My Name Is Asher Lev
Chiam Potok's amazing work My Name Is Asher Lev is set in post-war Crown Heights, Brooklyn with Asher growing up in a closely-knitted Hasidic community. The book follows Asher from age six to his early 20's as he attempts to find a balance in his life. Asher feels a responsibility in every action he takes, as if it would reflect in everybody else's lives. This, more often than not, holds him back in some way, not exposing himself fully to others and to the world. This heaviness upon his shoulders is most vividly illustrated when he is asked by Jacob Khan, the artist who takes Asher under his wing when he is merely thirteen, if he feels any responsibility to anything and he answers that he feels responsible "To Jews... [as] All Jews are responsible one for the other" (Potok 218). This sense of responsibility is very much instilled into Asher by his father, Aryeh. It seems that everything Asher does reflects on his father, even as a child. For example, when Asher was a young boy, he refused to study the Torah, and was immediately told to stop embarrassing his father, such a great man, and to concentrate on his studies, rather that such a thing as painting (Potok 165). Finally, Khan slowly breakes down Asher's walls and teaches him to listen to his inner muse, his interpretation, his thoughts, rather than just what society deems right. That is how Asher is able to advance, not just in his art, but with his life and to find some sort of balance.
This book is so timeless because of the main character's constant struggle with concepts such as sin, redemption, accountability, atonement, societal and familial obligation, religion, sense of self, and responsibility to one's own happiness. This IS what the human stuggle is, illustated by Chaim Potok in the shape of a boy pressured by his family to be a perfect child, focused 24 hours a day on his studies and religion, never straying, never slipping up. Throughout much of the novel, Asher is in his father's shadow; never, being up to par, never being good enough. Asher is told that his paintings are sinful, as they include Christian beliefs and nudity; however, his intention never was to hurt the people surrounding him, but just to express himself as accurately as possible, and he was able to do that through those specific elements. Asher NEEDS to paint, it is a pull that is uncontrollable, and he owes it to himself to do everything possible to be happy, but he also owes his parents to be the perfect religious person they want him to be. That is, until Asher has to choose whether to live his own life or to live his parent's life for them. Everyone goes though this decision, or something similar. Everyone must struggle to be as happy as possible without hurting others too much, or at least only as much as one is willing to. Everyone has to deal with gilt and redemption, and so many concepts; with concepts as old and powerful as the human mind itself.
This book deals with the fine line of familial obligation and personal desire and how Asher treads this line as he fights the urge to paint so as to please his parents. This beautiful piece about dealing with one's inner demons really leaves one questioning one's priorities in life. The theme of this book is applicable to everyone in any time period, and reading such a piece will be helpful to anyone so as to scrape the mud and gunk off the lens individuals use to see their lives though, cleaning off the scum of age, experience, hardship, and constant expectation. The elephant in the room will finally be visable.