Asher Lev is the star of this production: tortured child artist who grows up to paint probably the most offensive and sacrilegious painting any Ladover Hasid has laid eyes on. Asher is introspective and incredibly sensitive: he loves his parents—his mother especially—and struggles with the fact that his artistic talent hurts them so much. This book is basically the story of how Asher comes into his own as an artist, and just in case you were wondering—yes, there's a fancy German word for that: bildungsroman. Isn't that what Gwyneth Paltrow named her kid?
Before becoming a great painter, Asher is a kid just like any other: the son of two loving and sometimes annoying parents. He's eager to please and adoring of his parents. He spends a lot of his time struggling to make them happy, his mother in particular. He is closer to her than he is to his father, and his love for her is powerful:
I remember my first drawings of my mother's face—longish straight nose, clear brown eyes, high-boned cheeks. She was small and slight; her arms were thin and smooth-skinned, her fingers long and thin and delicately boned. Her face was smooth and smelled of soap. I loved her face next to mine when she listened to me recite the Krias Shema before I close my eyes to go to sleep. (6.3)
Mama's boy that Asher is, he still can't seem to make her happy. He spends a lot of the book worrying about how to alleviate the pain that his artistic gift causes her, having given up on winning his stormy father's affections long ago. Sorry Pops.
Asher's desire to be a good son is the basis for the major tension of the book—namely, the tension between his family and his artistic gift. This tension forces him to make an impossible choice between the art he's passionate about and the family he loves. Can't we all just get along?
Potok wastes no time in showing us that Asher is basically a baby Picasso, and Asher wears the beret of "artist" quite well. We are reminded of Asher's artistic talent pretty much constantly, and the book more or less opens with an announcement of his gift:
I have no recollection of when I began to use that gift. But I can remember, at the age of four, holding my pencil in the firm first grip of a child and transferring the world around me to pieces of paper, margins of books, bare expanses of wall. (5.4-6.1)
Asher was born with his artistic gift, and it's a part of him throughout his life. Although it's molded by the influence of Jacob Kahn, it's still pretty darn sophisticated before it receives any molding. The sophistication of Asher's gift sets him apart, making him mysterious to his parents and a freak to his peers.
Asher's identity as an artist runs into conflict with his identity as his parents' son and his identity as a religious Jew. This is where the sparks really begin to fly in this novel—particularly when Asher paints Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II, which represent the intersection of all three of these identities.
Don't let the title fool you—if you read the book, you'll know that Asher's not much of a student when it comes to yeshiva. But he is a very talented scholar of the Jewish religion, and tends to know what he's talking about when it comes to the Torah. Asher's greatest achievement is his ability to incorporate Jewish teachings into his paintings. Here is his thought process as he composes Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II:
A balance had to be given to the world; the demonic had to be reshaped into meaning. Had a dream-haunted Jew spent the rest of his life sculpting form out of the horror of his private night? I did not know, but I sensed it as truth. (323.1-2)
The Brooklyn Crucifixion series represents the three identities Asher struggles to reconcile within himself: Asher is in artist beret next to his father, who represents Judaism and scholarly learning, and between the two is his crucified mother, who represents family. Asher could not have painted the Brooklyn Crucifixion series without his scholarly knowledge of Jewish history, but let's just say…his parents weren't too happy with the result.
Still, it's this very scholarly knowledge that ends up being the inspiration for a lot of Asher's paintings, which makes the fact that Orthodox Judaism is the one thing holding him back from painting freely painfully ironic.