Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: My Name Is Asher Lev

Recently I finished Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev. Although I have always loved to read, few books have moved me as much as this book did. In this rather straightforward tale of a Hasidic Jewish boy who chooses to be an artist against his father's wishes, I discovered a complex and thought-provoking analysis of the creation, purpose and value of art.

Of course other themes are at play in the novel as well, but a particular passage about the purpose of art struck me. After an encounter with his unsupportive father, Asher Lev, the novel's protagonist wonders, "What did I have to justify? I did not want to paint in order to justify anything; I wanted to paint the same way my father wanted to travel and work for the Rebbe. My father worked for the Torah. I worked for -- what? How could I explain it? For beauty? No. Many of the pictures I painted were not beautiful. For what, then? For a truth I did not know how to put into words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of color and line and texture and form."

Although there is nothing wrong with painting, writing or singing (or expressing whatever artistic gift one may have) for beauty, I love Asher's moment of realization that he has to paint to express truth. Of course, this truth is subjective; our perceptions of truth differ from person to person. But I believe that it is when we tap into that truth as we see it when the art we create becomes authentic, valuable and meaningful.

When I closed the book, I was inspired to ask myself if I am expressing the truth as I see it when I create my own art.

The English major nerdy side of me also manifested itself as I read the novel. The irony wasn't lost on me that the truth that Asher can't express in his words is so eloquently expressed in Potok's words.

If you haven't ever read it, I highly recommend this masterpiece.

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