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The story of Asher Lev is one of the most poignant examples of Jewish-American literature. It touches on numerous subjects, such as the opposition of communal values to those of the individual, criticizes dogmatic views and perceptions of God, and promotes art as one of the truest ways of worshipping a higher deity (Gale, Cengage Learning 2016). Talent is God’s gift to humanity, and what humanity does with it is their gift back to God.
The subject of talent and its purposes runs like a red line through My Name is Asher Lev, allowing the readers to decide on their own whether art and the ability to practice it is worth giving up so many things considered universally valuable and important in our lives. The truth of the matter, of course, lies in the eye of the beholder. Based on individual values and beliefs, artistic talent can become a blessing, a curse, or both. The purpose of this paper is to discuss what art was for the hero of the book titled My Name is Asher Lev.
Artistic Talent as a Blessing
The word “Blessing” is associated with something good and pleasurable for the individual. Talent, by definition, is the predisposition towards doing something. It does not necessarily mean that it is a blessing. A person could be an excellent surgeon and have a great talent for it but loathe the profession. In the case of Asher Lev, his talent is also a blessing, as art is something he greatly enjoys doing. We can see it throughout the book, as the only times when Asher is actually happy in his otherwise conflicting and difficult life is when he is painting. It is not just an area or a skill that he takes an interest in, it is a compulsion.
He draws at home, and he draws in his class, much to the dismay of his colleagues, teachers, and parents. Asher’s art shows to have some power to it early on, as the menacing picture of the Rebbe he draws during one of his classes serves as a powerful window into the boy’s soul, showing just how much he opposes the movement to Vienna, convincing the Rebbe to let him stay at home (Potok 2003).
Another example of how artistic talent was Asher’s blessing can be found in his meeting with Jacob Kahn, who became his teacher and his friend. Jacob Kahn was a cold, blunt, and seemingly uncaring individual, a pariah outside of the community (Gale, Cengage Learning 2016). Yet, he and Asher were capable of finding common ground, as both of them were capable of speaking the same language, which was the language of art. With him, Asher no longer felt isolated and alone, as it was with the rest of his family. The boy was considered a loner because nobody in the Ladover Hasidic community shared in his passion, and even considered it a sin. Thus, connecting with Jacob Kahn was a liberating experience, and another blessing brought upon him by his artistic talent.
Perhaps the greatest blessing bestowed upon Asher by his talent was his capability to transcend the mortal bonds and connections, instead of dedicating oneself to art, worshipping God through his creations. Although Asher does not find understanding in his own home, where the majority of people are frightened by his drawings of deep religious symbolism, his art is dedicated not to them, but directly to God. Thus, the third blessing of an artist is becoming closer to God than anyone else in his community.
Artistic Talent as a Curse
Humans are social creatures, and as such, families, communities, and other individuals play an important part in their lives. My Name is Asher Lev shows the dangers of going against the wishes of the community (Gale, Cengage Learning 2016). As the main hero of the story is driven by his sense of artistry and talent, it puts him at odds with many people he respects and holds dear.
Aside from art, the two people Asher cherishes the most are his mother and father. The boy is closer to his mother, whom he loves and pities at the same time, as she suffers from his brother’s death, becoming fragile in spirit (Potok 2003). He does not forsake his parents, as they are family, and every person has very deep connections to those who raised and cared about them all their lives. At the same time, the gift forces a wedge between Asher and his home, which only escalates as the story progresses further. From a mere concern, Asher’s gift becomes the reason why he is ostracized and eventually exiled from the community.
Jacob Kahn, who is Asher’s closest friend in the book, helps further the rift between the artist and his father. The reason why he encourages Asher to choose art over family is that he had already made that choice and understood that artistry is above the notions and beliefs of the Jewish community. He knows that as long as Asher tries to balance out the two sides of his life, he would forever walk the knife’s edge until eventually, the internal contradictions would tear him asunder. In that sense, Asher’s talent was indeed a curse. It forced him to make a dreadful choice, which would have never happened should his talent have been different.
The uniqueness of My Name is Asher Lev is that it does not offer answers and solutions, instead of letting the readers discover the truth on their own. As it was stated earlier in this paper, the truth is in the eye of the beholder. For some readers, Asher would present himself as a selfish and petulant individual, who chose his own hobby over his father, mother, and the rest of the community, bringing them great grief and pain in order to fulfill his desire to draw. Others, on the other hand, would find the community to blame for Asher’s exodus and accuse them of selfishness and close-mindedness’, which would have otherwise hidden a great talent from the rest of the world.
The decision regarding whether art is a blessing or a curse would be evident from these choices. For those who put individuality and talent over society, an artistic gift would be seen as a blessing, a way to express oneself to the world as an individual. For those who perceive themselves through their relationships with others, a talent that sets them apart from the community would be perceived as a curse.
Asher is a unique individual in that regard. Although possessing a gift, he does not want to break ties with his family and his people, wanting to enrich their view rather than persist in the age-old dogma. He does not leave because the rest exile him, he does so in order to protect the ones he loves, seeing that his gift brings them nothing but shame and pain. For Asher, art is both a blessing and a curse. However, the character himself is willing to suffer through the curse to enjoy the blessings bestowed upon him. As the character reflects on what his gift means to him, he says: “I do not have many things that are meaningful to me. Except my doubts and my fears. And my art” (Potok 2003, 83).
Gale, Cengage Learning. 2016. A Study Guide for Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev.” New York: Cengage.
Potok, Chaim. 2003. My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Anchor.