Study Guide

My Name is Asher Lev Quotes

  • Individuality

    I looked at my hand. I saw the old Waterman fountain pen my father had once given me. On the way out of my room earlier that morning, I had put the pen into one of pockets. Now I held it in my hand. I had drawn a face with it across an entire printed page of my Chumash. I had drawn the face in thick black ink. It was a bearded face, dark-eyed, dark-haired, vaguely menacing. On top of the face, I had drawn a head of dark hair covered by an ordinary hat. (123.3)

    When Asher draws a gruesome caricature of the Rabbi in his Chumash, he's pretty much doing the worst possible thing you could possibly do in a yeshiva: defiling a sacred book while making fun of a spiritual leader. What a rebel. This act of rebellion, unconscious though it may seem, is a way for Asher to assert himself as an individual. He is doing something nobody else would do, and he's doing it with his art.

    What is so terrible about Vienna? I felt myself trembling. I love this street. Yes. I don't want to go into exile. But I'll draw another street. Streets are all the same. Oh, they're not. They're not the same. I don't know enough about this street to really draw it yet; how can I draw a strange street in a foreign land full of people who hate me? Why should I even want to draw such a street? (126.2)

    Asher's struggle against his parents' desire to move to Vienna is the first real instance of him asserting his individualism in the book. By refusing to comply with the status quo, our young hero demonstrates that he's no average and obedient son. Ruh-roh. Bonus: staying home from Vienna is basically what makes his growth as an artist possible.

    I was going into a huge gray stone building and I remembered none of the drawings had been of my father. Not a single drawing in that sketchbook was of my father. There were huge glass doors bordered in bronze and a marble interior and someone at a counter talking to me, looking at me curiously and pointing up a marble staircase. I climbed the stairs. (138.2-139.1)

    After the mashpia asks Asher to fill a notebook of sketches, Asher wanders out of the yeshiva to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he gives himself a little education in art history. Asher is asserting himself as an individual here because he's rejecting the mashpia's—and his father's—authority while pursuing his own interests.

    'Your father journeys through Europe bringing Jews back to Torah, and here his own son refuses to study Torah. Asher, you are a scandal.' I told him I wanted one tube of cobalt blue and one large tube of titanium white. My mother was giving me money now for the things I needed. (165.10-11)

    Asher has this conversation with Yudel Krinsky in Yudel's stationery store. During this time, Asher is struggling to pay attention in school and spending all his time doodling in his Hebrew notebooks, but he's not ashamed of it. As this quote demonstrates, Asher is full of confidence and self-assurance when Yudel attacks him. If that doesn't spell individuality, then nothing does.

    On the way to the Picasso, I stopped at one of the paintings of Jesus. I did not copy the painting; I merely looked at it. My eyes moved across it. The wounds intrigued me. How had he made the wounds so real? Had there really been wounds like that? I wondered what it felt like having wounds like that. (180.10)

    Here we see Asher in his natural habitat—the art museum—looking at images of Jesus on the cross, which is something that Hasidic Jews are typically pretty uncomfortable with looking at. If anything, this act is an excellent example of Asher striking out on his own: as an individual, an artist, and a rebel.

    'Asher Lev, are you really thirteen years old?'
    'Yes.'
    'Why not?' she murmured. 'Why not? Goya was twelve. Picasso was nine. It could happen in Brooklyn to a boy with payos.'
    (211.12-212.1)

    Asher has this conversation with Anna Schaeffer once she sees his artwork, and you better believe that she thinks it's amazing. We also learn from this that Asher is commonly regarded as a special person—a genius on par with great artists like Picasso and Goya. This is another way that Asher is distinguished from his community: as a capital-I Individual with real artistic promise.

    The next day, I slipped the drawing into his Gemorra. I saw the sudden stiffening of his shoulders when he found it. I saw him stare at it. I saw him turn to look at me, then stop. He crumpled the drawing. But he did not throw it away. He put it in his pocket.(241.2)

    Asher has created a truly terrifying caricature of a classmate who was teasing him and given it to him in pretty much the most artistic and amazing form of revenge ever. Would anyone else be able to retaliate to bullying with a Michelangelo-quality sketch? Nope. Does this make Asher an individual? Definitely.

    One afternoon, I painted a portrait of myself in my fisherman's cap, with my long red earlocks and tufts of red hair on my cheeks and chin and eyes dark but flecked with tiny spots of light. I looked at the portrait and I tucked my earlocks behind my ears. (255.3)

    The earlocks—or payot, as they are referred to in Hebrew—are commonly worn by Hasidic Jews as a sign of religious devotion. By tucking his earlocks behind his ears, Asher is separating himself from his community and asserting himself as an individual.

    'I am going to be an artist,' I said. 'I am going to be a great artist.'(265.6)

    This statement is pretty much the essence of the book: Asher is going to be a great artist at any and all costs. There's some self-actualization and individuality right there for you.

    A few days later, I thought I would destroy the paintings. I had done them; that was enough. They did not have to remain alive. But I could not destroy them. (330.3)

    Asher paints Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II, knowing full well that the paintings won't exactly win him any friends in the Hasidic community. And yet he knows what he's painted is real and true, and to destroy these paintings would be to give in to career-destroying pressure. So Asher asserts his individuality and keeps right on painting. He's a real maverick if we've ever seen one. Sorry, Sarah Palin.

  • Community

    'Any man who has caused a single Jewish soul to perish, the Torah considers it as if he has caused a whole world to perish; and any man who has saved a Jewish soul, it is as if he had saved a whole world.' (11.3)

    After the Jewish population was devastated by the Holocaust, a lot of emphasis was placed on regeneration and repopulation. Therefore, every Jew was considered in terms of his or her ability to produce children, increase the Jewish population, and strengthen the Jewish community. As you can imagine, this leads to lots of pressure to pair up and get busy.

    Yes, we were brothers, he and I, and I felt closer to him at that moment than to any other human being in all the world. (41.1)

    Asher Lev is reflecting on Yudel Krinsky's time in Siberia and how much he suffered. Even though Asher himself didn't suffer, he feels a kinship with Yudel that can only be attributed to the deep and abiding sense of community among the Jewish people.

    Did I know how much Jewish blood had been spilled because of that man? Did I know how many Jews had been killed in the name of that man during the Crusades? Did I know that the reason Hitler had been able to slaughter six million Jews without too much complaint from the world was that for two thousand years the world had been taught that Jews, not Romans, had killed that man? (173.1)

    Aryeh's negative reaction to Asher's interest in paintings of Jesus is indicative of what Aryeh thinks is a betrayal of the Jewish community. To Hasidic Jews, Jesus is one motivating factor behind the destruction of the Jewish people, so enjoying any iconography involving him is tantamount to a betrayal of the close-knit Jewish community.

    How did my father get you out? (185.18)

    Asher asks this of a young Ladover boy whose family is moving into an apartment building near his own—he knows the family has fled from Stalin's from Russia, and it isn't difficult for him to deduce that his father is the superhero who pretty much airlifted them out of there. This quote underscored community because it involves the rescue of a Ladover family from Stalin's regime, demonstrating that Hasidic Judaism is strong the world over.

    Asher Lev, this world will destroy you. Art is not for people who want to make the world holy. (209.22-210.1)

    Anna Schaeffer says this to Asher as he is about to enter the art world. Her prediction is essentially fulfilled by the end of the book: Asher is cast out of his old, religious community and set to join a new, secular, and unfamiliar one.

    'You are too religious to be an Abstract Expressionist,' he said to me one morning. 'We are ill at ease in the universe. We are rebellious and individualistic. We welcome accidents in painting. You are emotional and sensual but you are also rational. That is your Ladover background.' (253.4)

    This quote is interesting because it positions Asher between the two very different worlds (i.e. communities) he's always straddling: the art world and the world of ultra-religious conservative Judaism. Jacob Kahn knows that Asher is a talented artist, but he'll never be an Abstract Expressionist because he is a Hasid. At the same time, Asher can never fully be a Hasid because he paints. So basically he can't be a part of any community that would have him as a member. Oy vey—talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    'The artists who will care about your payos are not worth caring about. You want to cut off your payos, go ahead. But do not do it because you think it will make you more acceptable as an artist.'(257.3)

    Jacob Kahn is directly telling Asher that it's going to be difficult for him to find his place in the artistic community, a process that will involve reconciling his two very polarizing identities, and that he's got to stick to his guns if he wants it to work. Good, tough advice from a lapsed Jew and eccentric painter—everyone should have one in their lives.

    'Asher Lev, you will take French. You will take four years of French. And you will earn for yourself excellent marks in French. The Rebbe specifically requested that we make certain you study French.' (267.9)

    In the Ladover community, everyone takes orders from the Rabbi. Since Asher has always had problems with authority, he has a difficult time doing this. In this quote, the high school registrar informs him that he must take French in order to be a productive and compliant member of the community.

    'If you have time, come and visit.' He gave me his name and phone number. 'I will show you the yeshiva your father built.'(314.14)

    Asher is traveling on his own for the first time in Paris when he meets one of the yeshiva-building people his father worked with while he was living in Vienna. This serves to remind Asher of the importance of his father's work and the fact that all Jewish people are connected in a way that would be totally impossible without the framework of the Jewish community.

    Sometimes, standing on that beach, I would remember the beach along the lake in the Berkshires where my mother and I had walked years ago. It seemed another world now, just as my street seemed another world, cold and distant from the warmth of dunes and the summer sun. (254.3)

    As he's hanging out with Jacob Kahn at Jacob Kahn's fancy summer home, Asher recalls the locales of his childhood and feels distant from him. This quote shows us how Asher is growing out of his old community—his street, the insularity of his family and the Jewish religion—and into a new one: the art world.

  • Creativity

    I went to my room, sat at my desk, and drew pictures of my uncle. I made him very round and dark-bearded, and I gave him a kind smile and dark eyes. He always wore dark-blue suits, but I made his suit light blue because he did not feel dark blue to me. (30.19)

    This quote refers to Asher's early childhood habit of drawing pretty much everyone he came into contact with on a regular basis. Asher's creativity is obvious here: he draws in order to make sense of his world, and he draws people as he sees them, not necessarily as they are.

    Then, holding the pad with the drawing on my lap, I carefully brushed the burnt end of the cigarette onto my mother's face. The ash left an ugly smudge. I rubbed the smudge with my pinkie. It spread smoothly, leaving a gray film. I used the ash from another cigarette. The gray film deepened. I worked a long time. I used cigarette ash on the part of her shoulder not in the sunlight and the folds of her housecoat. The contours of her body began to come alive. (34.1)

    Here Asher uses his creative skill to bring a drawing of his mother to life with the help of the cigarettes she's been chainsmoking in the wake of her brother's death. Pretty impressive stuff, especially considering that he's still in elementary school.

    I would learn to draw my feelings of ice and darkness and a street crying. There was nothing I could not do. (49.3)

    As a young child, Asher is very confident in his creative abilities. He knows that he can do pretty much anything—like draw a picture of a street crying—if he puts his mind to it. The funny thing is he's probably right: he's got an impressive artistic gift, and his creativity is basically boundless.

    I watched my fingers trembling on top of the notebook. I put my hands under my thighs. I could feel them trembling. A while later, I opened the notebook and looked again at the page. I had drawn a picture of Stalin dead in his coffin. (100.1)

    Sometimes Asher's creativity surprises and frightens him. This is one of those cases. After not drawing for years, he suddenly finds himself drawing terrifying pictures of dead Stalin right after Stalin dies. Art works in mysterious ways.

    What was a drawing in the face of the Other Side? What was a pen and paper, what were pastels, in the face of the evil of the shell? (119.1)

    Asher sometimes loses faith in his own creativity, especially in his ability to use it to effect change in the world. This quote also demonstrates how powerless he feels in his creativity against the monolithic force of religion in his life.

    I felt the street as part of my own parkway, its trees and benches and lampposts part of what I saw each day as I gazed through the window of my living room onto the world I wanted to create anew with line and color and texture and shape. (219.1)

    Asher's creative mind is constantly working to redefine things in new and fascinating ways, especially the environment he grew up in. This quote perfectly describes Asher's attitude towards his surroundings: wanting to absorb them and recreate them in his paintings.

    'An artist needs time to do nothing but sit around and let ideas come to him.'(251.1)

    This is Jacob Kahn's advice on creativity to Asher, and it ends up bearing out pretty well. Asher spends his summers with Jacob Kahn at Kahn's beach house, playing in the surf and meditating on what his next paintings will be. He uses this method to paint the Brooklyn Crucifixion series.

    'We changed the eyes of the world, Asher Lev. Picasso and Braque with painting and Jacob Kahn with sculpture.'(263.5)

    Jacob Kahn explains to Asher the transformative power of art and creativity. A small group of artists working closely together can change the way everyone sees, which is a pretty incredible thing to think about, especially if you're one of those artists. At least Jacob Kahn's modest.

    A balance had to be given the world; the demonic had to be reshaped into meaning. Had a dream-haunted Jew spent the rest of his life sculpting the form out of the horror of his private night? (323.1)

    As Asher sets to work on Brooklyn Crucifixion, he struggles to understand the events of the past in his own creative terms. In this quote, he's wondering about the life of Jacob Kahn: specifically, has Jacob Kahn given meaning to the awful things he witnessed in the past by describing them in sculptural form? (The answer is yes.)

    The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. (367.5)

    This is basically the book's Defining Quote on creativity. In My Name Is Asher Lev, we see how creativity can tear people apart and also heal them, destroy and rebuild families, ruin lives and then repair them. The takeaway? Creativity is a really powerful thing.

  • Religion

    I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. (1.1)

    This quote states the major paradox of the book: Asher Lev is an observant Jew who's nevertheless drawn to doing things observant Jews aren't typically drawn to doing. This generates some major tensions, including a book-long indentity crisis for Asher.

    I drew my memory of him praying in our synagogue on Shabbos, garbed in his prayer shawl, only his read beard visible. I drew my memory of him weeping on Yom Kippur as he chanted the prayer describing the slaughter of the ten great sages by the Romans. I would stand close to him in the white sanctity beneath the prayer shawl and I would see him cry as if the killing were taking place before his eyes. (11.2)

    Aryeh Lev is incredibly religious. One could argue that it's his most defining characteristic. Here we see that religiosity in action, as well as what a profound influence it was on Asher as a child.

    'It's time for sleep now, Asher. Let me hear your Krias Shema.' (17.10)

    Every night of his childhood, Asher says the Krias Shema, which is a nighttime prayer in Hebrew commonly said by very devout Jews. This shows what a significant presence religion is in Asher's life as he's growing up. The prayer is more than likely engrained in his memory forever.

    'Rivkeh, the Torah forbids it.' (21.12)

    Here Aryeh is trying to get Rivkeh to snap out of her grief spiral after her brother is killed. Often in My Name Is Asher Lev, an action is dismissed as wrong or false because it is forbidden by the Torah, the religious text central to the Jewish religion.

    'It's the work of the sitra achra,' my father murmured. (57.7)

    The sitra achra is commonly mentioned in this book—it's the source of all evil for Jews, something to be feared and avoided. It's a sizzling hot topic of debate whether or not Asher's gift comes from the Ribbono Shel Olom (God) or from the sitra achra. Blessed child prodigy or spawn of the devil? You make the call.

    The Rebbe turned and sat down in his chair. His movements were very slow. The tallis completely covered his head and face. The congregants took their seats. The service continued. A tremulous crescendo of sound began to fill the synagogue. Men swayed fervently back and forth. Arms gesticulated toward the ceiling and walls. I prayed loudly, swaying, caught up in the intensity of feeling that had taken possession of the service. (89.7)

    This service is held after Stalin dies, and the fervor and joy in the room is very palpable. This quote communicates what a powerful bonding agent religion can be, as well as the passion of Asher's particular congregation.

    Ribbono Shel Olom, help the Rebbe change his mind. Please, Ribbono Shel Olom. Please. (93.2)

    Asher prays to God that he will be spared from moving to Vienna with his parents. This quote shows us both the desperation of his prayer and his belief in the power of the Jewish god to effect major changes in the universe. And guess what? His prayer is (somewhat) answered: His father travels to Vienna, but Asher doesn't have to.

    'Asher, you have a gift. I do not know if it is a gift from the Ribbono Shel Olom or from the Other Side. If it is from the Other Side, then it is foolishness, dangerous foolishness, for it will take you away from the Torah and from your people and lead you to think only for yourself.' (109.2)

    Asher's father acknowledges his gift, but worries that it might violate the religious principles of the Hasidic community. This is a very real concern for him—for the Hasidic Jew, religion always comes first. Other stuff like family and your child's talents come second. Sometimes even third.

    'I have you in my mind and heart, Asher Lev. I pray to the Master of the Universe that the world will one day also hear of you as a Jew. Do you understand my words? Jacob Kahn will make you an artist. But only you will make of yourself a Jew.' (243.13)

    The Rabbi wants Asher to remember his religious roots, even as he's skyrocketing to fame as a prodigy painter. The assumption here is that painting can be taught, but you are born with religious conviction, and it's up to you whether or not you want to carry that religious conviction into your adult life. Heavy stuff. What about natural-born talent? That's pretty similar to being born into a religion, right? We know for sure the Rabbi probably disagrees with us, but what do you think?

    She seemed very uncomfortable.
    'They have a daughter,' she said.
    I stared at her. Then I laughed, suddenly and loudly.
    (293.15-16)

    Asher has this conversation with his mother because he has reached marriageable age (18 or older) and she wants him to marry a Hasidic girl from another Ladover family. Asher laughs at her because he has rejected his religion and has enough clout as a painter to back his rejection up. Still, rejecting your own mother and background is painful and kind of torturous, as the end of the book demonstrates.

  • Family

    My mother was not dead. She lay in her bed, but I could not see her. Uncle Yaakov had been in an accident, my father explained. A car accident. In Detroit. While traveling for the Rebbe. (14.2)

    When Rivkeh finds out her brother has been killed in a car accident, she is nearly destroyed by grief. Her grief is so profound because he was her only brother, and because family is extremely important to her. These values are instilled in Asher from an early age, and they guide him throughout the remainder of the book.

    'Your father doesn't know what to do with you, Asher.' (112.2)

    Uncle Yitzchok says this to Asher during Passover seder, when Asher is freaking out about having to move with his parents to Vienna. His behavior is confusing and obnoxious to the adults around him, who believe that it is the duty of a good child to be loyal to their parents. Maybe that's why they're not sure if Asher's talent was a gift from the devil.

    'Asher,' my mother said. 'You are being disrespectful to your father. Kibud ov, Asher. Remember, kibud ov. (129.18)

    In Hebrew, kibud ov means "parental honor." You may have heard this quote from the Old Testament: "Honor thy mother and father." Same meaning. Rivkeh's invoking this against Asher because he wasn't listening to Aryeh.

    'When a son goes so far away from the father, there can only be trouble.' (196.6)

    This is the abiding principle of the tension between Aryeh and Asher, and something that haunts Asher throughout the book. Asher is made to believe that he is disobeying his father by living his life as an artist.

    I wondered what they talked about during all those days of travel. Russian Jews? The yeshivos my father was bringing to life? Their strange son? My father's certainty of the trouble I would one day bring upon them? (263.3)

    Asher dwells on his parents' thoughts while they're in Vienna and he's living with his Uncle Yitzchok stateside. The geographical distance here also creates an emotional distance between Asher and his parents, which is difficult to repair even after they return home.

    'They are your parents. You should be with your parents.' (279.8)

    Jacob Kahn says this to Asher after Asher tells him he's relenting and going to visit his parents in Vienna. The quote is pretty self-explanatory—and anxiety-inducing for Asher, who's done a pretty shoddy job of being a son as far as the other characters in the book are concerned.

    They had lived years without me. Not they possessed a language of shared experience in which I was nonexistent. (291.1)

    Asher on his parents coming home from Vienna. Isn't there a Dixie Chicks song about this?

    I remembered my grandfather, the scholar, the recluse, the dweller in the study halls of synagogues and academies of learning. What had transformed him from recluse and scholar to emissary of the Rebbe's father? (323.4)

    Asher wonders about his grandfather and how he transformed into the wandering scholar he eventually became before being murdered by drunken peasants. His grandfather's life is of particular importance to him because it was his unfinished scholarly work that Aryeh has decided to complete—and that Asher is neglecting to complete by becoming an artist.

    I painted swiftly in a strange nerveless frenzy of energy. For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. (329.1)

    Asher thinks this as he's painting the Brooklyn Crucifixion series, demonstrating how the painting is more or less dedicated to his parents, even though he knows it's going to enrage them.

    I turned in the seat and looked out the rear window of the cab. My parents were still watching me through our living room window. (369.2)

    This is the last sentence of the book, and it communicates how estranged Asher has become from his family. He is leaving Brooklyn and setting out for a new place where he won't be despised for his art. But who says you can't go home? Asher's family & Rabbi say so, unfortunately.

  • The Past

    Does Yudel Krinsky remember Siberia every time he sees snow? I stared out the window and felt vaguely entombed. (61.5)

    Here Asher imagines Yudel Krinsky's difficult and fraught past in Siberia. Because of the tightly-woven community of which Asher and Yudel are both parts, and because Yudel was essentially rescued by Asher's dad, Asher begins to take on Yudel's past as his own. Sounds like quite the bear to burden. Wait—burden to bear, we mean.

    He came to me that night out of the woods, my mythic ancestor, huge, mountainous, dressed in his dark caftan and fur-trimmed cap, pounding his way through the trees on his Russian master's estate, the earth shaking, the mountains quivering, thunder in his voice. (98.4)

    For Asher, the mythic ancestor is a constant reminder of the past. He tends to show up when Asher is at a major crossroads in his own life—typically when he feels he isn't honoring the family tradition of scholarly study. The appearance of the mythic ancestor is usually accompanied by feelings of guilt, terror, and self-doubt.

    'It's colder inside than outside,' I thought I heard him say. 'And what are you doing with your time, my Asher Lev?' I thought I heard him say. (119.1)

    Here the mythic ancestor grills Asher on what he's up to. Once again, the mythic ancestor's presence is designed to remind us of the Lev family's storied past and Asher's present guilt.

    When have times ever been normal for Jews? (133.6)

    Jewish history is full of turmoil and persecution, and this book will certainly not let that be overlooked. When Asher is told that it's not a good time for the Jews, he wonders this about his people's past.

    Asher Lev, sometimes I find your presence a little—upsetting. You carry with you too much of my own past. (260.1)

    Jacob Kahn says this to Asher for two very important reasons: 1) Asher's present is a reflection of Jacob Kahn's own past, since Asher is an artistic prodigy coming into his own, and 2) Asher and Jacob Kahn share a history and culture that they feel at virtually every point in time, like a mosquito bite that just never goes away. We're itchy just thinking about it.

    Away from my world, alone in an apartment that offered me neither memories nor roots, I began to find old and distant memories of my own, long buried by pain and time and slowly brought to the surface now by the sight of waiting white canvases and by the winter emptiness of the small Parisian street. (322.4)

    Given time to reflect in Paris, Asher begins to think about his own past and the past of the Jewish people. Residual feelings of doubt and guilt rise to the surface and inspire him to paint new and innovative masterpieces.

    Traditions are born by the power of an initial thrust that hurls acts and ideas across the centuries. Had the death by fire of those individuals been such a thrust? Was my ancestor's act of atonement to extend through all generations of the family line?(324.4)

    This meditation on the past is particularly useful when it comes to understanding the ideas of tradition and ancestry in this book. Here we can see Asher confronting the notion of tradition, something with which he has greatly struggled in the past. Maybe he should have watched Fiddler on the Roof for some pointers.

    Now I thought of my mother and began to sense something of her years of anguish. Standing between two different ways of giving meaning to the world, and at the same time possessed by her own fears and memories, she had moved now toward me, now toward my father, keeping both worlds of meaning alive, nourishing with her tiny being, and despite her torments, both me and my father. (325.3)

    Asher's own past is full of family tensions and tragedy. When he is able to reflect on his own past, he is able to create art that lends meaning to events that have troubled him and his family. Unfortunately, his creations only make things even more troubling in the end.

    Do we really all grow old so quickly? There is so little time. (340.4)

    This is one of the more fascinating ideas of past and future in the book: namely, that the future bleeds into the past, and that's how time passes. Asher thinks this thought about Yudel Krinsky and is imagining how he, too, will someday be a thing of the past.

    I looked at myself in the window. Red hair, dark eyes, red beard, fisherman's cap. We will journey through the centuries. Will you need a cane, Asher Lev? (343.4)

    Another meditation on past and future—Asher Lev will someday himself be an artifact in need of a cane. But before he becomes an artifact, he will use his talent and dedication to lend meaning to the present and future. That's basically how art works.

  • Imagination versus Reality

    'Asher, it isn't nice to draw your mama like this.'
    'But it was how you feel in the boat, Mama.'
    (7.5-6)

    From early on, Asher and his mother have a fight about how he should draw. She demands "pretty things" and he returns her demand by painting things as he feels them, which is often humorous or twisted.

    'Asher, are you drawing pretty things? Are you drawing sweet, pretty things?'
    I was not drawing pretty things. I was drawing twisted shapes, swirling forms, in blacks and reds and grays. I did not respond.
    (17.15)

    Asher refuses his mother's demands to paint pretty things. In so doing, he begins to develop his style, which is dark and meditative in contrast to his mother's requests for birds and flowers.

    'Here are the birds and flowers, Mama.'
    She blinked her eyes.
    'I made the world pretty, Mama.'
    She turned her head away and closed her eyes.
    (19.8-11)

    When Asher finally concedes to his mother's request to paint something pretty, she's too grief-stricken by the death of her brother to notice or care. Just goes to show that you can't win 'em all, but you can catch 'em all…if we're talking about Pokémon.

    'I don't want to make pretty drawings, Mama.' (28.8)

    This is essentially Asher Lev's credo. He doesn't want to make pretty drawings: he wants to paint the world as he sees it, which is a place full of pain and suffering and indecision.

    I drew a book burning. Then I drew a pile of books burning. Then I drew houses burning. Then I drew the Ladover building burning. And my mother was no longer asking me what it all meant. (121.2)

    When Asher learns about the tragedies in the past of the Jewish people, he begins to draw things on fire. Fire and destruction remain themes in his paintings—super un-pretty themes. This is another example of Asher painting things as he feels them, rather than as they really are.

    'I made the Rebbe look like a being from the Other Side.' (125.8)

    When the Rabbi orders Aryeh to go to Vienna, Asher gets pretty furious about it. He ends up taking his anger out on the Rabbi by drawing an unflattering caricature of him in his Chumash. This is one really sacrilegious thing to do, and it causes quite a stir in the Ladover community.

    'That is Hopper's white sunlight. One day you will understand the sunlight in Monet and Van Gogh and Cézanne.' (252.1)

    Jacob Kahn says this to Asher as they're hanging out in Provincetown and looking at some sunlight on the beach. Asher is slowly learning how to see things as an artist sees them, which is very different from how a scientist, anthropologist or apparently a religious Jew sees them.

    The only honest way to paint today was either to represent objects that were recognizable, and at the same time integral to the two-dimensional nature of the canvas, or to do away with objects entirely and create paintings of color and texture and form, paintings that translates the volumes and voids in nature into fields of color, paintings in which the solids were flattened and the voids were filled and the planes were organized into what Hans Hofmann called 'complexes.' (253.3)

    Breaking down how Abstract Expressionism works, Asher absorbs a lesson from Jacob Kahn on how the strange shapes in a piece of artwork can actually translate to real things found in the world. This is a good example of an artist's imagination interpreting reality in a powerful and unusual way, but it still doesn't explain that one Missy Elliott video.

    I heard my mother and father. There was a quarrel. A man with a beard led me gently into a silver bird and sat with me through clouds. (281.3)

    When Asher visits his mother and father in Vienna, he gets sick and hallucinates that God is guiding him through heaven. This fever-dream is also a nod to how potent his imagination is and how it could possibly land him in hot water when used to arrange oils on canvas.

    Other Davids I had seen were small in size and represented David after the battle. This David was giant and represented the decision to enter the battle. The little Italian had effected a spatial and temporal shift that had changed the course of art. (312.4)

    If there's one thing Asher Lev loves, it's European art. When Asher finally gets to see Michelangelo's David in the Louvre, he realizes how the sculptor had manipulated his medium to present the viewer with a completely different view of the story, one way in which imagination can affect reality. No big deal or anything.

  • Education

    We needed to make maximum use of our time, my mother kept saying. We could each of us accomplish a great deal if we arranged our schedules carefully and made maximum use of our time. (54.2)

    Rivkeh becomes obsessed with studying after the death of her brother Yaakov, and she works to instill in Asher a similar tendency towards scholarly efficiency. Unfortunately, this doesn't exactly sink in with Asher. Or if it does, all that efficiency gets put towards painting.

    I failed the arithmetic test. (81.4)

    We learn relatively early on in the book that Asher isn't much of a student. He fails arithmetic tests and draws in his Chumash and is generally the shame of the yeshiva. Given that he comes from such scholarly stock, this comes across as ironic to most of the other congregants.

    'I am surprised and upset,' the teacher said, 'that the son of Reb Aryeh Lev would do such a thing. I do not know what to say. Please be so good as to never do it again, Asher. Drawing in a Chumash is a desecration of the Name of God. (123.8)

    This quote underscores the collective disappointment the community shares in Asher's inability to live up to the pious and scholarly attitudes of his fancy father. Come on, Ash, get it together, man.

    If you were a genius in mathematics, I would understand. If you were a genius in writing, I would also understand. If you were a genius in Gemorra, I would certainly understand. But a genius in drawing is foolishness, and I will not let it interfere with our lives. Do you understand me, Asher? (141.18)

    Aryeh's disapproval of Asher's gift is particularly obvious here. Painting isn't exactly a scholarly pursuit—at least not in his opinion—and he wishes that his son could be someone different and more studious, or at least studious-seeming.

    I had some homework. I started working on it, quickly, perfunctorily. In the middle of an algebra problem, I found myself drawing from memory the head of one of the screaming women in Guide Reni's Massacre of the Innocents. I looked at the head. Then I went back to the algebra problem. (200.4)

    Asher is always distracted from his yeshiva homework by the opportunity to study art history, which he gobbles up in a way that he's never before gobbled up any yeshiva topic. Although he tries to fight it, Asher will always be an artist.

    Listen, Asher Lev. I cannot teach you too much more about how to see. I will teach you some tricks. Then you will throw the tricks away and invent your own. (215.7)

    Jacob Kahn says this to Asher when he first takes Asher on as a student, adding some credence to the commonly-held belief that great artists cannot be taught. They can be encouraged and shown a few tricks of the trade, but the only way to get an education in art is to make it your darn self.

    The nude is a form of art I want you to master. To attempt to achieve greatness in art without mastering this art form is like attempting to be a great Hasidic teacher without knowledge of the Kabbalah. (229.7)

    Jacob Kahn explains the essentials of what it means to be a good artist; juxtaposing the education he's giving Asher with a traditional Hasidic education. This is especially ironic considering that Asher has rejected his own Hasidic education.

    'Asher Lev, you have been a good student.' (301.14)

    Jacob Kahn praises Asher with this quote, and it's true: the one realm of study in which Asher has excelled is the study of art and art history.

    He asked me to explain some of the concepts. We talked for a long time about the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, about illusion, depth, planar structure, points, areas, line, dispersive and progressive shapes, surface control, color separation, values, contrasts, accents, matrix. I began to lose him somewhere around planar structure, and by surface control it was hopeless. (305.11)

    Asher attempts to give Aryeh an education in the basics of painting when Aryeh expresses some interest in learning. But true to the history of their highly strained father-son dynamic, Aryeh lacks the ability to understand Asher's world.

    'The apprentice has become a master,' she said quietly. (362.5)

    Anna Schaeffer tells Asher this after his final show, the one in which Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II appear. This signifies that Asher has surpassed his instructor in terms of artistic ability—he is now the one who's fit to teach Jacob Kahn. And he's also about to make Schaeffer rich. We can picture her rubbing her hands together like an evil villain. Except she's not evil. You get the point.