It Took Me Months To Figure Out My Name Is Asher Lev

my-name-is-asher-levOkay, so this is a book I read somewhere at the start of last year- so I can’t even say it’s something left over from December, so… whoops?

In all honesty, I’ve had trouble getting my head round it. Unlike the Chosen, the other Potok book I read last year, I did not fall instantly in love with it. Quite simply, this was because while the writing was beautiful the main character was a bit of a git.

A long while ago I wrote an opinion piece about not giving life for art, but that’s exactly what I feel Asher Lev does. His parents give him everything- trying to help him become the artist he dreams of being- but he throws it back in their face for no reason. I guess the premise makes sense- an ultraorthodox family trying to get in the way of a young artist’s dreams- but in actuality the artist is a selfish jerk. He just doesn’t care about other people- he is too obsessed with his own pursuits. Does that make him a genius? Not to my mind.

Because he was constantly helped (if not encouraged) to pursue his dreams, it makes the clash of cultures between the Jewish and Christian world a false dichotomy. It’s why I inevitably did not understand his deal with painting crucifixes. I could make arguments that he felt the weight of the artistic tradition and that is why he was compelled to make disrespectful paintings of his parents- but it is apparent earlier that he does not understand the artistic tradition when he paints nudes and cannot explain that either. He’s almost possessed by the desire to paint- but not in a way that makes sense. It felt less a marriage of two cultures and more a disrespectful flaunting of his parents privacy. In short, the message of the book- wherever that was- felt lost on me.

Needless to say this book got under my skin- and not in a good way. I never thought this book would feel so alien, but there you go. Still the writing was so well done and well written that I cannot give it less than:

Rating: 3/5 bananas

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One perplexed Orangutan…

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So have you read this book? Care to enlighten me about it? Or do you have a book that left you equally perplexed? Let me know in the comments!

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21 thoughts on “It Took Me Months To Figure Out My Name Is Asher Lev

  1. daleydowning says:

    Haven’t read this, but definitely understand the feeling of just, “Huh?!” That happened to me with “The Help” and “The Lovely Bones.” (Stories like that are pretty much the reason I don’t read contemporary-pretending-to-be-historical dramas anymore, at all.)

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  2. Krysta says:

    I understand the book as showing Asher’s community as not really helping him, but also helping him more than he realizes. His father, for instance, actively discourages him in his art and only resigns himself to it when the rabbi starts Asher’s training. But there’s a sense throughout his life that his community is hoping he’ll eventually stop painting if they just humor him enough and they don’t seem to understand what art is or what it means, which is frustrating to Asher because for him it’s a crucial means of expression that everyone is ignoring or misunderstanding. It’s true he doesn’t realize the sacrifices others make for him, but a lot of that is also when he’s a child and it’s difficult for him to fathom why his father seems to care so much about helping people he doesn’t know when his own son is suffering right in front of him and he isn’t doing much to help. But I think that’s where the real tragedy is. Asher and his parents have trouble understanding each other because they’re the same person. Each one of them is putting their own work first because that work means something to them–something that no one else understands and therefore can’t fully support.

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    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Well, that’s a fair interpretation- thank you for sharing. I agree with you to an extent- like you said Asher didn’t really seem to understand that he was being helped. But I don’t think for his father it was just about work- it was about being a good person- it’s why they’re able to accept him being an artist. What they want for their son is not for him to abandon his art- but for him to be a good person with it or to use it for a positive purpose. But Asher is a thoroughly selfish character from beginning to end- he does bad things for the sake of his art and can’t actually see the harm of it- for instance, he exploits the Russian refugees trust for his father in order to steal art supplies. I found like Asher felt like he didn’t have to be a good person, because he felt like his art put him on some higher plain- he has this real superiority over it which seems to make him think he doesn’t have to be a half-decent human being. I didn’t think it was so much about putting their work first in the case of the parents- but wanting him to be an at least basically good- even if he couldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and be a Tzaddik (righteous man). But his decision to paint his parents as he did made me feel like he didn’t care about giving his parents even basic respect. I’m not saying his parents were supportive the whole way through- but they came round to it with the rabbi’s encouragement- but Asher never had any intention of meeting them halfway (not to be religious, but just to be a decent human being). I just thought he was a thoroughly selfish human being and because of that I struggled to connect with this.

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    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ah yes I loved the Chosen, but this one didn’t do it for me sadly. I actually read this first and nearly didn’t pick up the Chosen as a result- but I’m glad I overcame my aversion cos I ended up loving that. I am hoping to try another one soon 🙂

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  3. Briana says:

    This is one of my favorite books (I think I’ve mentioned that a few or five million times…). I grant Asher is not always pleasant. I have no idea if that’s just a realistic characterization (not everyone is nice all the time), or if it’s saying something about artistic temperaments, or if it’s because Asher is frustrated by the fact that no one seems to understand him. Perhaps all of the above.

    I think, however, the point is that Asher’s family and community are not encouraging him to pursue his dreams at all–quite the opposite. They sort of reluctantly allow him to pursue art because it’s not a useful, employable skill. And when they finally acquiesce to that fact that he is very interested in art and WILL learn to draw and paint, they try to channel him into modes that feel safe to them. I believe someone basically tells him to paint greeting cards or calendars–and only if they’re of properly religious scenes. Asher’s issue is that it’s not “art” when you’re being told what to depict and given limited options. And there’s no interpretation of the subject matter, just a nice, straightforward portrait of Moses. It’s like telling someone who wants to write the next Great American Novel that, well, you’ll tolerate them writing if they MUST, but they’d better stick to writing instruction manuals. It’s “writing,” but it’s not art or pursuing your dreams or saying anything important at all.

    I thought the crucifixions were interesting, as well, and a very good highlight of the disconnect between Asher and his family. Asher feels that there is no Jewish (or perhaps secular or any other religious) equivalent of the crucifixion–that nothing so well evokes certain moods and connotations relating to suffering. (One could disagree, but I appreciate his perspective.) He wants to paint suffering, and the crucifixion embodies that for him. He is willing to look outside his own religion/culture/traditions to find images that speak to him and are meaningful. His family, of course, is not. If it’s not their tradition, it’s bad, and they’re not interested in seeing it or learning about it. They don’t see suffering. They just see “Asher painting some horrible Christian thing.”

    I think I mentioned in my review of In the Beginning that some of the same issues come out, perhaps more explicitly. The protagonist’s family does not want to hear about knowledge that derives outside of their own philosophers and schools of thought. Davis is basically a heretic for wondering if people who are not Orthodox Jews have anything worthwhile to say. Asher has the same problem, just with art instead of academia.

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    • Briana says:

      But I also think Chaim Potok is very aware that sometimes people get run over as collateral damage while one is pursuing one’s dreams. I don’t know much of his biography, but I believe he went through similar struggles with his family while wanting to pursue education and writing. His desires were alien to them and, worse, completely wrong. I think he is recognizing that, yes, Asher is hurting his family and sometimes it’s selfish but at other times it just FEELS selfish when everyone hates your life choices so much. So, I guess I sympathize with both Asher and David (from In the Beginning) wanting to find wisdom anywhere they can, not just in their insular community, but I agree the readers are probably supposed to have some sympathy for their families too. (And Asher is kind of more of a jerk in the sequel, so I have less sympathy for him then. I suppose that book might be a look at how all-consuming art can be. Yes, great artists create great work, but that doesn’t always mean they’re lovely people.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        I can definitely understand that- I think it is why I connected with the Chosen so well because it loosely alluded to similar themes.
        Haha yes true- but then they don’t always have to be horrible people- and as many are nice as are nasty 😉 🙂

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    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      I can understand that- it’s very beautiful- and it provoked mixed reactions among my family.
      Haha that’s certainly true- but I think with regards to the artistic temperament thing, I wrote an opinion piece a while ago (that I meant to link to in this) which kind of explains my stance on that- and kind of shows why I found him to be a bit of a jerk regardless (if you want to check it out it’s here https://theorangutanlibrarian.wordpress.com/2016/01/17/life-or-art-doesnt-mean-anything/ ) Basically, I felt like he went “all in” for the philosophy of art over life, and didn’t care about how he behaved to others in the process.
      I don’t think his family encouraged him- but they do, in time, come to accept him. They do initially try to channel his energy and I respect the fact that he won’t do what he’s told there. I do agree with you about the Great American Novel analogy (especially after having been told by people to become a hack to make money aka “you know you could just write the next Fifty Shades of Grey”- but funnily enough because of that I think that’s more of a busybody thing than anything else.)
      I also agree with you about the crucifixions being a good way to show the disconnect. However, Asher is so so so wrong that there is nothing in Jewish culture to reflect certain moods (ironically if he’d paid more attention to some of the stories, he might have picked up on some of them) But still I can respect him looking outside his culture- I think images like these do speak across culture. However, there is more to it than it simply being outside his culture and therefore bad. There is no way of avoiding that for Jews it is a symbol that has been used as a tool for persecution. It’s not just his family failing to understand- fear of Christianity after the pogroms, the blood libel, the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades is practically drilled in for his family. In Eastern Europe when people started carrying the cross into a Jewish town or ghetto it was never good news. I think this complicates the issue.

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