Thursday, May 16, 2013

#8 My Name is Asher Lev

My Name Is Asher LevMy Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've put off writing this review for a while because I knew that it would be a difficult one to write. I'm finally getting around to it.

It amazes me how Chaim Potok is able to see things from multiple sides. Asher is the main character of the story here, but he isn't set up as some noble hero without flaws. On the contrary, he's often selfish, unwilling to consider others' feelings, and fickle. Likewise, even though the story is told from Asher's point of view, and even though Asher and his father are often completely at odds with one another, his father doesn't come off as evil, or even unfeeling. It just seems that Potok did a really good job of showing the reader the many viewpoints that the events can be seen from.

Here are two things that I learned from the book:

1. What Jesus means to Jews. Of course I can't pretend that this one book by a single author represents what Jesus means to all Jews. But, Potok paints a clear picture: for this Hasidic family it's in Jesus' name that their ancestors were tortured and killed. It's in Jesus' name that their people have been brutalized and chased from one patch of earth to another. It's around Easter and Christmas that their fathers needed to be careful of being out to avoid having their skulls pierced by the hatchet blade of some drunken Christen zealot. These are the stories they tell their children. These are the stories they need to tell their children to keep their identity. Just as Mormons tell stories of little children leaving bloody footprints through the snow of the great plains after being chased from Missouri and Illinois. All of this I knew, or should have known. But I had never quite seen it from the perspective that Potok gives in this book. It wasn't until reading My Name is Asher Lev that it really dawned on me how offensive it was that members of my church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons) had at one time extracted names of Jewish victims from Holocaust records to baptize them posthumously in the name of Jesus Christ in Mormon temples. I knew that it had been done. I knew that the Mormon Church had issued official apologies for it. Only when reading this book did I see what a desecration it had been.

2. Tradition in the art world. I'm not an artist, and I really know very little about the art world. One thing I learned from Potok's book is the weight and importance of artistic tradition to art. Without artistic tradition any one work of art has no context. Maybe this is one reason we art-outsiders have such a hard time understanding art. We just don't understand the language of art tradition that is being spoken. The crux of the book is how Asher deals with the heritage of art tradition and the heritage of his religious tradition clashing head-on.

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