Thursday, May 26, 2016

Jewish Orthodoxy and Modern Art Meet in Asher Lev (no. 51)

 by Larry Witham


THERE ARE A few names in modern Jewish fiction that will always rise to the top. Among them, Chaim Potok is the only one to craft a novel around Jewishness and modern art. Potok wrote My Name is Asher Lev (1972). The novel creates the archetype of an observant Jewish artist dazzled by the art of Western culture, both its religious past and its secular present.
            A New York rabbi and a scholar of Judaism, Potok’s work is not the only treatment of Jews and art, of course. Novels about the Nazi theft of Jewish-owned artworks in Europe are legion. However, it has been singularly left to Potok to create a character, Asher Lev, who tells of his artistic journey as a modern painter from the viewpoint of an Orthodox Jew.
             As is typical in Potok novels, his main character, Asher, is a Hasidim in Brooklyn, where the ultra-Orthodoxy have fled during a century of trials and tribulation in Europe and Russia.
            My Name is Asher Lev is Potok’s third novel. As with the previous two, The Chosen (1967) and The Promise (1969), he elaborates on the way Orthodox Jews feel bound to ancestors and posterity, carrying the burden of “atoning” for sins and a broken world. Added to this, the observant Jew is always at risk of crossing the “border” into the non-kosher world, what Asher Lev’s rabbi calls “the world of the Other Side.”
            And so it is with Asher Lev, who we follow from his youth, his apprenticeship with an older Jewish artist, his graduation from college, and his year-or-so pilgrimage to Italy and France (where he paints in Paris). The story culminates in his first big art show back in Manhattan.
            Through it all, as Asher says, he has painted as “an observant Jew,” but one who had to follow his art, not the tastes or sentiments of his conservative parents and religious community.
            At the end of the novel, the art show offends everyone. Asher is asked to leave the neighborhood of Orthodox Brooklyn. His modernist artwork is “hurting” others. “It is not good for you to remain here,” his rabbi says, recommending he go live with the Hasidim in Paris. “You have crossed a boundary. I cannot help you. You are alone now. I give you my blessing.”
            A classic Potok theme.
            How did Asher Lev arrive at this point? That story hinges on his relations to his Russian lineage parents, especially his mother, and the old Jewish artist he meets one day at the rabbi’s office. Asher’s father is a missionary, traveling the world to set up schools (yeshivas) to preserve the Orthodox tradition. His mother, often left alone, becomes a scholar of the Russian language and politics. Inevitably, both in the age of Soviet communism and the German Reich, they become involved in helping Jews escape from Europe.
            Asher’s mother, especially, is haunted by death, which reaches her brother (a car accident), but also many Russian Jews. She asks Asher to make her “pretty pictures,” since the world is grim enough.
            But to the contrary, the Jewish painter Jacob Kahn, who once had hung out with Picasso, tells him: “The world is a terrible place.” Art must not be pretty. It must be real. “As an artist you are responsible to no one and no thing. An artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda.” Asher becomes Kahn’s disciple. The first Orthodox boundary Asher crosses will be paintings of nude women. These are in an art exhibit, and Asher’s parent will not attend. Orthodoxy demands modesty.
            The novel begins with Asher telling us that his story is his “defense” argument against rumors (he says “mythology”) that he has left the faith and become its enemy by making offensive paintings. His artistic experience has been a mystery, he says. “It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.”
            In a word, Asher claims that despite his art, he is right with God, the “Master of the Universe,” as his sectarian Hasidic group—the Ladover from Eastern Europe—styles God’s name (in ultra-Orthodoxy, the name “God” may not be said).
            In creating the dilemma and character of Asher Lev, Potok has drawn upon a fruitful precedent. This is the work of Marc Chagal, a Russian Jew who migrated to Paris and finally to the United States. Chagal was a purely modern artist, though his paintings often had fantastical imagery filled with Jewish symbols (and thus a favorite of religious and secular Jews around the world).
            At the same time, however, Chagal aimed to shock. This was manifest in two painting he did of the crucifixion, which is a distinctly Christian theme (and a theme usually offensive to Jews, since the Pharisees of old have been blamed for Jesus’s death).
            The two painting are titled The White Crucifixion (1938) and the The Yellow Crucifixion (1943). Chagal painted the first in Paris after the events of "Kristallnacht," the beginning of the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. The second painting was done in response to news of the Holocaust. In each, Chagal has used the Christian image of ultimate suffering—Christ on the cross—and mixed it with Jewish accoutrement, such as Torahs, prayer phylacteries, and flames representing the Holocaust.
            While Chagal’s intentions were clear—though controversial—Asher Lev must explain why he will do exactly the same kind of painting. While traveling in Europe—and Florence and Paris especially—the fictional Asher is moved by the suffering theme in Christian art. It makes him think of his mother, like the Pietà of Michelangelo.
            “I wanted to paint Mama’s torment,” Asher says to himself. Two things come to his mind: First is the Christian crucifixion and second his mental image of his mother standing in the living room with the Venetian blinds behind her, as if she is on a cross. He imagines how he’ll explain this painted image to his mother: “Mama, it is a crucifixion. I made our living-room window into a crucifix and I put you on it to show the world my feeling about your waiting, your fears, your anguish. Do you understand?”
            Asher has ended up, we read, being “an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.”
            Asher’s money-grubbing agent in New York is happily stunned at the controversial paintings, as are critics and collectors. A great show exhibits all his works, including Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II. Asher catapults to fame. His parent attend, but are shocked. “There are limits, Asher,” his trembling mother says. After this, the rabbi suggests he move to Paris. In the last scene, Asher is getting into his taxi at the airport, looking back to see his parents in the window.
            Asher is not gone forever, though.
            In 1990, Potok wrote a sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev. From his new home in France, Asher returns to New York as trustee of his uncle’s secret collection of modern art. At the same time, a great debate rages on the leadership succession after a Hasidic chief rabbi is on his death bed. Potok planned a third Asher novel, but it did not materialize.

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