My Name Is Asher Lev
The struggle to find one's identity is a universal theme that is especially prevalent in Chaim Potok's novel, My Name Is Asher Lev. As an Orthodox Jew, Asher's gift for art is looked upon very unfavorably. Despite the disapproval of his community and father and the pain his art causes those around him, he pursues his passion and must find a way to reconcile the conflict between his religious identity and his individual identity.
Potok starts off with the main character delivering three short sentences that set up the basis for the entire book. Before the reader learns anything about Asher Lev or the plot of the story they are confronted with the following statement:
I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not
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Because Asher's love is for art, he feels even worse because art is frowned upon. When the Rebbe appoints Asher to study with artist Jakob Kahn, an unorthodox Jew, Aryeh's role as father is partially transferred to his son's teacher, who he feels is dragging Asher away from Orthodox Judaism. When he finally accepts that his son is to become an artist, Aryeh has one final plea. Greatly saddened he questions the will of God, then says, "Do not forget your people, Asher. That is all I ask of you" (Potok 234). Kahn warns Asher that he is "entering a religion called painting" (213) and even admits that, "it is a tradition of goyim and pagans. Its values are goyisch and pagan. Its concepts are goyisch and pagan. Its way of life is goyisch and pagan" (213). He encourages Asher to maintain his realistic approach to art but warns him that his art will bring pain to others. Nevertheless he teaches him that as an artist his sole responsibility is to portray truth as sees it and never to be a "whore," an artist who caters to what others want/expect.
Asher's most difficult struggle is not to become a great artist, but to find a balance between what he has been taught by his two father figures. His real father, along with most of his community, see his gift for art as coming from the Sitra Achra (the other side, not from God), and feel that Asher is rebelling