If I ever write a memoir, which I will never do because I’ve lived a (thankfully) very dull life, I would organize it around the books that were important to me at different points in my life. Once when I was in college a friend of my roommate’s came into our room and looked in disbelief at our two very small bookshelves, which were almost all filled with my books. “Who owns all these f@#*ing books?” he said. On learning they were mine, he wanted to know had I read them all and asked, “How the f@#* can anyone read so f@#*ing many books???” That anecdote suggests that I had a lot of book in my dorm room in college (by his standards anyway) but if I were to write about my college years in terms of the books I remember, the only one that really stands out in my mind as being hugely influential in those years was My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
It wasn’t just me — this book was tremendously popular at the Seventh-day Adventist university I attended. English majors like me, and fine arts majors like some of my good friends, especially loved it. My copy is worn and faded not just from multiple readings but from multiple lendings.
Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew growing up in post-WW2 Brooklyn to deeply observant and religious parents. Potok called the specific Hasidic community to which the Lev family belongs “Ladover”; this tight-knit fictional community bears many resemblances to the real-life Lubavitcher Hasidim headquartered in Brooklyn. From a very early age young Asher demonstrates a unique talent for drawing. While the Ladover Hasidim are not among the extremely orthodox who condemn all representational art as a violation of the second commandment, Asher’s gift still meets with some disapproval. His father wants a son who studies Torah and will grow up to help his people, not a son who will grow up to become an artist. Asher’s drawing is at best a distraction from more serious pursuits, at worst a temptation to evil.
Yet Asher pursues his path as an artist even when it leads him to do things — painting nudes, ultimately painting a crucifixion scene — that are not acceptable within his religious community. This brings him into conflict with his family, especially his father, and also with his own desire to remain observant. What I’ve always loved about this book is that it provides the template, for me, for how a writer can handle religion in a novel intended for mainstream readers. Even by the time I stumbled across Asher Lev in my late teens I was as tired of novels where religion was irrelevant, or was belittled and shown as a repressive, backward system, as I was of “Christian books” where the religious worldview was never questioned. Chaim Potok was the first writer I read who captured the complexity of growing up in a closely-knit religious community and being a true believer, but also feeling that you didn’t quite fit into that world. Potok acknowledged that a conservative religious community could be both a source of life and spiritual strength, and at the same time a restrictive prison for a young person who needs to escape.
I mean, you can see why it was a hit at an Adventist college, can’t you?
For me as a budding writer, Asher Lev’s attempt to balance his committment to art and his committment to God and his people had a major influence on the way I viewed my own future as a writer and as a Christian. Though, as it turns out, I haven’t been saddled with Asher’s burden of vast early fame (or even vast midlife fame, actually), I found that re-reading the book after many years still awakened many of the same feelings and opened up those same questions for me. I’m not sure if I believe as wholly in the priority Asher gives to art, as I did when I was younger — I found myself wondering if, in the end, it would have been that big a deal had he just refused to exhibit the two paintings he knew would hurt his parents the most. Maybe in midlife I’m giving higher priority to relationships than to artistic integrity — I’m not sure. But I know the story is still as good and the questions it raises as compelling as when I first read it, and it remains my model for how to write well about the complexity of a life of faith.