My Name is Asher Lev Summary
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.
Book 1, Chapter 1
- The chapter starts with Asher Lev narrating in the first person, telling us that yes, he is the controversial creator of the painting Brooklyn Crucifixion, and no, he's not gonna apologize for it. Well, okay then.
- Then Asher gives us a glimpse into his early childhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We meet his mother, Rivkeh, whom Asher draws falling backwards in a rowboat. And we meet his father, Aryeh, who is always busy traveling for the Rabbi and telling Asher to drink his orange juice before the vitamins go out of it.
- We also learn about Asher's mythic ancestor, which is another name for Asher's great-great-grandfather on his dad's side. This mythic ancestor is of course dead but basically a character in the novel given how much Asher dreams about him.
- The mythic ancestor used to work for a goyische (non-Jewish) Russian nobleman who would get crazy-drunk and burn down villages for fun. The mythic ancestor turned the nobleman's estates into an impressive source of income for himself and his employer, and in his later years began traveling the world and teaching wisdom from the Torah.
- Somewhere in the middle of the chapter, Rivkeh's brother—Asher's Uncle Yaakov—dies in a car accident in Detroit while traveling for the Rabbi.
- Rivkeh becomes sick with grief as a result of this, and Aryeh stops traveling for the Rabbi. Asher is constantly trying to cheer his mother up, sometimes by making the "pretty" drawings she's always telling him to make.
- When that doesn't work, his drawings get real and start to reflect how unpretty the world is. He draws one of his mom sick in bed, which completely sends his dad over the edge.
- Aryeh stops traveling all over the continental United States for the Rabbi and hires a nanny, Mrs. Rackover, to take over Rivkeh's duties around the house.
- One fateful Passover, Aryheh's brother—Asher's Uncle Yitzchok—comes to visit the Lev family. He sees six-year-old Asher's drawings and is completely blown away.
- He even goes so far as to ask to buy one, which is kind of a crazy thing to ask from a six-year-old. He then compares Asher to Picasso and Chagall, two pretty intense people to compare a six-year-old to.
- A few weeks later, Asher meets the funny-name-having Yudel Krinsky, one of the Jews who was persecuted by Stalin in Russia and then got lucky enough to escape.
- Yudel was put in Siberia for eleven years, and had to leave his family behind in Russia when he came to America. Yudel Krinsky's story really sticks with Asher.
- Asher's mother gets better and decides she's going to finish the work that her brother Yaakov abandoned, which was to study Russian Jewish culture and advise the Rabbi on it.
- Asher's father goes back to traveling for the Rabbi. And Asher decides his drawings make people he loves too angry to be worth doing, so he stops doing them.
- Asher starts elementary school in a yeshiva in Crown Heights, which proves to be kind of a mixed bag for him. He likes his teachers and his classmates okay, but he's really not that great at school (especially math) and suffers because he's convinced himself that his artistic gift is a bad thing.
- Asher's mother wonders why he's stopped drawing, and he doesn't really have an answer for her other than that he believes it comes from the sitra achra.
- Meanwhile, she's entered college, determined to resume Yaakov's work where he left off. She becomes increasingly freaked out at the prospect of anyone she loves meeting with harm, which leads to her being kind of a high-strung helicopter parent and yelling at Asher whenever he comes home late from school.
- Aryeh gets ahold of the news that Stalin—or "The Russian Bear," as his friends call him—has murdered six Jewish writers. The news is devastating for the Crown Heights Hasidic community, and it makes Asher think about Siberia and murder more than is probably healthy for a kid in elementary school.
- Aryeh takes a business trip to Boston and Rivkeh spends the entire time panicking about the murdered writers and Aryeh's safe return home. The Lev house is a super stressful place, to say the least.
- In order to avoid the stress of his home life, Asher begins to visit Yudel Krinsky's stationery shop more and more after school.
- Asher pays a particularly long visit to Yudel's shop in the middle of a snowstorm and gets home late and his mom basically turns into the Incredible Raging Hulk and tells him he could've died.
- This chapter opens with Stalin dying, which is a huge relief to Jewish people around the world—especially the people in Asher's congregation.
- But relief immediately turns to panic for young Asher, because Stalin's death means that Europe is automatically safer for Jews, which means that the Rabbi wants Aryeh and his family to move to Vienna, Austria so Aryeh can build Hasidic yeshivas all over Europe.
- Asher really doesn't want to go to Vienna. Like imagine how much you probably want to write a twenty page essay on literary theory right now and multiply that times a thousand and you'll have how much Asher doesn't want to go to Vienna.
- He spends a lot of this chapter asking his parents why he has to go, and if it's really necessary that he does go, and whether they'd be chill with him just statying in Crown Heights while they go. And of course they're like: Nope.
- The final event of note that happens in this chapter is Asher draws a picture of Stalin dead in his coffin. This is important both because it's creepy and because it's the first picture Asher has drawn in a long time.
- Now Asher is just drawing unpretty pictures of dead Stalin constantly. His dad discovers the drawings and is like, "Wow, why are you drawing pictures of dead Stalin instead of not being terrible at school?" And Asher's like, "I have no idea."
- Not surprisingly, Asher still doesn't want to go to Vienna. His stubbornness leads his parents to reschedule an appointment to get the family their passports.
- When Asher throws a fit during Passover and begs Uncle Yitzchok to let him live with him while Aryeh and Rivkeh go to Vienna, Uncle Yitzchok responds by saying that although Asher may be an artistic genius, he's currently acting like a little brat.
- Because Asher's being so annoying, his dad eventually sits him down to try and teach him a life lesson about making sacrifices for the Jewish people.
- Asher learns the story of how his father's father, who was a great Jewish scholar, died in service of the Rabbi's father. Basically, he was being scholarly in Europe and planning to open a bunch of yeshivas for the Rabbi's father, but then he got murdered by a drunk peasant the night before Easter. So now it's up to Aryeh to finish all the work his father left unfinished. Basically there's a lot of inherited guilt going on.
- That same night, Asher has a dream about his mythic ancestor and wakes up stressed out about the fact that his artistic gift seems to be causing more harm than good. He asks God why he's an artist instead of a scholar like his father, his father before him, and his father before him. God doesn't respond.
- Asher's behavior has gotten so weird that his mom decides to take him to a series of doctors. None of these doctors can find anything wrong with him, much to her frustration.
- In yeshiva, he absentmindedly draws a really ugly caricature of the Rabbi in his Chumash, which is the Hebrew term for Torah. This is an act of sacrilege, and it gets Asher in trouble with pretty much everyone, from the mashpia—who's basically the spiritual mentor of the congregation, kind of like a Hasidic Yoda—to some really annoying kid who can't get over the fact that Asher drew something in his Chumash.
- Asher goes to see the mashpia, who is calm-but-stern about the Chumash incident. He asks Asher if he's ready to go to Vienna, which is pretty much Asher's least favorite topic of conversation.
- Asher starts daydreaming about how he'd draw the mashpia, which is definitely a sign that he's got a problem. The mashpia tells Asher he has a gift, but the gift is making him selfish. He asks Asher to fill a sketchbook for him, and Asher does, and then feels weird and depressed about it.
- He leaves the
Book 2, Chapter 6
- This chapter opens with Asher missing his dad a lot. Aryeh writes his family from random places in Europe—Zurich, Geneva, Paris, Bucharest—to let them know he's okay. This is the 1950s, remember (otherwise known as the Dark Ages), so there's no Skype or even international phone calls—if someone leaves the country, that person basically disappears.
- Asher draws a lot of pictures of his dad and feels like he knows him better than he did before he left.
- Rivkeh buys Asher some oil paints, and he feels better about finally painting with them because they're not stolen goods. He paints his first oil on canvas and of course it's really good.
- Meanwhile, he continues to be really, really bad at school. His dad learns about this all the way in Vienna and is pretty mad about it. Asher starts to feel really guilty, but he doesn't change his ways because he doesn't know how. He was born to paint, and he has to keep on doing it.
- His mom takes him to a different art museum and they look at pictures of Jesus on the cross. They also look at pictures of nudes. Both of these sorts of images are forbidden by the Torah, but Asher doesn't understand how it could be against the Torah to paint beautiful things. Rivkeh doesn't have an answer for him, and wishes that his father was home.
- When Aryeh does come home to visit, he's basically wasting away and is really stressed out about anti-Semitism in Europe. He is also super not thrilled with his son's non-studiousness.
- Eventually, Rivkeh decides to spend a summer with her husband in Vienna so she can help him regain his strength. They let Asher stay with his Uncle Yitzchok for a few months, and Asher continues to paint.
- Right before his bar mitzvah, Asher is summoned to meet with the Rabbi himself, which is pretty intimidating. In the waiting room, Asher notices a strange man who draws an impromptu portrait of him. Asher draws an impromptu portrait of the man and leaves it on his empty seat.
- The Rabbi basically just gives Asher his blessings and tells him to honor his father. Asher leaves the office and notices the strange man standing outside.
- The strange man introduces himself as Jacob Kahn, a famous painter and sculptor. He tells Asher that the Rabbi has asked him to mentor him. He then tells Asher to go see and study Picasso's painting Guernica at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Asher goes to see and study Guernica and basically falls in love with it.
- Jacob Kahn asks Asher to do increasingly non-kosher things, like read the New Testament and look at the Christian painter Guido Reni's Massacre of the Innocents, which portrays a scene from the Book of Matthew.
- Asher likes this Christian art because it shows angst and suffering in a way that feels real to him. He reads a bunch of art stuff instead of doing his homework from yeshiva.
- Asher goes to Jacob Kahn's fancy Manhattan apartment and meets a gallery owner, Anna Schaeffer, who represents Jacob Kahn and is kind of skeptical about a hyper-religious Jewish boy being an art prodigy. When she sees his sketchbooks, though, she definitely believes in his talent.
- Jacob Kahn warns Asher that painting is basically a new religion—a "pagan" one—and that everything about it sort of flies in the face of the Jewish tradition. Then he basically tells Asher that he's a genius and needs to study painting.
- Asher starts coming to Jacob Kahn's apartment regularly—so regularly that the doorman asks him if he's studying to become a painter. And he pretty much is. He paints with Jacob Kahn night and day and learn about famous Christian painters like nobody's business and barely has time for his homework, which he didn't care that much about anyway.
- Asher paints a really impressive portrait of the annoying, Chumash-obsessed kid from yeshiva. Jacob Kahn thinks it's so good that it's time Asher start drawing nudes.
- Portraits of nudes are strictly forbidden by the Hasidic tradition, so Asher is quaking in his boots when Jacob Kahn introduces him to the female model he'll be drawing. But eventually he overcomes his fears and draws her beautifully.
- Aryeh comes back from Vienna looking incredibly sick. He misses his family—Rivkeh especially. He has grown distant from Asher and his painting; he's not so much mad about it anymore as he just doesn't understand it.
- Later on, Rivkeh asks Asher if he would mind staying with his Uncle Yitzchok so she could move to Vienna with his father. Asher is petrified, but she tells him he's grown up enough to do this and pretty much doesn't have any other option.
- Asher's life begins to spin out of control: he can't paint, he keeps on falling asleep in school, and his classmates tease him by planting limericks in his Torah about how he won't be going to heaven.
- He begs his mom not to go to Vienna, but she does, anyway. The Rabbi calls him into his office again and tells him to just try and be cool for once. But Asher can't be cool.
- Heavy-hearted, he moves into his Uncle Yitzchok's house while his mother leaves for Vienna.
Book 3, Chapter 10
- Jacob Kahn brings Asher to his summer house on the beach in Cape Cod. Asher loves it there, because it's a quiet place where he can think about painting. He and Jacob Kahn really bond in a mentor-mentee/father-son way. Asher meets his wife, Tanya Kahn, who is a kind and bookish woman.
- Although Jacob Kahn slips into a brief depression, the summer is an overall success. Asher learns a lot and every compliments him on his talent. It's a happy-but-uneventful chapter.
- Asher enters high school and finds out that the Rabbi wants him to study French, so he does. He gets increasingly chummy with Jacob Kahn, who's basically his dad at this point. They dance together during Simchat Torah, which is a big deal for Jacob Kahn, because he's sort of a lapsed Jew.
- Jacob Kahn has an art show at Anna Schaeffer's gallery, and in the show is a sculpture of two heads facing in the same direction: Jacob Kahn's and Asher's.
- A really rich patron buys the sculpture, and Asher is shocked and honored that he's been immortalized in the art world through this sculpture.
- Uncle Yitzchok, who is really rich and no longer mad at Asher for being so whiny about not wanting to go to Vienna, decides to help Asher turn the attic in his house into a giant art studio.
- Asher's parents come back from Vienna for the High Holidays and move into Uncle Yitzchok's house because they've sublet their old apartment. Asher paints in his attic all day and basically doesn't speak to his father at all.
- Rivkeh and Aryeh constantly fight about Asher's painting—Aryeh accuses Rivkeh of "indulging" him and Rivkeh tries to get him to see that their son's talent is just something they have to cope with. Tensions run incredibly high and nobody really does anything about it.
- Asher's parents go back to Vienna and guilt him into coming abroad to visit them for the holidays. He goes, but the trip is a disaster: he's really sick the whole time, and can barely have a coherent conversation with his parents about anything.
- He's much happier when he returns home, traveling with Jacob Kahn to see art exhibitions in the continental United States and painting up a storm in his uncle's attic.
- Eventually, Anna Schaeffer decides Asher has enough artwork lying around for a show, so she throws one together in her gallery. It opens to mixed, but mostly positive, reviews. Asher has a second show the following spring that does really well.
- He's becoming a Very Serious Artist. His parents move back from Vienna permanently and return to their old apartment. Asher lives with them, but continues to paint in his uncle's attic.
- Asher is now a college student with two pretty successful art shows behind him. His relationship with his father has sort of settled down: Aryeh doesn't really care what Asher does as long as Asher's art doesn't shame the family, and in turn Asher tries to keep his head down and not offend Aryeh. This is sort of a hard thing to do. They end up having a lot of weird, misinformed conversation about how art isn't just about feelings and also what one art critic means by the term "Picassoid forms."
- Meanwhile, Rivkeh keeps on trying to get Asher to marry (or at least date) a nice Hasidic girl from a good family. Asher shows absolutely no interest in a relationship with her—or a relationship of any sort with anyone, for that matter.
- Aryeh finds Asher's portraits of nudes and becomes enraged. Asher's parents tell him that they'll only attend an exhibition of his artwork if it doesn't include any nudes. Typical parents.
- Asher tells his mom that he wants to travel to Florence, Italy the summer after he graduates from college. She's pretty shocked, because Asher isn't exactly a huge fan of travel. Aryeh is thrilled, though, and makes a list of all the restaurants Asher can go to in Florence where he can eat kosher food.
- Asher goes to Florence and has a really amazing time. He goes to pretty much every art museum in the city, but pays special attention to the Piazza del Duomo, which features a marble sculpture by Michelangelo called the Pietá. Asher draws the sculpture over and over and over again. He also begins to draw pictures of his mother.
- He visits a yeshiva in Florence that his hard-working dad helped found, and begins to get a sense of Aryeh's accomplishments. Then he decides to travel to Paris, where he's greeted by teacher from yet another Aryeh-founded yeshiva. He's impressed.
- He settles in Paris and starts to paint like crazy once again. Some of the paintings are of his mythic ancestor, some are of his mother, and some are of the Virgin Mary. It's a mixed bag.
- But then he starts work on two weird and intense new paintings, which are something unlike he's ever painted before. They're of his mother being crucified in the window of their Brooklyn apartment, with Asher on one side in his artist's getup and his father on the other side in his traditional dress and attache case.
- Painting these pictures stresses Asher out, because the crucifixion is a symbol of Christian suffering—not exactly something that really religious Jews tend to associate with.
- Asher returns home and stays with his parents. Anna Schaeffer tells him he's going to have another gallery show soon, and that his crucifixion paintings—Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II—will be very prominently featured.
- To make matters even more awkward, the show isn't going to have any nudes in it, so his parents can technically go. But if they do go, it'll a perfect storm of Sharknado proportions.
- Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Asher has fever-dreams about his mythic ancestor. He visits Jacob Kahn, who is seriously ill and may not recover. Jacob Kahn wishes him luck with his show, and assures him that he shouldn't be worried. Asher, who is pretty bad at not worrying, doesn't take this advice.
- Asher's show is being covered by Time and Newsweek: when he shows up in Anna Schaeffer's gallery, he might as well be Mick Jagger. Everyone's congratulating him and calling him a genius, etc.
- Then his parents show up. They've never been to an art show before, and need Asher to help them around. He's basically stuck showing them around, and when they finally do see Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II, they stomp out of the room and basically disown him.
- The book ends with the Rabbi asking Asher to leave the Ladover community in Brooklyn and live somewhere else. Asher barely has a relationship with his father, and he and his mother speak pretty sparsely.
- He leaves home—and his community, his identity— just as he's becoming a huge international star in the art world.