“Do we really all grow old quickly? There is so little time” (340).
Asher is a brilliant Jewish painter whose family struggles to understand his artistic passions, particularly how they fit into the life of a devout Hasid believer. In My name is Asher Lev,Asher contemplates the brevity of life when he returns to his hometown in Brooklyn after a long art tour through Europe. He observes teachers with slumped shoulders and old mentors who are now frail. Despite the bleakness of his observations, I found his contemplation of life’s brevity strangely exhilarating and freeing; it raises powerful questions. But what about these themes of quickly passing time and death could make me feel suddenly free?
First of all, these themes fit beautifully into the overall narrative: Asher Lev is constantly reminded that he is just one part of a story that his larger than himself, an idea which comes from his Jewish understanding of tradition. From very on early in the book we are told, “The Gemorra teaches us that a man who slays another man slays not only one individual but all the children and the children’s children that individual might have brought into life. Traditions are born by the power of an initial thrust that hurls acts and ideas across the centuries” (324). While the brevity of life can cause us to question why it must be this way, how it could be this way, and what we could possibly do about it, the book constantly whispers subtle answers. There is the strong sense that we are only a piece of the puzzle, a link in the chain, and a member of a family. Asher and his family are keenly aware of generation spanning culture. The rich tradition found in My Name is Asher Levchallenges modernity’s individualistic, live-for-now attitude. If our life is brief, perhaps it is necessary to look beyond one piece of our existence and impact; if our existence affects a wider sphere than our own individual selves, tradition and culture becomes utterly essential to a meaningful life.
I appreciate Asher Lev’s understanding of our role in a larger story but also his stunning honesty as he observes time passing before him. Asher is keenly aware of visible signs of aging, “I could see his round face and the streaks of gray hair in his beard” (93). Asher is not the kind of boy to paint someone young or beautiful; he will paint the sunken cheeks, the flecks of gray in the hair. Thoughts of age permeate the book. Jacob Kahn, Asher’s mentor, is constantly talking about what age he will or would live to: “‘I will make it past eighty,” he said, “if I can keep from thinking too much about the past.’” (262). Asher looks honestly at passing time and yet, in many ways, remained seemingly untouched by it.
The author, Chaim Potok, writes time as a force which changes the settings and expands his character but never to ruin the integrity of that character: age decays Asher’s surroundings but never touches what makes Asher Lev Asher Lev. Asher begins to explain who he is when he is four, where My Name is Asher Lev begins. It is almost a shock every time I learn that he has somehow grown up despite the fact that the narrator constantly reminds us that time is passing, that the days, and weeks, and annual Jewish holidays are going by. Somehow I am still surprised every time I learn that Asher is now as tall as his mother or that he is a man. Years may pass by Asher Lev, but he is still very much Asher Lev—perhaps more so than at the beginning of the book. This unmovable character who will remain himself, “who will not be a whore to himself,” is contrasted with an aging shifting world; but there is an additional nearly paradoxical contrast throughout the story.
Chaim Potok writes a consistent character but at the same time illustrates how inner changes can color the way we see the outer visible world. Asher’s street in Brooklyn is constantly re-colored by his different perspectives of it. While Asher may be always telling us what he sees outside of himself, always telling us the colors and lines that play before his eyes, the real action is all internal. He is a painter who is always looking out at the world and sees more of himself because he looks out to see what is within. This constant contemplative observation contributes to his greatness as a painter but also to his greatness as a human being. It is sobering to think of how many people are looking outwards and seeing just the surface. They see the food they eat, the clothes they wear and want to buy, they see the color and shape and weight and attractiveness of the people around them, they see basic color. Sometimes they see nothing more. Asher sees what is true beneath the physically visible and strives paints that. He paints his mother’s love in the curve of her face, the fear of death and torture into the snow, sketches the inner confusion and struggle with his Jewish tradition in the fiery expressions of his mythic ancestor. One of the joys of reading the book is the thrill seeing the truth painted in a way that is hard to express with words. (Although the delicious irony is the fact that the book lacks a single picture between the pages and is conveyed with words.) Asher does not say or paint anything because it is how it “should” be said or done; he says and paints what he feels to be true, utterly true, nothing but the truth, and certainly all the truth. Asher sees death and age the way that other people aren’t willing to.
To summarize, we have a character who is poignantly aware of how the changes within himself colors and lights the way his physical surroundings look AND yet, at the same time possesses an absolute honesty to who he is – past, present and future, no matter what ages, changes, or morphs in his city and those around him. It is with this ever-honest eyes that Asher Lev sees death and time. This is what I appreciate: it is freeing to face a truth that most people prefer to forget or run from as long as they are able. We are aging. Time is passing; we are dying.
If that is where the story ends then it would be best for humans to drink away our sorrows and rationality or perhaps end life as soon as it becomes painful. Try to forget or slow relentless oncoming age and pretend perhaps that the end will not come for you.
But what if we die? All of us?
Asher’s art is already a hint of the answer. An artist certainly does not end with death, nor does he start with himself. Asher understands and is captivated by those who came before; he understands he must know who came before. His art is one of, if not the, deepest part of himself and yet is not just himself; it is a large tradition that he is merely a part of. Chaim Potok is keenly aware of this throughout writing the story. He knows Asher must paint and yet he knows that painting is not just an individual act. He writes Asher going to museums every chance he gets; he writes Asher studying painters every moment that he can. And Asher’s deep understanding of the tradition of art is built on an even earlier culturally held tradition, that of his Jewish religion.
The previously, above-mentioned tradition that Asher sees constantly in his life hints: There is something outside of ourselves, more than ourselves that makes us who we are. We are not just ourselves but our ancestors and our offspring, our art and impact. Fleeting age is not a threat, it is a responsibility. What art will we leave behind? How will we shape what is here long after us? Time passes, and the art Asher creates becomes increasingly honest and earnest, it is a gift where which holds who he is past, present, and future.
Turning to look honesty on such things as these: tradition, integrity, age, death, and immortality, it is increasingly evident that people were not made to fit within time. Humanity expands beyond it.
So what if we die? All of us?
My Name is Asher Lev will not force an answer. But it will paint you a picture of integrity, tradition, and humanity that echoes with truth. It reminds us it that it may be worth asking ourselves honestly where we lie in the painting.
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Post Script: Perhaps my favorite part of the question of the brevity of life and having something outside of ourselves is because it reminded me of one of my favorite answers that I read when I was a child:
“And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” If we are truly, wonderfully honest with ourselves here on earth, even within the bounds of time, we can watch the rate at which life evaporates. Perhaps that can turn a head or two towards what may lie beyond.