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Darla Gaylor
Wednesday, September 15 2010

Exploring Judaica in Fiction: My Name is Asher Lev

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Gaylor_livingbiblicallyI am a bit fascinated with the Jewish faith and have been for many years.

As near as I can recall, my interest started in junior high then gained intensity in high school. Studying the harrowing stories of Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom, and the Holocaust made me wonder about the advent of and the fanatical intensity of anti-Semitism in Europe. How could God’s chosen people have garnered so much hatred that one villainous man was able to create a movement bent on eradicating them? I was dumbfounded...and curious.

Currently, a portion of my interest comes from world politics. I enjoy the debate and discussion that is given broad quarter on Dennis Prager’s and Michael Medved’s radio programs. Bedsides the requisite political banter, each man speaks often of both Judaism, their shared faith, and their love and concern for modern-day Israel. The talk surrounding religion can be particularly interesting on Fridays though, when they are preparing for the Sabbath. I am always touched by their unapologetic esteem and preparation for the coming holy day. In a gentle way, they remind me of the emphasis we should all place on the Lord’s day-regardless of the day on which it is celebrated.

Surprisingly, however, it was the research of Esquire editor, A.J. Jacobs (published as his 2007 book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible), that really taught me something about the breadth of modern Judaism and the depth of some of Judaism’s historical practices. 

I will comment here that between the title, the cover image, and the author’s bio, The Year of Living Biblically could have been one big sacrilegious mess! But it wasn’t.

Instead, Jacobs turned out a pleasantly reflective and often unexpectedly reverential story of a secular Jew exploring his roots and ending a year of intense effort with a more profound understanding and respect for both his ancestry and his innate “Jewishness.” Jacob’s writing is meant to be accessible, a goal he cannot help but achieve. His voice is witty and acerbic, and highly personal-all of which worked very well for me, as I love to laugh while I learn. Apparently, so does Mr. Jacobs. 

Reading Jacobs’ book prepared me for this month’s column because of the many intricacies of Hassidic Judaism he explored. While I’ll not do a full review of The Year of Living Biblically, I will recommend you read it before this month’s selection. You will find the task of understanding the world of Asher Lev much easier if you do!

My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok

 As a matter of fact, observant Jews did not paint at all--in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years. Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty […] I am, in deed, in some way, all of those things.1

Gaylor_asher It is always poor judgment to compare your own God given gifts to those of others. We are each so valuable and unique, yet too often we want talents we don’t have or fail to appreciate those we do. We are so...human, aren’t we?

Recently, while doing some small scale mural work for a local charity, a man asked me, “Are you an artist?” I shrugged and smiled self-deprecatingly, “I try to be,” was my only response. If I’d wanted to elaborate, I could have said, “On a talent scale of one-to-ten, I’d give myself a three-and-a-half.” Reading My Name is Asher Lev made me want to take off that extra “half.” Maybe even a full point.

Chaim Potok penned a masterpiece of beauty, joy, sadness, and complex family relationships when he created both Asher Lev, the character and Asher Lev, the book. A semi-autobiographical story, My Name is Asher Lev transports readers to a strict Hassidic community in Brooklyn, circa 1950. Potok’s primary characters are Asher, a remarkably talented young artist, his mother and father, an uncle, and a Russian refugee who befriends Asher. In the background is the Rebbe, the community’s spiritual leader, and the ever present, ever looming threat of Stalin’s Russia, the fear of which drives a great deal of Asher’s community and family life.


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