Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

In The Gift of Asher Lev, Potok brings the reader back to the intricacies and contradictions of Asher Lev's life 18 years after he left Brooklyn for a self-imposed exile in France at the close of My Name is Asher Lev. Asher is now a very successful and well-known artist with a wife and two children, who continues to live with the dichotomy of painting and drawing what is in him for the sake of art while at the same time living as an observant Jew, mindful of Torah and the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Hasidic movement.

This is perhaps the most psychological stream-of-consciousness novel that I have read, as the author uses Asher's thoughts, fears, dreams, and visions to convey his current struggles as well as the history of the intervening years and even his wife's memories of World War II. Alongside the nebulous images of Asher's psyche, the traditions and expectations of the Ladover Hasidic community continue to shape the course of his life, even if they feel he has betrayed them with his art. Asher knows he has the Rebbe's blessing to pursue his art, even though his artistic vision brings pain and confusion to the Ladover Jews, but he was not prepared for what the Rebbe asked of him in return. Indeed, the Rebbe's request is posed in riddles and never fully articulated - no one else seems to be aware of how the Rebbe is shaping the future of individual lives and the Ladover movement - but perhaps it is Asher's artistic vision that makes him able to understand the Rebbe's intent and forces him to wrestle with decisions that will forever change the life of his family and children.

This novel was more mystical and introspective than My Name is Asher Lev, but that is to be expected when the protagonist is no longer a child and has years of life experience to reflect upon. It continued the conflict introduced in the first novel and provides a very interesting study of tension between one's gifts or talents and one's beliefs. On the one hand, Asher's artistic talent is a gift from the Master of the Universe, but the Ladover think that he misuses this gift by painting images that do not further the work of God. Asher maintains that this ambiguity is in accord with the way the Master of Universe has ordered the world - it is the only way he can make sense of the senseless things that have shaped the lives of those he loves and the world at large. While Asher wrestled with these issues as an individual in My Name is Asher Lev, in The Gift of Asher Lev he is faced with the implications of his artistic gifts for his family and forced to make a difficult and undesirable choice to try to balance his family's interests with the desires of the Rebbe and with his needs as an artist. Ironically, the decision that seems to be made for the greater good of everyone - himself, his wife and children, his parents, and the Ladover community - leads to a separation that was not unlike what he experienced and resented as a child.

I do not know if the author wanted to convey the message that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children or to emphasize the paradoxes of life: that joy is mixed with pain, that fulfillment entails self-denial, that what is received must be given away. Perhaps both messages are inherent along with many more. Potok's writing is rich with layers of meaning and symbolism, which reflects the mystical life and vision of the Rebbe as well as the Jewish way of discussing many interpretations of a single text. At any rate, it is thought provoking, and I will be adding Chaim Potok's other novels to my to be read list.


B said...

I'm definitely adding this to my reading list.

Heather VanTimmeren said...

Calon Lan ~ I'm so glad you find things to interest you in my reviews. I certainly miss reading yours!

Framed said...

What a thoughtful and interesting review. I've read both Asher Lev books and didn't get nearly as much out of them as you did, but still enjoyed them very much. I just love the way Potok writes. I have two more of his books waiting on the shelves.