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.
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.