Category Archives: identity

My Name is Asher Lev. To wrestle and become .

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My Name is Asher Lev opens with these lines from the adult voice of the title’s namesake whom the reader meets as a child and watches grow up: I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all–in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflictor of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.  Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things. Reading these words over again after finishing the book was a powerful testament on the process of not only becoming oneself, but the complexity and pain that can accompany the journey.  


This book by Chaim Potok is the story of a boy, Asher, who is an observant Jew and an artist and his struggle to identify as each–as the story progresses, so does the tension between art/religion and tradition/individualism.  What I thought about the most while reading is that these hard questions of identity–and the confidence that one can embrace–come through struggle and leaning into, instead of running away from, tension.  Because there was so much to consider in this book (and I couldn’t bring myself to edit it down to a specific one), I ultimately decided to name some of the tensions that Asher had to face in his coming of age and identity formation, which I think are relevant and challenging to almost everyone. After all, I think coming of age is more like a lifelong coil shape rather than a plateau that one reaches. 


Being educated before taking action.
Asher’s mentor, Jacob Kahn, trains him in the history of art and tells him “Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it,” (213).  His mentor is speaking about art, but this can also be interpreted for Asher through his religion. Because he has been schooled in his religious culture, as he comes of age he both adds to it and rebels against it.  Modern culture is one of instant knowledge and a desire of instant acquisition.  Slowing down to understand and develop is worth it.   


The fear in being completely honest with those around you.  
Kahn believes that Asher must show a representative of all of his work at his first show.  Asher struggles with this because he knows that people of his culture will not understand the inclusion (let alone creation) of some of his work:  “We will show the two nudes, Asher Lev. They are important to your development. We are not playing games. You will enter in truth or you will not enter at all,” (287).  Especially in the age of social media it is easy to craft, curate and control the way others view your life.  The art show becomes symbolic of opening up one’s life for public viewing, which can be painful but freeing. 


Deciding whether you share or squelch what you long to say.
“Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way,” (212).  Asher could have remained a boy who had a sketchpad or drew nice little pictures for decoration.  But he felt too much.  It would have been easy to go to school, do his homework, his chores and create a life that was too preoccupied for his art.  But.  He chose to let the scream out.

It is always easier to stay comfortable and safe.
“It is my intention to frighten him out of his wits. I want him to go back to Brooklyn and remain a nice Jewish boy. What does he need this for, Anna?” he said (213).  For those who have ambitions of any kind, and like I wrote about a few weeks ago, there will always be other things to do to keep busy and keep you away from the work required to share your voice.

Wrestle with the truth.
“I do not sculpt and paint to make the world sacred. I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world really is…in art cowardice and indecision can be seen in every stroke of the brush…paint the truth or you will paint green rot,” (226).  Kahn didn’t live a life of complete darkness. There are some scenes where he is beautifully alive.  What I love about him, though, is that he let himself feel and share and question.  Watching Asher wrestle through what he believes to be real and true is refreshing to me.

Maintain a sense of self.
“It pleases me that you have chosen not to abandon things that are meaningful to you. I do not have many things that are meaningful to me. Except my doubt and my fears. And my art.” (260)  This is one of my favorite parts from Kahn.  It takes courage to to pursue an art and yet to maintain and individual sense of identity or conviction that most others in the field don’t share.

To close, I love that this book is titled My Name is Asher Lev.  Asher repeats this throughout the story in a way that seems to function as a chorus of sorts–a reminder that he is an individual with an individual story and heart and identity.  Perhaps my heart melts over this because I teach middle school and watch so many students just want to fit in, or perhaps because I don’t always get to see the outcome of the beginnings of the wrestling.  I suppose I just hope that they wrestle well and have courage and know that they can solidly land down the road.

Reconciling the past and present.

This summer marks the seventh year that I’ve lived in New York City.  When people ask me where I’m from, I’ve found that I have a variety of answers.  When I was abroad last summer, I said I was from New York.  While in the city, I typically say I’m originally, originally from Long Island, partly because it’s so close and partly because it’s where I was born, where all my extended family roots and my parents’ pasts lie.  I follow that up with the fact that I’m really midwestern, having spent every year of school in southwest Ohio.  Basically, there is never a straight answer and I don’t feel fully like myself without mentioning all these aspects of my past. There is a part of me that will always be from Long Island, from Centerville, Ohio and from New York, and I’ve realized that I feel most like myself when I account for all of these parts.

Reconciling the past and present and learning how to sift through the layers is one of the biggest conflicts of In the Woods by Tana French. One of the settings of the book is the woods of Knocknaree, a tiny suburb outside of Dubin, Ireland.  In the beginning of the story, a 12 year old girl is found murdered in the woods and the main character Detective Rob Ryan is called in for the investigation. The twist is that Ryan, unbeknownst to anyone but his partner, grew up in Knocknaree and was the sole survivor of a crime that left his 2 best friends missing. He was found covered in blood and without a single memory of what happened.  He has spent the rest of his life essentially forgetting until this case began.  The novel is not only the mystery of the girl who was killed, but also of Ryan’s past and his psychological state as he is forced to face all he has left behind. 

Beyond being the site of two horrific crimes, the Knocknaree woods is also in the middle of another conflict: it is the site of an archaeological dig, which is forced to rush because construction for a highway is slated to begin.  French does an impressive job making this story about more than just solving a crime.  The woods becomes symbolic in its vastness, it’s darkness and its   The reader, like Detective Ryan, is left wondering should one dig through the past, carefully trying to make sense of it and put the pieces together in a meaningful way or pave over it, moving into the future leaving it all locked underneath cement?

The ending, unlike most episodes of The Closer, Law and Order and CSI: NY, is not quite as neat as I have grown accustomed to in my television dabbling or in the pulpy mystery reads I consumed in middle school.  I think French’s literary merit in this book is the psychological depth of Detective Ryan and her skill at depicting it within the genre.  He is complex and heartbreakingly human in the decisions that he makes throughout the case as simultaneously faces the past and tries to hide it from others and hide from it himself. I walked away from this book wondering about how he will choose to move forward with all the layers of his past, rather than the satisfaction of figuring out the puzzle.

Kristen Sometimes.

“It was after this that Charlotte began to dream she was fighting to stay Charlotte, and one night woke from such a dream struggling, even crying a little. When she was calm again, she did not feel sleepy at all, so she lay still, carefully and deliberately making herself remember Aviary Hall, object by object, room by room. Also she made herself remember things that had happened to her as Charlotte, but it was alarming how the details seemed to slip away from her.”

I stumbled upon a new edition of my favorite book from third grade–Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. A girl in 1940’s England begins boarding school and finds that she travels through time and switches places with a girl similar to herself, only in 1917. In the middle of the book, she she becomes stuck in the past and has a hard time then remembering who she really is. The passage I quoted above has haunted my thoughts for quite a while now. I began to think about how easy it was to become so preoccupied with life that your identity gets lost in the mess of daily life and gradually becomes less and less impassioned.

I have felt that way lately, which is incredibly tragic because fall is the time when my senses are most awake and inspired. I have found myself needing to set aside the piles of grading and planning and to do lists and phone calls I should make and remember, “object by object” where my heart actually lies, before it slips away and life becomes just motions.

At the core, this is a spiritual issue. When I forget that I am loved, forgiven and lavished with grace I begin to live in a way that calls out the world to give me meaning, which is so hollow…but also an attractive hiding place. It blocks my view of Jack Kerouac’s haikus, and walks through tree lined streets and laying on my bed listening to La Ciengna Just Smiled and eating banana bread with neighborhood kindreds.

My lack of posts is due to this perpetual list making that cuts off the passion. But I’m working on remembering object by object, room by room…

Let Not Men Triumph.

The fact that beauty is so fleeting literally causes my heart to ache. It frustrates me that I cannot bottle it and wear it around my neck or hold it in a closed fist without it seeping through my fingers. I listen to music that is indescribably beautiful…but it is constantly moving. It isn’t possibe to place a moment on repeat, because it builds and falls. So I watch the sunset out my window, or if I’m lucky enough behind a cornfield somewhere and want to freeze it so that the evening light can hold and the tones of the color can just seep into my being, but it seeps into night all the while. So I look at a painting, these incredible partially impressionistic landscapes, and even though it is still and unfading it still doesn’t fully capture what I’m looking for.

But it’s the impressionism that caught me tonight…and the beauty in it’s imperfection. It is not the *real* thing; but somehow it almost is better than the real thing…it hints that perhaps there is even more depth and beauty than what I ever imagined. And I suppose that all of these things that capture my heart are the same way. It is imperfect beauty that speaks volumes to me.

Let me get to the point of how this changed me tonight. I am a micromanager of my own life. I feel as though I have a pile of post it notes stacked in my rib cage and I’m unable to cross off enough items to even make a dent of progress. This entire week I have felt in bondage to my inability to keep up, my inability to please everyone, my inability to love people the way I want to, my inability to…well, you get the picture. In the same way that there is an indescribable beauty in things that I cannot tangibly hold onto, there is an indescribable beauty in the way that Jesus’ power is made perfect in my weakness.

I constantly want to clench everything…to hold on so tightly that all my muscles begin to ache, literally, in my attempts to control. But there is a beauty that can free me from that…Jesus who calls me to cast my cares upon him–and in the ultimate miracle of existence actually takes them. He promises freedom from captivity to the world and he promises freedom eternally where grace abounds and shackles are nonexistent. Once I begin to see this as the most beautiful thing on earth, the desire to control so much of my life will wane. I think it is the challenge of my life to actually trust in grace and *actively* believe in His Truth. The prayer my heart must constantly remember is Be still and know that I am God. He is God. He is God.

The verses that popped out most to me today are typically my prayer when I get nervous about the state of the world. But they were transformed into something more personal tonight, after I had to take an hour to stretch and pray and breathe deeply because I felt so overwhelmed…

Arise, O Lord, let not men triumph…Let the nations know they are but men. Psalm 9:19,20

Besides the fact that it reminds me of something that some fantastical hero in literature might say, evenmore so, it is my literal Savior in everyway telling me that I am not God. I am a daughter. I need to let the beauty in front of me point me to the one who is the Lord of Life…and let that familiar ache send me straight into prayer and praise that one day it will last forever, and the fact that it aches to begin with is just a sign of the Life that is Truly Life that is to come.

Self Diagnosis: I’m a Reading Mess.

In the same way that I cannot make my brain think linearly, I cannot read linearly. I was excited for the freedom of summer because I really believed that I would read one book, start to finish, and then begin the next one.

Well, that was a lovely thought.

It started reading Harry Potter at night because they were too heavy to carry around. Then I read Gilead, (diverting from my summer list, but checking a book off the shelf of books I own but haven’t read) but wasn’t as engaged so when I got bored, I’d read a short story by Alice Munro (also not on the list, but on the shelf). I finished Gilead and my book club started The Known World. Well. What about Alice? And what about Shadow Cities? That one is half way done, too. Not to mention the excerpts I’ve read this week from Surprised by Joy (CS Lewis), The Magnificent Defeat (Frederick Buechner) and Reading Like a Writer (Francine Prose). Aye. I think it’s just that there is so much that I want to learn and think about. It’s overwhelming. In a good way, I guess. I just want to devour and process and talk about so many things–and the rate at which great things are published doesn’t help!

I suppose that I just need to come to grips that I am not a linear person. At all. Sometimes that really stresses me out and I try to become a person who doesn’t operate on a completely web based design. (Old school web, that is. Think circle in the middle of your paper with lots of branches.) But without fail, I return to my ways of overstuffed bookshelves and piles waiting for me and I dabble in all of them until I finish. Whenever that may be. And I usually do. Finish, that is.

And that’s ok.

That feels therapeutic to type out.

Interestingly enough, (well, interesting to me and maybe 2 other people) I am a person who likes my apartment to be orderly and my classroom to be without clutter. I may or may not organize my sock drawer. How does that fit into my reading tendencies? Seriously. Ha.