My Name is Asher Lev

From Goodreads

I have never heard of this book until a colleague mentioned it to me. It’s a book that is often read by college freshmen. Since I missed that cue, I decided to read it to see what I missed. It makes sense to hand this to college freshmen though, the book explores parent-child relationships, the pain and fear of leaving home and learning that maybe your parents’ way of life isn’t going to work for you exactly.

Asher Lev is growing up in Brooklyn as an Hasidic Jew. His father is an important member of the synagogue who travels extensively for the Rebbe and his mother seems content to wait at the window for him to come home. Asher’s art though gets him through even as it causes many of his family’s problems over the years. His father does not understand his art and seems to see it as an affliction sent by God to try him. His mother spends their lives trying to be a bridge between the father and son, usually failing which leads to Asher’s masterpiece, Brooklyn Crucifixion.

I liked this book a lot and appreciated what it was trying to accomplish. I can’t say I much cared for any of the characters but that’s because I feel like I didn’t get to know them very well. So much of them is never explained, even Asher who is telling you the story. I also found them hard to relate to because honestly, I never had these sorts of problems. Asher’s story of growing up was completely foreign to me, even when generalizing it.

I loved the art aspects to the story though. I always wanted to have the sort of talent Asher is born with – his eye is supposedly spectacular when it comes to painting. I did like the author’s choice in not giving many details about his work until the last masterpiece which is the final crisis in Asher’s life with his parents. I learned early to appreciate art since I couldn’t seem to create it. Asher’s story is about the joy and pain in being able to create and what it does to his very traditional, very religious family.

This was the part of the story that I just couldn’t seem to care much about – the religious aspect. I don’t come from a religious family and though my friends were always willing to share their religions with me, which was fun to explore lots of different religions, I was always vaguely uncomfortable with religion in general. Watching how much Asher struggles with it, I again realized I don’t feel a sense of loss for not having that growing up. Religion always seems to complicate things, make you question what you feel is right for you. It can also have the opposite effect but Asher’s story just seems to show the pain of having that tradition weighing on you as you try to grow into the person you need to be.

Lastly, and where it seemed to be a good book for college freshmen, was the parent-child relationship explored with Asher and his parents. Asher is a disappointment to his father, a strict traditionalist who doesn’t comprehend his son’s artistic talents. His mother is caught between two needy men in her life who expect her to choose their side. Again, I could understand these issues but I’ve never experienced them; in fact, this book made me want to call up my parents and thank them. They always let me be exactly who I was, even when they weren’t sure where I came from. My whole family did. They sat through chorus concerts and high school musicals and tried to act interested when they asked what I was reading. I always appreciated that even if I didn’t say it. This book make me grateful that they always asked even more.

Overall, I liked this book; it made me think even if it was kind of a depressing book on many levels but it made me dive into all my art museum books this past week so it’s been lovely to have an excuse to revisit them.

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