The Conflict between Art and Religious Community
My Name is Asher Lev is about Asher's development as an artist with a focus on the conflicts this raises for him with the religion with which he has been raised. When Asher is younger, this conflict is more external. His artistic impulse drives him to do certain things of which others in his community disapprove. The story explores how a younger Asher deals with impulses that he does not completely understand and with a community that often chastises him for succumbing to them.
As Asher grows, the conflict becomes more overt. He makes more conscious decisions about which trade-offs he wants to make. Toward the end of the book, the conflict becomes one not only of Asher's art, but of his need to express his feelings through it. The only way Asher knows of expressing his mother's pain is through a Christian symbol. Asher's art has led him to adopt a world that is antithetical to his Ladover society, to derive meaning from Christian symbols.
For much of the book, it looks like a balance can be found between religion and art. While Asher is on the fringes of the society in which he grew up, he is at the fringes of that society. However, at the explosive end of the book, these two worlds collide and Asher chooses the world of art over the community of his parents.
More main ideas from My Name is Asher Lev
Abramson, Edward A. Chaim Potok. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Chapter four is devoted entirely to My Name Is Asher Lev and includes sections on “Judaism and the Visual Arts,” “The Individual and the Community,” “Ancestors and Fathers,” and “Artistic and Stylistic Development.” Also of interest are the book’s first and last chapters entitled “From Rabbi to Writer” and “The Writer Arrived.” Abramson includes a six-page selected bibliography.
Kremer, S. Lillian. “Dedalus in Brooklyn: Influences of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on My Name Is Asher Lev.” Studies in Jewish American Literature 4 (1985): 26-38. Finds “the mark of James Joyce indelibly stamped on the third and fourth novels of Chaim Potok,” particularly in the use of “monologue, stream of consciousness techniques, and epiphany.”
Pinsker, Sanford. “The Crucifixion of Chaim Potok/The Excommunication of Asher Lev: Art and the Hasidic World.” Studies in Jewish American Literature 4 (1985): 39-51. Calls the novel a Kunstlerroman, a novel of an artist’s education, and views Asher Lev’s departure at the novel’s end as “a kind of exile, a kind of excommunication.”
Sgan, Arnold D. “The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name Is Asher Lev.” The English Journal 66 (March, 1977): 63-64. Erroneously calls Potok a psychologist but offers useful plot summaries and themes for each novel. Discusses Potok’s place in high school units on “Ethnic Literature” or “The Search for Identity.”
Stern, David. Review of My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. Commentary 54 (October, 1972): 102, 104. Traces some of the similarities between the main characters in The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name Is Asher Lev and sees in those characters’ dilemmas “the dilemma of modern religious Judaism itself.”
Walden, Daniel, ed. Studies in American Jewish Literature 4 (1985). This issue, entitled “The World of Chaim Potok,” contains articles on My Name Is Asher Lev cited above and other articles of interest.