We open with Asher Lev's birth in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1943. His parents, Rivkeh and Aryeh, are Hasidic Jews: Rivkeh is a homemaker and Aryeh is a professional counsel to the Rabbi of the Ladover congregation, which basically means that the Rabbi orders Aryeh around and Aryeh happily takes those orders. Most of these orders involve extensive traveling.
We learn pretty early on that young Asher has an adult-sized talent for drawing, much to his mother's confusion and his father's annoyance. The family is struck by tragedy when Rivkeh's brother, another counsel to the Rabbi, is killed in a car accident. Asher stops drawing after that, but he starts up again shortly after Stalin dies and the Rabbi tells his father to move his family to Vienna so he can build yeshivas there (yeshivas, in case you were wondering, are Jewish day schools specializing in both religious and secular instruction). But Asher digs in his heels and refuses to leave. So his dad goes without him. And eventually his mom peaces out to Vienna, too.
Asher moves in with his weird rich uncle and continues to draw and paint. His subject matter is sort of controversial—i.e. unflattering caricatures of his yeshiva classmates and the Rabbi instead of pretty pictures of angels and Moses. The Rabbi recognizes his talent and decides that he needs a mentor. Enter Jacob Kahn, the crabby, eccentric double threat (painter and sculptor) who is a friend of Piccaso's. Jacob Kahn takes Asher under his wing and whips him into artistic shape; eventually Asher is painting masterpieces.
By the time his mom and dad return from Vienna, Asher is a young college student and semi-famous artistic prodigy whose work has been shown in exhibitions and purchased by real live art snobs at real live art galleries. His parents are just beginning to accept the fact that their son may be the next Piccaso when they go to one of his exhibitions and see pictures by him so controversial they basically disown him.