My Name Is Asher Lev--A Reader's Review
My Name Is Asher Lev. My Name Is Asher Lev. Wow! What a book. If you had told me that more than a hundred and twenty-five pages into the book that I would eventually love it, I would vehemently argue to the contrary.
But, it's true. This story became intriguing. This story became enlightening. This story became exciting. I'll start from the beginning.
This is the story of the family of Rabbi Aryeh Lev, his wife Rivkah, and their only child, Asher. They live in the densely Chasidic area of Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, New York. The story takes place over a twenty-five year period from when Asher was about to start day school.
In the first third of the book, we're treated to a meditation of sorts on the existence of living in the aftermath of a post WW 2 world. Europe was almost completely destroyed. Six million Jews murdered (such acts are called "genocide" not "ethnic cleansing"--there's nothing clean, or pure or even righteous about murder/ genocide). And, the daunting task of Jewish renewal, restoration, and restitution was just beginning.
In the relative safety of a northern US metropolitan city, descendents of European Jews, more specifically (but not limited to) Chasidic Jews made frequent trips abroad to address the needs of cultural and political restoration. This was Aryeh Lev's calling. Lev, a Chasidic Rabbi, came from a long and distinguished line of Rabbis, as author, the late Chaim Potok tells us. Lev married into another distinguished family that had generations of Rabbis. It was in this union that Aryeh wished his young son, Asher would continue the tradition and "not forget his people."
What becomes abundantly clear is that Lev has no rapport with his son and very little with Rivka. It seems as if the brunt of his work has always been geared toward the male adult mind. Rivka on the other, at this point, is somewhat of a sycophant. She is clearly defined by the male relationships in her life. She is Aryeh Lev's wife, she's Asher's mother. She is the daughter of a famous rabbi. When her brother dies, Rivka, descends into a stupor which many thought may lead to her death.
Interestingly, in the absence of her husband (traveling commitment, death of her brother and Asher being at school) this traditional model of femininity discovers that she has interest that she has time to pursue. She ultimately decides to go to school. First earning a bachelor's, master's and a doctorate in political science and history.
This plays an instrumental part in Asher's upbringing. With Aryeh in Europe for weeks and months on in, Asher is without a father-figure. Rivkah used to answer Asher's childhood inquisitiveness by repeating Aryeh's thoughts on the matter. However, as she becomes more independent, more liberated, more educated--more daring--she indulges Asher in his artistic pursuits, now as a young adult.
Along the way, people on the periphery of Asher's life, Yudel Krinsky (an art supply store owner) and Rebbe of his day school and a distant, but gregarious Uncle Yitschok all placate Asher's budding ambitions. The Rebbe even goes as far to recommend him to a noted Jewish artist, Jacob Kahn for instructions. It proved to be the defining relationship of Asher's life.
Asher Lev becomes an artist out of the absence of compassionate and reasonable dialogue. Asher sees the world and speaks to and against his world with art. When Asher runs out words (themes) to express his anguish, he uses the language (symbols) of the Goyim. The result is one of the most memorable and thoroughly provocative reading moments I've ever had.
The first part could have been reduced by at least 75 pages, but boy do I love this book. 4 1/2 stars.