Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My Name Is Asher Lev

Written over a week ago....

I had never heard of the author Chaim Potok. I seem to be in the vast minority. Especially among readers, which I had kind of hoped I was. But when things like this happen, I'm reminded that I'm really not. My sister, Jen, lent me this book to read and I walked around it for several months. Finally, last week, I picked it up and started.

It wasn't a page turner at all. I could put it down easily and, to be truthful, I didn't even like this book until about 3/4 of the way into it. Now, I emphatically say that it is one of the best books I have ever read.

There is so much to say about this book. Throughout my entire reading of it, I kept thinking the book was about "this" or "that", only to be surprised by realizing the subject matter went far deeper. At first I thought it was about an art prodigy; that a difficult path is taken when your child is special or gifted.

It kind of is.

Then I thought it was about the pain and awkwardness of being a religious Jew right after the second world war.

Again, kind of.

Then I thought it was like The Namesake and the struggle between parents and children and different generations.

Getting closer.

Ultimately, I think this book is about perception. What is honoring your father and mother and what is following your dream? What is tradition and what is truth? What is the better choice? What is the better life? Whose point of view matters?

I experienced a lot of frustration while reading this. First of all, this book is about so many things that I either know nothing about or that don't interest me. For instance, Asher Lev is a art prodigy. As he is the main character, art - its history and technique - is a frequent subject matter. I know very little about art. It was hard for me to respond to Asher Lev's need to draw and paint. As a person without any particular passion, I had to take his word for it that for him, drawing and painting wasn't a hobby, or something he liked to do, but that it was who he was, an insatiable need that controlled him. That sort of passion would probably cause problems in any family but when you are a Hasidic Jew and the son of an important emissary of the Rebbe (I'm thinking kind of like a prophet) whose life work is to create safe places to teach the Torah to religious Jews throughout Europe, that passion tears apart a family.

My second frustration is probably apparent by now. I know very little about Judaism. There is a no apologizes approach to Potok's description of Jewish life. Obviously a Jew himself, he doesn't write for the goyim (are you frustrated? That's the Jewish term for the Gentile. Yeah...I know. I had to learn it all too).

It's not easy to read. There is a noticeable lack of emotion written about such an emotionally charged situation. Short, perfunctory sentences that made me feel as frustrated with the situation as I felt Asher Lev did with his father who did not get art. By the end of the book, I could appreciate it for the technique that it was. Asher Lev was the narrator and we experienced the story through Asher Lev. That containment of emotion, the abrupt conclusion of dialogue with his parents...that was his existence.

It all builds up to this pinnacle of frustration, this burst of emotion that brings the most hurt to his parents although that is what his art is about...his hurt, his mother's hurt, his father's hurt. I actually cried through this part. I rarely cry. It's that good.

I feel like I'm leaving out huge chunks of what I took away from reading this. I can't believe some people got to read this as part of their high school literature. This is the kind of story that needs to be discussed and broken down. I'm jealous of people who had that chance. I hate reading great literature like this and my only outlet is a poorly written summary on my blog. Even if someone read it now, and we discussed it, those initial raw emotions are gone. THAT is what I feel I missed out on.

So...now I am more learned. I know about Chaim Potok. I feel like I just graduated to another level as a reader. Who else don't I know about????

No comments: