bore Rochelah and Avrumel. They now live in Saint Paul, near Nice where he has his studio, and a few close friends. On the heels of a show in Paris, scathingly panned by critics as “repeating oneself,” he receives news of the sudden death of his Uncle Yitzchok died–the uncle who had encouraged his artistic career from buying his first drawing at age six onward. He and his family return to Brooklyn for the funeral, and a reunion with parents and a community he hadn’t seen in years.

At the funeral, attended by thousands, because Yitzchok had been involved extensively in efforts to fund the Ladover movement, the Rebbe makes a cryptic remark, a kind of riddle, than runs through the book. “I say this as a message from the departed and from your Rebbe. I say to you: Three will save us. The third is our future. Do you hear me, my people? Three will save us. The third is our future.” On the minds of many is who will succeed the Rebbe if Messiah does not come first. He has no children. Asher’s father Aryeh is the leading candidate. But the third?

A week’s stay extends to five months at the plea of parents who want to know their grandchildren, and a Rebbe, who takes an unusual interest in Asher, and his son. Meanwhile, Asher’s life becomes more complicated when he learns not only that his uncle had assembled a valuable and unusual art collection, a scandal to his sons, and that he had designated Asher as trustee of the collection, with any proceeds from it to be returned to the Ladover community. His cousins, especially Younkel fight this and there is a painful estrangement.

While Asher contends with these matters and seeks inspiration for his art, his wife and children discover Brooklyn as a place where they thrive. Devorah finds in her mother-in-law the mother she lost in the Holocaust. Rochelah, a perceptive but asthmatic young girl flourishes at summer camp, as does Avrumel at day camp. While Asher longs for a return to his work in Saint Paul, his family becomes more and more rooted in Brooklyn, and close to Asher’s parents. Aryeh and Avrumel spend time together around the Rebbe’s office.

While back in France to look after affairs, including help to the widow of an assistant who died in a bombing, Asher begins to understand the riddle and that his son is the third and that he is being asked (even in a vision of the Rebbe and Uncle Yitzchok) to offer his son Avrumel to succeed his father when the day came as Rebbe, and to be raised in the Brooklyn Yeshiva. Brooklyn represents community to his family. To him, it is a place, once exiled from, that is impossible to return to if he is to answer his artistic call. To many in that community he is suspect, even a devil. He is wracked with this dilemma, losing sleep but sketching furiously.

Chaim Potok is one of a handful of writers I’ve found who writes with what I would call a “quiet” voice. Alan Paton is another. There is a kind of stillness as if the writer is listening for how the story will unfold to relate it to us, a stillness with depth, where momentous things may occur in the quiet unfolding of the narrative.

In this voice he explores the tensions of love and honor and estrangement in families, and in a religious community. What does it mean to be faithful to one’s gift as an artist when it causes so much pain in one’s community? What does it mean to observe a community’s teaching and care for it when it is uncomfortable with you. In a world of moral clarity, of black and white, how does one deal with life’s messiness and ambiguities, from the horror of the Holocaust to the unsolvable conflict between the future foreseen for his son, his love for his wife and daughter, and one’s own artistic calling.

This work, published in 1990, was one I missed as I moved on to other writers. I’m thankful to have discovered it, and to be reminded of the richness of Potok’s portrayal of this religious community and the challenges faced by the deeply orthodox of any faith in a secular society.