The Gift of Asher Lev

I stand there sweating in my fisherman’s cap and Ladover T-shirt. BRING MOSHIACH NOW, the T-shirt says in black letters against a red background. It is the shirt that Avrumel often wears to his day camp, but many sizes larger, and now on the street it is the object of curious stares and indulgent smiles. Earlier, the lawyers had looked at it and kept their faces blank.

(Chaim Potok, The Gift of Asher Lev)

BRING MOSHIACH NOW. Black letters on the red background of a child’s camp t-shirt. A t-shirt worn by Asher Lev, the greatest artist of his generation, Picasso’s successor in talent, productivity and acclaim, but also a Ladover Jew (the Ladover movement is the imagined Hasidic community in which Asher was raised). A reader might be tempted to assume that the t-shirt is worn ironically, a sort of sarcastic joke by the cosmopolitan artist. The fact that it’s not, that Asher Lev truly hopes for the coming of the messiah, gestures towards why Chaim Potok’s novel is so powerful in its exploration of identity, faith and art. In The Gift of Asher Lev Potok does not explore an either/or distinction between art and faith, but instead embraces the tensions of a both/and identity. Asher is both an observant Hasidic Jew and a celebrated artist; the supremely talented successor of Picasso and the son of the man most likely to succeed the Ladover Rebbe.

It is not the most obvious narrative path for Potok to have taken. My Name is Asher Lev (Potok’s earlier more famous novel that followed Asher from childhood into young adulthood) left Asher’s future open and ambiguous after he left Brooklyn. It would have been easy to imagine Asher as someone who walks decisively away from his Ladover identity (and not just the Brooklyn community) with the focus of a later novel centering on his coming to terms with that loss of faith and community. Potok does provide that sort of narrative on the margins of the novels in the story of Asher’s mentor, Jacob Kahn, a secular Jew who is connected to the Ladover through Asher and the Rebbe. But Asher, in contrast to his artistic mentor, keeps kosher, remains under the authority of the Rebbe, and hopes for the messiah, all while also painting masterpieces and pushing the boundaries of his artistic gift. His story is not one of shaking off the shackles of fundamentalism on the way towards self-actualization as an emancipated artist, even if the earlier My Name is Asher Lev has some momentum in that direction. Instead, The Gift of Asher Lev explores the tension and frustration of still believing rather than the pain (and relief) of having once believed.

That The Gift of Asher Lev does not focus on the wounds of lost faith does not mean it is without pain. I found the book to be moving in its depiction of the struggle to belong and believe. Melancholy fills the atmosphere of the story and Asher’s depression and frustration make clear that belief and belonging is not an escape from pain, but is often at the roots of our deepest suffering. As the Rebbe admits to Asher: “you … endure not only the torments of your art but also the burden of your responsibility to the Ladover. We have hurt you, yet you love us. We have exiled you, yet you are tied to us.” The story of an either/or is dramatic, especially in a story of conflict between religion and art: the Romantic ideal of the solitary artist still has plenty of power (and remains present in Potok’s work as well – more in My Name is Asher Lev than in The Gift of Asher Lev, however). But, a both/and identity is often where most of us find ourselves, struggling with tensions between our deepest commitments and the life we find ourselves living.

BRING MOSHIACH NOW. This is not to say that the passage quoted above is without its ironies. It is something of a joke (one of very few in a rather somber novel) – an appropriately visual one – the image of the world-class artist at the conference room table in a t-shirt, the Ladover man broadcasting his hope for messiah in the form of a child’s t-shirt rather than the white shirt, dark coat, beard and dark hat that constitutes the usual Ladover “uniform.” Asher sticks out in the gentile and Ladover world alike. He hopes, he belongs, but he is in exile even in his belonging, as he admits. And the joke has its melancholy shadow within the plot of the story. Asher’s hope for the messiah’s arrival is concretely tied to painful choices he faces, connected with the Rebbe and questions of succession and the future of the Ladover community, along with his future as an artist. Asher’s hope for the messiah is not hope for restoration and peace in the abstract but hope for resolution of his present dilemmas, and ultimately for release from the tension created by his dual identity as artist and Hasid. The arrival of the messiah is the ultimate either/or moment of drama: a bright line of arrival marking the boundary between what once was and now will be. Yet, in the novel the messiah does not come, and Asher must make his choices, living in the tension and pressure of his both/and identity as still-believing-artist.