Turning The Pages – My Name is Asher Lev

I had a request! Watch me do my dance of joy!

I was asked to review Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, a favourite novel of one AUSU member’s. I ran right out and got a copy:from the bookshelf in my home office. I own this book. I love it. An excuse to re-read an old favourite I didn’t need, but I was happy to take advantage of the situation!

This novel tells the story of Asher Lev, an only child in an Orthodox Jewish family, who is extremely artistically gifted. It describes his early childhood, from his own perspective. His father is actively involved in freeing Soviet Jews from their horrible situation and bringing them to the United States. His mother is a housewife, happy raising her son and keeping house for her husband. As Asher ages, his mother becomes more involved in her husband’s political activism, goes back to school, and starts to do her own good works in support of her community.

Asher’s artistic talent is finally accepted (with difficulty) by his parents, who eventually give in to his constant requests to be taught artistic techniques. Sent to live with a (non-Jewish) art teacher, Asher learns and blossoms and eventually presents his own art show. But what he chooses as his subject, well, it wasn’t the best choice for a good Orthodox Jew.

The book is extremely interesting from a socio-cultural perspective. It offers a non-Jewish person a sympathetic glimpse into the Orthodox Jewish culture of the fifties and sixties. I think anyone who didn’t grow up Orthodox will learn a great deal from this novel. From a parent’s perspective, this book is also about accepting your child and his or her gifts, even if you do not understand them. It’s about the difficult path mothers navigate between having a happy marriage, a happy life, and happy children (for some reason, Asher’s father doesn’t seem as bothered by maintaining balance). Sometimes these goals overlap less than we’d like.

On another level, we learn from Potok the ubiquity of Christian influence in the world. One can’t learn art without knowing the New Testament; many of the great works in the art world are on religious (Christian) subjects. While Canada has no official religion, we are constantly exposed to religious symbolism in secular environments. Does your bank put up a Christmas tree? What about your children’s school? Are all the bank’s patrons Christian? Are all the staff and students at the school? Do those individuals erecting the Christmas trees ever stop to question ‘forcing’ Christian symbols on their non-Christian neighbours? Should they? Do they perceive it as ‘forcing’ their ways on those who do not share them? Do the non-Christians see these practices in the same way?

Any book that makes you stop and think, teaches you something. This book is extremely entertaining to read and is definitely worth your while. My Name is Asher Lev definitely does all of these things. I recommend it to you all.

Potok, C. (1972). My name is Asher Lev. New York: Anchor Books.