“To touch a person’s heart, you must see a person’s face…”
Last week I was listening to a podcast where actor Tom Hanks was being interviewed. The interviewer asked him to name the first book he ever read that he felt was “transformative.” Tom answered My Name is Asher Lev. I was between books at the time and, having already read and enjoyed The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, I decided to try another.
Honestly, I found myself plodding through this book as if metaphorically walking through mud. I knew it would be about the Orthodox Jew culture. I knew it would be heavy. But it was heavy in a way I did not expect. It was emotionally heavy. Heavy and frustrating.
Now, I suppose that as far as “transformative,” I could see where Tom Hanks is coming from. If you are an artist and you believe that nothing comes before your art then, yes, My Name is Asher Lev could be considered transformative. But for the rest of us, I’m not so sure.
This is where interpretation of literature becomes a gray area.
As far as writing style, yes, Chaim Potok is an excellent writer. His style is minimal, yet profound. There is an indescribable power within it that propels the reader to carry on and keep reading. The plot, however…
Simply put, My Name is Asher Lev does not do any favors for the Orthodox Jews. It follows a young, friendless boy into adulthood who, more than anything else, wants to be an artist. The more his father tells him to stop wasting his time on drawing, the more he rebels. Over the years he continues to pursue his vocation at the risk of alienating everyone he cares about, his parents, his rabbi, his community.
The biggest question would have to be “Is it worth it?” Never having been in that situation, I cannot say. I did, however, think of my Uncle Ruben, an extremely talented artist who struggled for years against the wishes of my grandparents to turn his vocation into a career, eventually becoming successful and convincing them and everyone else.
Our protagonist, Asher Lev, had a larger task. He was battling against pervasive religious traditions that affected everything in his life. He was also battling against a close-knit religious community whose stronghold on those traditions was becoming more and more desperate as the world crumbled around them. Lastly, as the only son of a respected man who worked to help the persecuted, he was battling against his father, whom he loved.
Those who are fighting that uphill battle to just be who they are at the risk of all they love and hold dear will, perhaps, find Asher Lev’s story more relatable. There is an audience for his struggles. Unfortunately, I am not that audience.