My Name Is Asher Lev
by Chaim Potok
Anchor Books, 2003 (c. 1972). 369 pages. Fiction.
Asher Lev's first memories are of drawing, trying to create beautiful pictures that will help his mother finally get out of bed again. Drawing is more than a pleasure: it is a need that force expression all the time. It is only when he is forced to look outside his sequestered Orthodox Jewish community under the artistic tutelage of the master artist, Jacob Kahn, that Asher finally is able to see both the beauty and the demon in his art, and find the balance between his need for expression and the depth of his religious convictions.
I first read Potok in high school (The Chosen) and never had opportunity to go back to him until I picked up Asher Lev for a book club. Somehow, his prose was much more magical than I remember it being, almost lyrical in its quality. It also provided a lot to think about, especially about the nature of art and the balance between religion, belief, and artistic expression. I read it and wanted to know how much Potok, who remained very active the the orthodox/conservative Jewish community his entire adult life, had to work to find that balance himself in his writing. The depth and the quality of the book was breathtaking, and yet it was not a difficult read. Because it is so deeply entrenched in Jewish tradition, there is a lot of Hebrew and Yiddish, but Potok will usually provide either outright or contextual explanations. I highly recommend this book for someone looking for a thought-provoking but gentle read.