My sister-in-law loaned us My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. It came with several other books, and she didn’t say much about it other than to suggest that we read it. My wife read it first, and I watched her devour it in the course of a couple days. Afterward, she had a sort of shell-shocked look in her eyes as she told me “You have to read this.”
Encouraged by her reaction, I put it on the short-short list (the one with only about a dozen books on it), and finally got around to reading it as I set off on a business trip. The trip back was delayed by several hours, but in light of the book, that couldn’t have been a better thing!
The story chronicles the life of a young artist, Asher Lev, growing up in a Hasidic household in Brooklyn. The atmosphere of Jewish culture is rich and thick throughout the book, lovingly shown in details that help to build up the neighborhood that Asher lives in. The place has a central position both in Asher’s life and the story. However, Asher’s artistic abilities, urges and impulses that he can’t seem to control threaten his place with his people.
The language in the book is fantastic, so sharp and beautiful. Asher’s viewpoint, how he sees the world in lines and shapes, tones and colors is brought vividly to life in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I found myself engulfed in his development as an artist, sucked into a world that isn’t my own.
It’s also a story about family, the ways that we hurt the ones we love most. The characters are so well drawn, they feel like your own family. And as the conclusion draws near and you see the shape of the world that Asher’s choices make, it’s breathtaking to behold. My heart pounded hard in my chest, and my mouth went completely dry as I read the last chapters of this book. I can’t remember the last time that a story has grabbed hold of me as powerfully as this one did.