Okay, so crazy story: turns out Chaim Potok was kind of a double threat—rabbi and award-winning novelist. How did he do it?
Not surprisingly, his novels deal primarily with the theme of religion, especially with being religious in the modern age. And My Name Is Asher Lev (1972) is certainly no exception. This book is about, as you can probably guess, someone whose name is Asher Lev. Specifically a teenaged boy growing up in a religious community of Ladover Hasidim in Brooklyn, New York during the 1940s.
Early on, Asher realizes that he has an artistic gift for drawing and painting. When he shares this discovery with his parents, however, their reaction is less than stellar. They believe that his gift may come from the dark side, or the sitra achra. So the novel is about young Asher's struggle to reconcile his really impressive talents with the religious beliefs of the community he grew up in.
This is a struggle that Chaim Potok probably knew well: he chose to practice conservative Judaism rather than his parents' orthodox Judaism because conservative Judaism has fewer restrictions and allowed him more freedom as an artist. At the same time, this left him feeling like a guilty apostate. Kind of the way you'd feel after begging to borrow your parents' car, trying to figure out somewhere cool to go, and then ending up at Baskin Robbins: was all that rebellion really worth it? Depends on the quality of the ice cream.
So imagine you are a genius at solving Rubik's cubes. You can solve them in under twenty seconds without making a single mistake. You stand poised to make millions from this unique talent, solving Rubik's cubes on TV all over the world. But your parents forbid you from doing it, and threaten to disown you if you do.
In My Name Is Asher Lev, young Asher Lev has a similarly difficult choice on his hands: create the artwork that he knows he has the talent to create and be cast out of his religious community, or remain in his religious community and never paint again. And before you go saying: Well of course he should just paint the pictures if he's going to get famous from them—that's a no-brainer, consider how important your community is to you.
If your parents and friends disowned you because you had an incredible talent, that talent probably wouldn't seem so incredible anymore. Pile onto that the fact that the guiding principles of Asher's religion forbid creating the kinds of paintings he wants to create, and you've got a dramatic recipe for disaster.
The Jewish Virtual Library
This website has a great biography of Chaim Potok, plus just about everything else you'd ever want to know about Jewish religion, history, and culture.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Virtual Library
If you really want to geek out about art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an amazing timeline of art throughout the ages. The European art timeline is the one that's most relevant to Asher's life and world.
My Name is Asher Lev: The Play
"My Name Is Asher Lev" is an off-broadway play based on the book. The play was written by playwright Aaron Posner. The adaptation is pretty loyal to the book, too.
Review of "The Gift of Asher Lev"
Incredibly enough, My Name Is Asher Lev has a sequel: it's called The Gift of Asher Lev and it's about Asher as a middle aged man.
More Theatrical Productions of My Name Is Asher Lev
Because we all know that essay can wait.
Here's the movie trailer for The Chosen, a film based on another book by Chaim Potok about the friendship between two Jewish boys (one very religious, one not so much), in the 1940s.
Chaim Potok Interview
Here's an interview Chaim Potok gave in the dark ages (i.e. 1985) about his life, his writing, and his novel, Davita's Harp, which is about discrimination against women within the Jewish community.
Chaim Potok being all scholarly
Autographs on autographs.
The Piazza del Duomo in Florence, Italy
This snazzy-lookin' place is in Florence, Italy.
How many faces can you find?
Michelangelo's masterpiece in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.
An artist's rendition of Brooklyn Crucifixion I
Feast your eyes on this.