Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Name Is Asher Lev

Photo Credit: Broadwayworld.com
"My name is Asher Lev!"

The title of the 1972 Chaim Potok novel, and the Aaron Posner play based upon it is, when uttered by the title character, no mere how-do-you-do. It is a near-desperate plea for respect, acceptance and, perhaps, permission to live comfortably in one's own skin. This last is not easy for anyone, really, but it's particularly difficult when one actively chooses, as Asher Lev has, to straddle two conflicting worlds.

Asher Lev is a Hasidic boy from Brooklyn, being raised in the 1950s by a loving if rigid father who has devoted his life to spreading the word of his Rebbe, and a loving if fragile mother who dreams of more than her Hasidic surroundings permit. Asher has inherited his father's obsessive dedication to his work, and his mother's wild inner spirit. His prodigious talent as a visual artist, however, comes from somewhere else. Depending on whom you ask, Lev's gift is either divine, or has been given to him by a darker force, referred to here (and in Kabbalist tradition) as the sitra acha, or "other side." Lev doesn't know where his talent comes from--maybe both places at once?--and at least as a little boy, he doesn't much care. He just knows that he has to sketch. Obsessively. All the time. With anything he can get his hands on. Everything he sees. Even if what he sees doesn't fit into his community's view of the world.

Asher's parents are concerned that their boy spends more time drawing than he does studying Talmud, making friends at his Yeshiva, learning to live a Hasidic life. But at the same time, they recognize that he is gifted. Like many parents, from many backgrounds, and in many settings, they push and pull at Asher with equal strength: alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, they encourage and denigrate, punish and enable, warm to and insult his talents. Hasidic or not, they are arguably, in this way, fairly typical as parents.

That might sound flip, but I don't mean it to be. Asher Lev is, at least to me, at its strongest when it explores the ways that one is shaped by the positive and negative forces of one's surroundings, as well as when it touches on the gray and ever-shifting ways that families struggle when the apple falls unexpectedly far from the tree. The three-person cast--Ari Brand as Asher, Jenny Bacon as his mother (and a number of other roles), and Mark Nelson as his father (and a number of other roles)--does a fine job of striking its own delicate balance. The three actors do well to express the profound concern that Asher's talents cause within the household and, at the same time, the unwavering love and respect that the family members have for one another. In playing a number of different kinds of characters that are frequently subjected to broad caricature--the wise old Rebbe, the Yiddishe mamma, the blunt and rumpled artist, and any number of Hasids--the cast could easily have slid, even unconsciously, into cheap stereotype, but never once does. These are finely-wrought characters, honed by three able actors who breathe life into what, in less capable hands, could easily come off as cardboard cutouts.

My one quibble with Asher Lev is that its central argument--that you can't be a Hasid and an artist at the same time--doesn't exactly ring true to me. I say this as a secular Jew, and one living a half-century later than Asher Lev is set. Not only have I never been devout, but I come from the generation of both the Chassidic Art Institute and, later, Matisyahu. I freely admit, then, that I just might not quite understand all the nuances of the conflict as it would have played out in 1950s Borough Park.

But while I had no problems accepting the fact that Lev's parents are unhappy with their son's passion for drawing, and especially for drawing things that don't jibe with the Hasidic world view (portraiture; the human body; Christian imagery), some of the conflict that Asher Lev creates seems more forced, especially once it introduces Jacob Kahn as Asher's secular-Jewish art teacher and mentor. Kahn, also played by Mark Nelson, serves as the Yin to Asher's father's Yang; an equally passionate, similarly rigid paternal presence who bluntly and repeatedly informs Asher that one cannot be both an artist and an observant Jew. Whenever Asher balks at an assignment Kahn gives him--whether it is to paint a nude or to copy a Pietà--Kahn's retort is more or less that Asher should just go back to Brooklyn and spend his life making trite little Rosh Hashannah greeting cards and painting Hanukkah decorations for children.

Such discussions add to the dramatic conflicts Asher carries perpetually on his shoulders as he skyrockets to fame and continues to struggle with his family and faith. But I am not convinced of them as realistic. Whether they are or not, they are not nearly as well-honed or as nuanced as the heated debates that take place between Asher and his parents. I would have liked to have learned more about Kahn, who is not religious but who describes himself as "admirer of the Rebbe," and who thus might just have a relationship with Judaism that is far more complicated than his frequent black-and-white pronouncements imply.

The constant back-and-forth was, I suppose, deemed dramaturgically necessary, and anyway, it does quite a number on Asher, who grows to be a deeply conflicted, deeply complicated man clinging so desperately to both his faith and his art that one becomes hard to discern from the other.

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