A review: My Name is Asher Lev

Be a scholar to learn how to be an artist

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok is culturally unique and enlightening as it carries the reader into the world of observant Jews. In addition, Potok shows what the life of a scholar looks like.

The story starts with Asher Lev as a young boy getting in trouble for wasting time, drawing, and especially for drawing things he’s not supposed to. He draws after school and on weekends. He steals paints from a friend’s stationery store, but his conscience won’t allow them to use them. Finally, his mother buys him paints against his father’s wishes and Asher returns the stolen paints.

“Art is not for people who want to make the world holy.”

My Name is Asher Lev

Asher finds major trouble by drawing a particular picture in a particular place in school without even realizing he was doing it. His hand drew without his conscious mind paying attention. The head of the school, just like his father, does not know what to do with Asher. His mother indulges Asher, allowing him to explore and learn, putting her at odds with her husband.

Eventually, Asher is given an opportunity to work with a master, a non-observant Jew, and learns to navigate his traditions in a more secular world. 

Throughout the book, Asher’s father warns him that his art will someday hurt someone. Yet, it seems at every turn, his father is hurt because Asher cannot meet his expectation. Who will be hurt more – the father by the art or the son by the expectations he can never live up to? This is a great question for parents and leaders everywhere.

Tension flows throughout the book because the boy has to figure out who he is while dealing with expectations he cannot live up to. This book is a keeper, one of a few I’d claim as a classic because I could read it over and over and over and keep coming away with new lessons. It shows how to help someone become who they are. It gives insight into how to become who we are. It gives insight into how our expectations can not only hurt others, but ourselves.

I also love My Name is Asher Lev because Potok quotes Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, which is now on my to-read list. One powerful quote from The Art Spirit: “The artist should have a powerful will. He should be powerfully possessed by one idea. He should be intoxicated with the idea of the thing he wants to express.”

If you like My Name is Asher Lev as much as I do, Potok wrote a sequel called The Gift of Asher Lev, which I am currently reading and also recommend, though not for the same reasons.

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