Review: My Name Is Asher Lev

October 31, 2008

As in painting, so in words, there is a power that transcends our experience of life, a power that can doubly lift us to the sacred and mock us for the profane. So it is with Asher Lev.

My Name Is Asher Lev was one of the few works from high school English that I looked back upon fondly. For years my searches through Half Price Books have been surprisingly without reward, but at last I thought simply to borrow a copy.

It began slowly for me; after a dozen pages I wondered if it was really worth the time, in the face of other interesting options (I had been deciding between this, Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond, Aaron Burr by Gore Vidal, and Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner). Thankfully it was not long before Asher's gift began to manifest itself, and that the simple and direct language of Potok began to carry shocking emotional depth. The subject matter allowed the author to dwell on all things as seen -- on and around the surface, but never directly underneath it. Color and form are what Asher understands, and therefore they are what is revealed to us. Yet there was indeed depth.

From the vivid colors of Asher's life, we are drawn into art, into aging, into New York and immigrant life. Through tradition, we are drawn into the conflict of modernity. We are drawn deeply, though undoubtedly narrowly, into the Jewish psyche. A question this reader will long ponder: do Asher's rituals and traditions do more to sustain or to stunt him? I found the traditions beautiful and moving, lending strength to my own flagging sense of spirituality over the last two weeks.

He inspires to greatness, and he inspires fear. To be great is to be consumed. To strive for God -- to seek reunion with the Ribbono Shel Olom -- is to be consumed, even as a lit candle weeps its life away, drop by drop. They are not one and the same; perhaps they are extremes extruded from the same substance, two angles of the same face. Which cheek will you turn to the world?

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