In 1972, Alfred A. Knopf published the book, My Name Is Asher Lev. It is a story about a young Jewish artist struggling with the differing aspects of both his strict, Hasidic background and his emergence into th
e modern, secular society. Although Chaim Potok's novel may seem to only appeal to a merely Jewish or Art oriented crowd, it reached the best seller list almost immediately in April of 1972. There are many possible conclusions that one can make when tr
ying to distinguish exactly why a novel with such focused subject matter could appeal to a large audience and so quickly become a bestseller.
First, one must take in to account the fact that Chaim Potok was at this point, in 1972, a well-known author, as he had already published one best seller. The Chosen, published in 1967 was written when Potok was 34. Similarly, it is also seems to embod
y Potok's views and beliefs about Judaism, and his compassion for the lives of Hasidic Jews growing up in Brooklyn. However, different from Asher Lev, this novel is about the relationship and conflict between two Jewish boys and their rivalry and compe
tition that turns into a sort of holy war. It only seems to explore their life within their small community as well. Four years later, after having published another, less successful novel entitled The Promise, Potok decided to write My Name Is Asher
Lev. In this novel he decides to explore a different kind of confrontation than the ones that appear in his earlier novels. In his first to novels the confrontations arise within one kind of community and background, thus the main characters have simila
r beliefs and cultures so it becomes easier for the reader to grasp and resolve each conflict as he reads each novel. In My Name Is Asher Lev, Potok decides to create a problem that cannot be "compartmentalized." He chooses to create a problem that "..
.seeps into all areas of your life because it involves your feelings, the deepest kinds of emotions that you have," (http://www.lasierra.edu/~ballen/potok/Potok.uniquehtml#asher). After his success in exploring such a conflict in The Chosen, it becomes a
pparent that a book about a larger conflict with the outside world and larger issues would definitely appeal to an even larger and more varied crowd than Potok's first best seller. Potok was also pushing himself as a writer. In writing Asher Lev, Potok
would be able to create a more emotionally deep and sensitive novel.
Another reason for the success of My Name is Asher Lev probably has to do with some of the events that occurred during the time when the book was published. In American history, the late sixties and early seventies held many important social and politic
al movements. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War all served as catalysts for the change in the thoughts and actions of America's youth. It seemed as if everyone was subject to some sort of change within their lives and thus Am
erica could probably relate to the change and conflict within Asher's life.
This was a time when students were protesting and people were trying to outwardly express their beliefs and feelings. Society was much more conservative than many of the liberal thoughts and movements which were saturating it. Thus, with such an atmosp
here of conflict and a sort of liberation within society it was easy for most to relate to the struggle of the young artist named Asher Lev. In his want to express himself in his artwork, he has to find a medium between his strict, conservative, Hasidic
background and the liberal views which he needs to express. Therefore, this book no longer becomes a book about the conflict within one Jewish youth; it becomes a story about the conflicts suffered by society's youth in general. Because of this, one can
understand why this book instantly became a best seller and why it remained as one for six months.
Finally the simple controversy of the story might have also been a major contributor to its success. The fact that Asher Lev expresses his own, as well as his mother's, interior distress and convictions in a painting of the Crucifix, a Christian symbol,
when he himself, is an observant Jew is preposterous to many conservative Jews and Christians. This shocking form of expression could probably cause much turmoil and debate about whether or not his art has become a mockery of both religions. Put simply
, the controversy about the religious aspects of the book probably aided a great deal in making this novel a best seller.
In discussing the popularity of such a novel, it is also essential to look at what reviewers might have praised about the story itself. My Name Is Asher Lev received many favorable critiques when it first was published. Book reviewers all praised Poto
k for his compassion and his strong sense of creativity. Due to such compassion as well as Potok's knowledge about the subject matter, Potok was admired for writing a story that could become so believable in the reader's eye:
"The prayers, greetings, customs and attitudes of the Hasidic Jews toll through the book; the writer is on intimate, respectful, but his own terms with them, and they are naturally and objectively conveyed.
The opening of the boy's eyes to the riches, the compelling possibilities in every fall of light, in every demonstration of life in nature or in a human face, its marvelously done: one really believes in Asher's awakening powers," ("In the Goyish Moul
d," The Times Literary Supplement No. 3683, October 6, 1072, p1184).
Because Potok, himself, was raised in a strict, Hasidic family, he is able to capture the actuality of Asher's situation as if it were his own. The reader is able to see a lot of Chaim Potok within the character of Asher.
In the same breath, however, critics were also quick to comment on the negative aspects of the novel as well. Thus, when the book descended off of the best seller list, six months later, it might have been easier for readers to remember some of the nega
tive comments about My Name Is Asher Lev. Mainly, critics were displeased with the monotonous use of language as well as poor characterizations of some of the characters.
"The succession of simple declarative sentences becomes cloying and sweet, the dialogue sticky. It is impossible, for example, to distinguish one voice from another. Everyone talks the same way and every speech is full of clotted wisdom," (Thomas
Lask, "The Heir and His Heritage," The New York Times v121, April 21; p37)
Critics also felt that many of Potok's descriptions of Asher's paintings and abilities were both unbelievable and shallow.
" We are constantly told of Asher Lev's prodigious talent, and of the extent to which he suffers for his art, but from Potok's banal and sentimental descriptions of his paintings, Asher Lev sounds dreadfully untalented," (David Stern, "Two Worlds," C
ommentary, October, 1972; p102,104)
The fact that My Name Is Asher Lev had such divided criticism could also contribute to its status as a best seller. The debate about whether this was a novel with pertinence and depth could be debated by anyone who chose to read it.
After publishing My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok went on to write many more novels, plays and articles mainly focusing on Jewish life, with the same themes of conflict within each. The author himself speaks about his personal genre and how his his own
life experiences have helped to shape both his style and subject matter.
"What I'm trying to explore in my books is one kind of such confrontation of ideas. Of cultures in tension with one another. A kind of tension that I experienced as I grew up and made my way into this world. All of us have one kind or another of ongoi
ng culture confrontation almost every day of our lives. We don't think about it often because by the time we're out of our teens we learn to handle these confrontations almost in the same way as we walk and breathe. It's a kind of choreography that we d
evelop without thinking about it too much. Then along comes the novelist and looks at it, opening it up so that we can more or less see what it is we are really doing without thinking about it. The novelist forces us, if we read the novels, to look at
what it is we are doing and urges us to think about it, to see if something can be learned or understood about ourselves and our species by observing this confrontation,"(http://www.lasierra.edu/~ballen/potok/Potok.uniquehtml#asher).
Perhaps it is for reasons such as this that everyone seems to relate so well to Potok's characters. Potok remains a very distinguished and respected author and is presently a professor at Columbia University, where he teaches English. He does research o
n Jewish culture and heritage and from this research he gives lectures and writes factual articles for journals, etc. His writing and knowledge about the Jewish community are held with great esteem.
My Name is Asher Lev has often been compared to The Agony and the Ecstasy. Asher seems to reflect many of the traits of Michelangelo. Both novels study the interior of the artist's mind. They delve into the need of the artist to create and express hi
mself through his artwork. Both main characters are almost consumed by their love of art and their creations. They both find art as an outlet for their emotions and perceptions of the world around them. In My Name Is Asher Lev, Jacob Kahn, Asher's inst
ructor, seems to explain this sense of dependence upon one's own creations in order to express oneself. "I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world truly is. Nothing is real to me except my own feelings; nothing i
s true except my own feelings as I see them all around me in my sculptures and paintings. I know these feelings are true, because if they are not true they would make art that is as terrible as the world," (226).
Chaim Potok has created a very unique story which makes the reader understand some of the struggle behind creating art that is valuable to the artist and thus, his audience as well. The reader understands that art becomes a release, or learning tool wit
h which the artist may use in order to better understand his or her own personal feelings and beliefs. In general, most people find something which can become their own release; their own cathartic way to learn more about themselves and their beliefs. W
hatever activity this may be, it is easy for anyone to relate to the struggle for finding one's own identity and the challenges that one may face along the way. Therefore, it is easy to understand why so many readers were drawn to the struggle and confl
icts of the artist, Asher Lev.
1. Potok, Chaim. My Name Is Asher Lev: Alred A. Knopf, New York:1972
3. Stern, David, "Two Worlds," Commentary, October, 1972; p102,104)
4. "In the Goyish Mould," The Times Literary Supplement No. 3683, October 6, 1072, p1184).
5. Encarta ?95
6. Lask, Thomas "The Heir and His Heritage," The New York Times v121, April 21; p37