Study Guide

My Name is Asher Lev Themes

  • Individuality

    Is it better to go it alone than pretend you're someone you aren't, or is one truly the loneliest number that you'll ever do? In My Name Is Asher Lev, the theme of individuality is explored in great depth. Asher's main struggle (much like the struggle of anyone growing up anywhere) is how to do his own thing without sacrificing the close relationships he's developed with others in his community. In Asher's case, his individuality puts him at risk for losing some of the relationships he really counts on.

    Questions About Individuality

    1. You've probably heard of the whole individual versus society conflict in lit class…so how does it play out in this book? What are the major conflicts Asher experiences between his inner desires and the society around him?
    2. How does Asher grow and change as an individual throughout the book?
    3. What does Asher have to sacrifice in order to become an individual?
    4. How is Aryeh's idea of individuality different from Asher's?

    Chew on This

    My Name Is Asher Lev is about the tensions that arise between a unique individual and the community he's growing up in.

    We learn through the story of Asher's life—and his struggle to balance his art with his religion— that no one can be defined by a single label.

  • Community

    There's strength in numbers, right? For Hasidic Jews, community is everything: orthodox religious practices are highly unique and can be both isolating (especially since people outside the orthodox community don't tend to know about them) and empowering because they bond a group of otherwise fairly different people together. Asher's artistic talent singles him out in his community, forcing him into the spotlight and then into exile. This loss of community changes Asher's life permanently. At the same time, his inclusion in the artistic community proves both a boon and a very stressful burden to bear.

    Questions About Community

    1. Imagine you are Asher Lev: how does it feel to be cast out of the Ladover Hasidic community? Is it devastating? Liberating? Both?
    2. How does the Ladover Hasidic community protect its members?
    3. Can you imagine a circumstance in which the Ladover Hasidic community could be considered isolating? Why or why not?
    4. Does being a member of a community still allow for the expression of individuality?

    Chew on This

    For Asher, the community in which he grows up both defines his art and prevents him from practicing it fully.

    Asher Lev's story shows us that, in seeking to protect its members, the Ladover Hasidic community ends up squelching their individuality.

  • Creativity

    Creativity is a pretty big deal in this book because it's basically what makes Asher Lev so unique. He's creative, innovative, and single-minded where others aren't, and that rubs a bunch of people the wrong way. Another item-of-note on the topic of creativity is that it sometimes governs Asher's life more than he would like it to.

    Questions About Creativity

    1. Creativity is a lot more than throwing some paint on a canvas or gluing some macaroni on a piece of construction paper, that much we know. But what is it, really? What's your personal definition of creativity?
    2. Why is it sometimes difficult for Asher to be creative?
    3. How is a creative act different from a non-creative one?
    4. Are people born creative? Or can creativity be learned?

    Chew on This

    In My Name Is Asher Lev, creativity is both a source of frustration and empowerment for the protagonist.

    It could be argued that, based on what Chaim Potok shows us with Asher, it is more difficult to be creative than it is to not be creative.

  • Religion

    Religion is a really huge deal in this book. Perhaps the hugest deal. And that's because Asher Lev is a member of a community of Orthodox Hasidism who don't take kindly to painting, acting out, or anything that's considered less-than-religious. Asher is constantly butting heads with his own religion, and this head-butting comprises the major tension in the book. How do you solve a problem like Asher Lev? Maybe his Rabbi could have taken some pointers from The Sound of Music.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What role does religion serve in Asher's life? Aryeh's? Rivkeh's?
    2. Jacob Kahn used to be a religious Jew, but then he lapsed. Why do you think this is?
    3. How does religion define the daily lives of the members of the Ladover community?
    4. Imagine you're the Rabbi. How would you feel about having someone like Asher Lev in your congregation?

    Chew on This

    Asher's religious background is the inspiration for his paintings Brooklyn Crucifixion I and II, the very paintings that lead to him being excommunicated from his religious community.

    It can be argued that the Jewish religion is another character in Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev.

  • Family

    It's all in the family, as they say. And in this case, it really is: religion, art, and love tend to feed the feuding-fire in the Lev household. Asher loves his parents dearly and feels he's betraying them by becoming an artist. At the same time, he can't stop becoming an artist, since it's in his blood. Family is the root of almost all conflict in this story, so you know it's a pretty important theme.

    Questions About Family

    1. How do the members of the Lev family express their love for each other?
    2. What roles do Uncle Yitzchok and Uncle Yaakov play in helping us understand the dynamics of the Lev family?
    3. Can you think of a time in the book when Asher's family actually helps his career rather than hindering it?
    4. Is the concept of "family" necessarily limited to biological relations only, or can it mean something bigger in this book?

    Chew on This

    Families are an important part of the Hasidic community in Chaim Potok's book: without them, the Orthodox Judaism could not survive and thrive as depicted here.

    Asher's love of his family is simultaneously helpful and detrimental to his career as an artist.

  • The Past

    Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! Asher Lev is always confronting his past—and the Jewish people's past—and facing those strange changes David Bowie once sang about. The history of the Jewish people is invoked on every other page, and the Lev family history looms large as well. Combined, these two things make Asher more than a little neurotic while moving towards his future.

    Questions About The Past

    1. How is the past important to Asher?
    2. How does his notion of the past influence his notion of the present? The future?
    3. Is there a difference in the way Asher and his family think about the recent past versus the distant past?
    4. How does the mythic ancestor figure into the conversation about the past?

    Chew on This

    Asher Lev's preoccupation with his own past mirrors Aryeh Lev's preoccupation with Asher's present and future.

    In My Name Is Asher Lev, the Ladover Hasidic community structures itself around memories of the past, and plans its future accordingly.

  • Imagination versus Reality

    Representation and objects: lots of stuff going on there, lots of potential for misunderstanding. All paintings are representations of something, whether it's an emotion or just a bowl of pears sitting on a table. In this book, there is a lot of debate about how the world is and how it should be. Asher tries to represent things as he sees them instead of as they really are: he paints his mother on a crucifix and his classmates in the underworld. Naturally, Asher's representations don't exactly go over well with the people who don't share his view of the world.

    Questions About Imagination versus Reality

    1. If Asher is such a gifted artist, why does he struggle so much to accurately "capture" the people he paints?
    2. Can any work of art represent the world 100% accurately?
    3. What are the upsides and downsides to trusting your imagination too much? What about clinging too closely to reality?
    4. Can painting still tell us something about the world, even if all paintings don't necessarily look like the things they represent?

    Chew on This

    In his paintings, Asher Lev often struggles to distinguish between representing things as they are and representing things as he sees them.

    My Name Is Asher Lev shows us that imagination can be a very powerful but also very damaging thing.

  • Education

    Learning: it's not always an easy matter. Asher's education is important in this book because he comes from a pretty bookish family, and they come from a line of famous Jewish European scholars. Asher, however, ends up getting his education in painting. Controversy abounds. Just wait 'til you see the headlines.

    Questions About Education

    1. How do Rivkeh and Aryeh keep the scholarly traditions they grew up with alive in their home?
    2. When does Asher "comply" with his education and when does he rebel against it?
    3. How does the education at yeshiva differ from the education Asher gets with Jacob Kahn? (And no, answering "different subject matter" doesn't count.)
    4. In what setting do you think you learn the most? School? Home? How do the things you learn in different settings differ from one another?

    Chew on This

    In My Name Is Asher Lev, the title character learns more outside his yeshiva than he does inside.

    Asher's mentor, Jacob Kahn, proves to be such a capable teacher that he is eventually succeeded in ability by his student.