My Name Is Asher Lev

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater in their fall offerings produced a play called My Name Is Asher Lev (adaption written and directed by Aaron Posner) based on the novel by Chaim Potok.  The premise of this play so intrigued me that I placed the novel on my TBR pile.

Photo by Michael Brosilow from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater producion
The Picasso quote which opens the novel may sum up the theme best:  “Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” 

The central story revolves around a family steeped in the religious traditions of the Ladover Hasidim and devoted to following the wishes of the Rebbe.  Unfortunately for Rivkeh and Aryeh Lev, the balance of the family is thrown off because their son Asher has been “born with a gift,” the ability to create art.  As the Rebbe’s right hand man, Aryeh struggles to do his duty to God and love his son, eventually summing up his struggle by telling Asher, “I do not know if it is a gift from the Ribbono Shel Olom or from the Other Side.  If it is from the Other Side, then it is foolishness, dangerous foolishness, for it will take you away from the Torah and from your people and lead you to think only of yourself.”

While the central crisis in the novel revolves around one man single-minded about his religious beliefs and one man who is obsessed by the desire to make art, the person who suffers the most is Rivkeh.  She is forced to be the mediator, trying to maintain a religious family with a rebellious element living within.  Her struggles as a character, her depression brought on by a surprising death, and her dedication to her own path into religious education are fascinating elements of the book.

“The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force,” says Asher.  While he appears to be possessed by his art, his mashpia says “many people feel they are in possession of a great fit when they are young.  But one does not always give in to the gift.”  Ultimately, Asher makes a choice and the book is about the consequences.  The brilliance of the book comes in the fact that we know from the first sentence what that choice was:  “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.” 

The book is about obsession, possession and aggression–all big themes for a group to take on.  Asher says, “The fact is that gossip, rumors, mythmaking, and news stories are not appropriate vehicles for the communication of nuances of truth.”  I would suggest you try a book discussion to see if that is truth.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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