I had a friend and fellow bibliophile in college who always said that Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev was her favorite book. I always meant to read it. I had read The Chosen and The Promise, but somehow I never picked up Asher Lev.
I was prompted to read it now because it will be the "common book," required of all first-year students, at Belmont University this fall, where my son will be attending. I've already read and reviewed the University of Tennessee's choice this year for its Life of the Mind program, Mountains Beyond Mountains. The two universities picked completely different types of books, so it's really impossible to compare their two choices. (Let's just say I struggled to complete Mountains Beyond Mountains, but I felt immensely fulfilled when I finished My Name Is Asher Lev. But beyond being required reading for freshmen, the two have little in common.)
Asher Lev's world is confined to the strict beliefs and traditions of the Hasidic community, post World War 2. Asher's only duty as a young boy is to be an obedient Jew, to study the traditions and to someday be a leader in this strict sect, like his father. But Asher Lev is not like his father. Asher has a a gift that his father considers straight from Satan: he is an artist. Asher tries to put aside his art, but it is evident from a very early age that his gift can't be buried.
The novel takes us from Asher's first memories as a boy of about four into his early 20s. His life is filled with struggles: as an artist struggling on a personal level, as a Hasidic Jew in a secular world, as a son who betrays his parents. His life is full of guilt and torment, but he is unable to sacrifice his art for the sake of his family and his community.
Throughout the novel, Potok clearly expresses the burden that often accompanies great genius. His writing is powerful; the nuances of relationship are practically tangible. The character of Asher Lev will stay with me for a long, long time. I am going to add the sequel to this book, The Gift of Asher Lev, to my reading list.