I used to read and re-read this novel over and over again, especially during my college years. It always seemed to be the one I’d pick up when procrastinating or killing time around finals time. Always fascinated with artists and how they each discover a unique personal vision, I felt that this book captured the artist’s internal development and anguish so well. It also dealt with a religious subject that I knew very little about but found very intriguing. It captured the angst of a person responding to his innate passion as an evolving creator while also receiving powerful spiritual messages and under constant societal and familial pressure.
Asher is the only child of orthodox Hasidic parents whose livelihood revolves around service to God and the requirements of their religious community. Asher’s father has a very important job directly reporting to the Rebbe or spiritual leader of their Hasidic group in post-World War II Brooklyn, New York. His father must travel frequently for the Rebbe and expects Asher to behave appropriately and reverently as has always been expected of members of his family and community. It is difficult for Mr. Lev to accept Asher’s insatiable compulsion to express nearly everything he sees and experiences, every emotion or thought, through drawings and images. Even before he’s presented with conventional drawing tools, he is discovered using the ashes from his parents’ cigarettes to create images on paper as early as age four. Asher’s mother, in a position to witness the naturally unfolding quality of Asher’s prodigal gift more directly, seems to embrace Asher’s gift more easily, yet she must enforce her husband’s demands.
We learn in the first few paragraphs of the novel the shocking fact that Asher Lev, an artist of rare talent, has become famous by painting an iconic Christian image in his “Brooklyn Crucifixion” painting despite having grown up as a strictly religious Jew. How this Hasidic Jew grew up to become an artist who paints Christ on a cross is a very engaging tale, told in the artist’s point of view, and reads much like a memoir. Asher Lev’s act is dramatically symbolic and forges a permanent barrier between himself and his sect and family.
Many would say that the book is hard to finish, with its slower pace, but I found that to be no trouble at all. In fact, I somehow found it to be a page-turner I could not put down late into the night, even when I was re-reading it.
Check the WRL catalog for My Name is Asher Lev.