“My Name is Asher Lev.”
So begins the novel, by Chaim Potok, and the new off-Broadway adaptation of the same name. Both revolve around the same plot: Asher Lev, of the fictitious Ladover chasidim, (the sect seems to be based on Lubavitch chasidim), discovers that he has a gift for painting. Both the book and the play deal with Asher Lev’s struggle to find balance between his Jewish identity and his identity as an artist, which clashes with the Jewish commandment of not making graven images.
Where the book and play deviate, though, is in which identities they choose to emphasize. The play — with its limited time and only three actors — emphasizes Asher Lev’s development as an artist. Through Asher’s monologues, we learn of his evolution from a 5-year-old who enjoys drawing birds and his mother to an adolescent who works with oil paints, to the protégé of a master painter and then, finally, to a master painter himself. (He got his mentor as a result of the Ladover rebbe pulling some strings.)
The play deals very little with Asher Lev’s Jewish identity and only focuses on it when it conflicts with his development as a painter. For example, his father gets angry when he discovers the nudes and crucifixions in Asher Lev’s portfolio. (The character is almost always referred to by both his first and last names.)
Freedom for Soviet Jewry, which comes up in the book, is another theme missing from the play. Although not by any means a popular movement during the 1950s and 1960s, the setting for the book and play, the book deals extensively with Asher Lev’s father’s work in bringing Ladover chasidim out of the Soviet Union and into the United States. Following Stalin’s death, Aryeh Lev (also referred to using both his first and last names) moves from Brooklyn to Vienna to construct yeshivot for the rebbe.
In the book, Asher Lev meets Reb Yudel Krinsky, a Ladover chasid who escaped the Soviet Union and emigrated to Brooklyn. Reb Krinsky educates Asher Lev about his inability to freely practice Judaism in the Soviet Union and his decades-long internment in Siberia. In the book Asher Lev paints figures of Reb Krinsky in the Siberian steppes. Soviet Jewry is a background for much of Asher Lev’s artwork and a foil for him, whom many perceive as running away from Judaism by pursuing a career as an artist.
The book also spends more time than the play talking about Asher Lev’s development as a Jew and not just as an artist. We read about his regular synagogue attendance, his connection to the rebbe and his commitment to keeping kosher and living among the Jewish community.
We do not read about a change in his Jewish practices. In comparison, the play goes out of its way to emphasize the scene where Jacob Kahn, Asher Lev’s mentor, chastises Asher for trimming his sidelocks, even calling him “a whore” for doing it not out of religious conviction, but out of the desire to appear less conspicuous and more mainstream.
The book is able to focus on two developing aspects of Asher Lev, his religion and his art, the play, for lack of time, focuses only on his art. The book covers Asher Lev’s trip to Europe and describes him praying every morning at the yeshiva his father financed, keeping kosher and maintaining his unwavering commitment to Judaism.
That is not to say, of course, that the play does not have its merits. It does what it does well: it portrays a boy who goes from being a talented chasid to a young man who must find a way to reconcile his religion with his art, a gift from the “sitra achra” (the other side), but one that must be suppressed because of its inherent evilness.
The acting and character portrayals — the actors who play the mother and father play multiple roles — are superb, and it is clear to the audience to whom Asher Lev is speaking at any given time. The playwright uses specific scenes from the book to highlight the conflict of religion and art; he presents a boy growing up in a very restrictive environment trying to break free while simultaneously staying true to his upbringing as a chasidic Jew. For instance, Asher Lev draws a picture of his rebbe in a Bible and he freely paints nudes and scenes of crucifixion.
The play is relatable to anyone who yearns to create art and has, at some point in his or her life, struggled with Jewish identity. “My Name is Asher Lev” is a play that shows the conflict between these two identities, artist and Jew, but leaves us — the viewer — to find the solution that will reconcile them.
It forces us to ask: can the two be reconciled and if so, how? Can art be a form of religious expression?