The epigraph to My Name is Asher Lev, "Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth," a quote from Pablo Picasso, is a kind of metaphor, one of the controlling ideas of the book. The essential conflict is revealed in the first pages of the book:
My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.
Yet, he went on, "I am an observant Jew." The result is that I am labeled
a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflictor of shame … a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.
Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, … I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.(1-3)
The novel is an explanation, a defense, for a long session in demythology. As Potok once said about Picasso's Guernica, "That's the redemptive power of art. The artist, in strange fashion, redeems the horror of reality through the power of his or her art" (Kauvar 70).
In a 1956 interview, Chaim Potok said, "Today is the first time in the history of the Jewish people that the Jews actually constitute a fundamental element of our umbrella civilization" (Hinds 89). But, as a result of being in the cores of two cultures simultaneously and having to fight the battle of how to fuse them, we are in a between period. What will happen, he concluded, is "very difficult to discern, but it is something that will come out of our fusion with the best of Western humanism [End Page 148] unless we're inundated by the periphery of things Jewish and things secular" (Kauvar 87).
In his many novels and in his essays, Potok tried to explore how people confront ideas different from their own. The central metaphor of The Chosen (1967) is combat of various kinds, about two components of the core of Judaism, or any tradition, one component looking inward and one looking outward to solve its problems. The baseball game, for example, is a metaphor for a kind of combat, for a war, of spiritual as well as material differences. The central metaphor of The Promise (1969) is about the confrontation with text criticism. My Name Is Asher Lev (1972) is about an observant Jew's confrontation with Western Art. Davita's Harp (1985) is about Davita using her imagination as a way of coming to terms with unbearable reality. The central metaphor in The Book of Lights (1981) is the mystery and the awe that some of us sense in the grittiness of reality (Kauvar 67-68).
The world that Potok created in his books was a small esoteric world, much like that of Faulkner's small-town Mississippi. It was about good people involved in situations that they want to come to terms with in a positive way. Potok's art was filled with aesthetic vessels, motifs that reflected a conflict between art and any established institution. The modern artist's voice is really an antagonistic one. Asher Lev typifies what happens when an observant Jew wants to enter the mainstream of Western art. Or, in reverse, the artist who wants to remain an observant Jew confronts a significant problem. The moral quotient of the artistic endeavor is at times necessary and never enough; the aesthetic element, however, to Asher Lev, was at all times necessary and sometimes sufficient.
My Name is Asher Lev owes its beginning to an event in his childhood when his yeshiva inexplicably hired an artist to give a course in painting to the children. Normally, orthodoxy and an orthodox school viewed painting as a taboo; it was against their interpretation of the Second Commandment, it was against Jewish tradition, and his father thought it a terrible waste of time. But Potok saw Asher Lev as the metaphor for his own conflicts. By the time he was twenty, he was the inheritor of two utterly antithetical commitments: modern...