So I didn't make it to the book club discussion for My Name Is Asher Lev, but at least I finally finished it two weeks later. This was my first introduction to Chaim Potok, and I hope to read more of his novels, though I've heard that some of them are very different in character.
My Name is Asher Lev is a coming of age story for a Jewish boy in a very observant Hasidic home. Asher has a rare gift for drawing and painting, and as a result is misunderstood, ridiculed, and shunned at times by his family and religious community in Brooklyn after WWII. Nevertheless, the Rebbe, the head of the Ladover Hasidic group recognizes Asher's talent and encourages him, allowing him to study with another Jewish artist and become a truly great artist himself.
I really liked the way Potok used the title as a structural element to set apart important events and characters in the story. At times, the stream of consciousness narrative seems a little advanced for the age Asher should be, but I suppose the fact that he is a prodigy with artistic vision could account for some of that, not to mention that his home life is rather atypical for a young boy. Asher's mother is certainly not your stereotypical Jewish mother, and her character is developed in a unique way, first as Asher perceives things as a child and then later as he reflects as an adult on the sacrifices and sorrows his mother has endured over the years. When he is compelled, by remaining true to his artistic vision, to express her sorrow in art, he makes a masterpiece for the artistic world, but drives a wedge between himself and his family and community.
The Jewish worldview is not overtly preached in this novel, but one can easily discern some of the more important elements: honor for family and community, refusal to be tainted by the "other side" or the Gentile world, the influence of the Rebbe and other interpretations over the Torah itself, the idea that spiritual work is far more noble than other vocations. I find it interesting to speculate how Asher Lev's artistic gift would have been perceived and fostered in other religious communities. At least in Reformed Protestant theology (though praxis may differ), there is value in all vocations, appreciation for creativity and beauty as reflective of the image of God, and not disparity between the spiritual and temporal.
I hope to read the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev, in the near future. It sounds like it will also deal with perceived conflicts between faith and calling, which is a tricky topic to explore in any faith tradition.