Growing up in the New York of the nineteen fifties and sixties, Asher Lev belongs to a strict, tight-knit Jewish Hasidic community presided over by the benevolent dictatorship of the Rebbe, whose interpretation of the Master of the Universe’s wishes is not to be questioned. From an early age, Asher is obsessed with drawing every detail observed in his small world. While his gentle mother urges him to draw “pretty pictures”, and is in due course sufficiently sympathetic to buy him paints and accompany him to art galleries, until driven away by the shock of seeing “forbidden” Christian art, his serious-minded father impatiently dismisses a fad he hopes will soon pass. Frequently absent on trips to Europe where he sets up Jewish schools and helps Jews escape from Russia, he is angered by Asher’s poor grades at school and bemused by the Rebbe’s pragmatic decision to allow Asher to be taught by an eminent artist, completely secular despite being Jewish. The parents’ dawning admiration when some of Asher’s art is acquired by a major museum is outweighed by their refusal to attend any exhibition displaying his portraits of nudes.
As the novel builds to a tense climax bewildering and shocking or sadly comprehensible according to one’s viewpoint, some may find it too slow-paced. Yet the repetition reflects the narrow world in which Asher feels trapped and the often minute detail gives a profound understanding of his development as an artist and a fascinating psychological study of the main characters. It also conveys a strong sense of place, convincing dialogue, and many moments of wry humour amidst the angst.
I am not sure how a deeply orthodox Jewish reader would respond to this novel, and the author himself was intriguingly both a rabbi, inspired to become a writer by reading “Brideshead Revisited” as a teenager, and an artist. However, for an atheist reader like me, it portrays very vividly the tension between religion, ritual and duty on one hand contrasted with and tending to stifle or drive to extremes creativity and personal freedom on the other. In its perceptiveness, it shows how achievement as an artist may require a single-minded dedication which at times appears utter selfishness and self-absorption. There is also the ironic contradiction that art is often exploited for financial gain, the value of an artwork may be artificially inflated and it may be purchased as an investment or trophy by someone who cares nothing for art.
The novel draws on Potok’s own experience in that he was also a painter, like Asher producing Chagall-like portraits of dreamlike Jewish ritual scenes and animals. So Potok’s painting career somewhat paralleled the journey of Asher Lev: a young man, very creative and very religious, who does not fit with his community. “I began to paint when I was about nine or ten years old,” Potok once said in an interview. “It really became a problem in my family, especially with my father, who detested it.” Potok even painted a Brooklyn Crucifixion of his own, resembling the painting in his novel.
This reminded me of “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, the autobiography of the early life of Amos Oz, yet despite being a portrayal of fictional characters, Potok’s novel feels more authentic and and in some ways more insightful, perhaps because it is in fact an exploration and development of his own situation, than a simple account of it.