Places: My Name Is Asher Lev

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1972

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Brooklyn

*Brooklyn. My Name Is Asher LevNew York City borough in whose Crown Heights neighborhood Asher Lev and his family live. Asher’s home is a small, two-bedroom apartment not far from Brooklyn Parkway and a collection of Jewish establishments. A block and a half from this home stands the three-story, Gothic-style building in which his father, Reb Aryeh Lev, works for the Ladover headquarters of his Hasidic community. From this place the Rebbe, or spiritual leader of the community, sends Reb Aryeh Lev on journeys across the country and to Europe.

The Jewish community in which Asher grows up is populated with a jewelry shop owned by Asher’s Uncle Yitzchok Lev, Reb Yudel Krinsky’s stationery store where Asher buys art supplies and learns about persecution of the Jews in Russia, a yeshiva where Asher attends school, and a synagogue where the family worships. This part of Brooklyn is filled with the people whom Asher first learns to draw and admire. In this place his talents begin to emerge, and he feels his future is tied to this community. When given the opportunity to travel to Vienna with his parents, ten-year-old Asher fights to stay in Brooklyn, where he knows the parks and people.

While his father is away, Asher’s mother takes him to the Parkway Museum for the first time. There, he learns about painting and also encounters scenes depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Although Asher is cautioned by his father against looking at such paintings, he sees in these crucifixion themes a curious portrayal of profound suffering and love, a theme Asher ultimately incorporates into his own painting of his parents and himself.

Lev home

Lev home. Because Asher’s mother, Rivkeh Lev, loses her brother in an automobile accident while he is traveling for the Rebbe, she is constantly filled with anxiety about her husband’s travels and her son’s delays in returning from school. She often stands by the window of the small apartment and watches for the return of her family. The window frame around her becomes symbolic of Asher’s artistic vision of his mother’s anxiety over life. This window figures prominently in what become Asher’s crucifixion paintings of his family.

*Manhattan

*Manhattan. New York City borough to which Asher Lev goes to study art with Jacob Kahn. By the age of thirteen, Asher is identified by the Rebbe as a young man destined to be a great artist, even though Asher’s father cannot accept art as something more than foolishness in his son’s life. The Rebbe assigns Asher to Jacob Kahn as a mentor for teaching the young Asher how to develop his gifts. Kahn’s studio is on the fifth floor of an Upper Manhattan loft building with an excellent skylight and serves as a meeting place for learning art, as well as arranging shows through Anna Schaeffer, Kahn’s sponsor and art agent. There, Asher is initiated into the world of modern art, especially abstract expressionism, and the painting of nudes, which his father has taught him to shun. Asher’s first show is given at Anna Schaeffer’s gallery on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, and he learns to deal with the highly varied criticisms of newspaper reviewers.

*Provincetown

*Provincetown. Massachusetts coastal town in Cape Cod to which Jacob Kahn takes Asher to stay in a beach cottage during several summers. There, the two artists study light and sand and paint. Asher comes to understand the light as seen by Edward Hopper, Paul Cézanne, and other great artists. Kahn also introduces Asher to a variety of artists in this community that has not yet become a tourist town. In this new setting Asher begins to discover the value of traveling to new places to improve his ability to see creatively.

*Paris

*Paris. French capital city in which Asher reaches his maturity as an artist. After a second successful show, Asher travels to Florence, Italy, to develop new ideas. He especially studies Michelangelo’s David and his Duomo Pietà. This Pietà profoundly shapes Asher’s imagination and later becomes the inspiration for his own crucifixion paintings, which include him and his parents. After a trip to Rome, Asher returns to Paris to continue painting and studying art, not realizing that this city is to become his home after his parents and their Ladover Hasidic community reject his artwork and the Rebbe banishes him from his Brooklyn community.

BibliographyAbramson, Edward A. Chaim Potok. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Chapter four is devoted entirely to My Name Is Asher Lev and includes sections on “Judaism and the Visual Arts,” “The Individual and the Community,” “Ancestors and Fathers,” and “Artistic and Stylistic Development.” Also of interest are the book’s first and last chapters entitled “From Rabbi to Writer” and “The Writer Arrived.” Abramson includes a six-page selected bibliography.Kremer, S. Lillian. “Dedalus in Brooklyn: Influences of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on My Name Is Asher Lev.” Studies in Jewish American Literature 4 (1985): 26-38. Finds “the mark of James Joyce indelibly stamped on the third and fourth novels of Chaim Potok,” particularly in the use of “monologue, stream of consciousness techniques, and epiphany.”Pinsker, Sanford. “The Crucifixion of Chaim Potok/The Excommunication of Asher Lev: Art and the Hasidic World.” Studies in Jewish American Literature 4 (1985): 39-51. Calls the novel a Kunstlerroman, a novel of an artist’s education, and views Asher Lev’s departure at the novel’s end as “a kind of exile, a kind of excommunication.”Sgan, Arnold D. “The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name Is Asher Lev.” The English Journal 66 (March, 1977): 63-64. Erroneously calls Potok a psychologist but offers useful plot summaries and themes for each novel. Discusses Potok’s place in high school units on “Ethnic Literature” or “The Search for Identity.”Stern, David. Review of My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. Commentary 54 (October, 1972): 102, 104. Traces some of the similarities between the main characters in The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name Is Asher Lev and sees in those characters’ dilemmas “the dilemma of modern religious Judaism itself.”Walden, Daniel, ed. Studies in American Jewish Literature 4 (1985). This issue, entitled “The World of Chaim Potok,” contains articles on My Name Is Asher Lev cited above and other articles of interest.
Categories: Places