Jan 7, 2011

My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

This is really an incredible book, though I did get a bit frustrated with some of the stylistic choices. Potok is an evocative author, and I was impressed by his knowledge of artistic movements and terminology. What frustrated me was the silence of the main character, Asher. Though the book is written in first person, I still got the sense of a muted voice. He was narrating the things that were happening to him, but it was almost without emotion. Perhaps this was intentional, a way of expressing Asher's emotional repression by the people and religion he loved.

The book is set against the background of post-WWII Brooklyn, a world in which the wounds of the Holocaust are still agonizingly fresh. Asher's father travels around the world, opening yeshivas and connecting Jews to each other again. Asher and his mother are left behind to wait, and as Asher's artistic talent blossoms, his mother becomes caught in a tug of war between father and son. The big question of the novel is whether the individual is more obligated to himself, or to his people, particularly when his people is downtrodden and oppressed. Asher never answers this question, choosing, I believe, to try and straddle both worlds. Whether he has made the right decision is up to the reader.

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