Thursday, March 05, 2009

Is Asher Lev An Idolater?

By: Menachem Wecker

Date: Wednesday, March 04 2009

My Name Is Asher Lev
Directed by Asher Posner
Adapted from Chaim Potok's novel
Artistic consultant, Adina Potok
Until March 15
Arden Theatre Company,
40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia

A Chassidic prodigy alienates his community by painting nudes. When he dares to crucify his mother in two of his paintings, the Rebbe has no choice but to banish him from Brooklyn and ship him off to Paris. There is no escaping the provocative plot of Chaim Potok's 1972 novel, My Name is Asher Lev. However, despite seeming to suggest Orthodox Judaism is incompatible with art-making, Potok gives every indication Asher will identify as an Orthodox Jew, Sabbath-observant and exclusively kosher, even as he abandons Crown Heights for France.

Two of the major influences in Asher's life, his father and his mentor, assure him he must be either a painter or an observant Jew, not both. His non-observant painting instructor, Jacob Kahn, draws a sharp contrast between true art and painting calendars for matzah companies and Rosh Hashanah greeting cards. At one point, Kahn demands, "Asher Lev, you want to go off into a corner somewhere and paint little rabbis in long beards? Then go away and do not waste my time. Go paint your little rabbis."

In Kahn's equation, true art is pagan and goyish, while religiosity can only hope to produce kitsch. Meanwhile, Asher's father Aryeh, a general in the Rebbe's army of synagogue planters, denounces all art - not just Asher's variety - as a waste of time, or even as evil ("sitra achra"). Given the choice between being demonized by his dad or deified by his art teacher, it is no wonder that Asher chooses the hedonist.

But the Rebbe is Potok's great equalizer. Knowing full well that Jacob is a persuasive atheist, the Rebbe entrusts the impressionable, already at-risk child to him. Even as he asks Asher to leave his community, the Rebbe upholds the value of art. "I do not hold with those who believe all painting and sculpture is from the sitra achra," he says to Asher, explaining that he objects not to the fact that Asher paints, but to the content of his paintings, which pains his parents. "People are angry," Potok's Rebbe tells Asher, "They ask questions, and I have no answers to give them that they will understand." One gets the sense the Rebbe asks Asher to leave, as much because he has surpassed the community, as for the harm he has caused it.

The current production of "My Name is Asher Lev" at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company lacks Potok's delicate balance between father figures who struggle to shape Asher's life. It is surely difficult to collapse an entire novel into a 90-minute production, but several of the Arden show's decisions swap Potok's respectful prose for propaganda.

Explaining to the audience why the Rebbe has asked him to go into exile, Asher (Karl Miller) truncates the Rebbe's sentence above. Instead of the community being unable to understand Asher, the Rebbe himself is lost - "he was being asked questions he couldn't answer," Miller says. Equating the Rebbe's inability to answer a question with his community's lack of imagination to grasp the answer is inexcusable, and it deprives Asher of his greatest ally in the Chassidic community.

Where Potok's Asher can draw confidence from the Rebbe's admiration and respect even as he is banished, Miller's character is very alone. One such error is forgivable, but Miller plays Asher throughout as a confident, sarcastic, and charismatic young man, who gets periodic laughs from the audience. Potok's Asher is no comedian. He is shy, pained, and perhaps even delusional and depressed, and his life is a tragedy, which is not to be joked about.

The Arden performance also fails to account for the true cause of the communal strife. Potok makes clear that Asher's community objects to his drawing from the model on the grounds that it is immoral for people to reveal their bodies. Asher tries in vain to explain he is part of a tradition of art making, which is not about lewdness, but about seeing. Potok also clarifies Aryeh's disgust at his son's incorporation of Christian iconography into his work.

Aryeh has devoted his life to saving Jews from Communism and Christian anti-Semitism, and he is very well respected in the Ladover community. The revelation that his son is embracing the very symbol of the anti-Semitism threatening Russian Jews, and which killed Aryeh's father, who ventured out one night to do the Rebbe's work forgetting it was Easter, and was killed by a drunken peasant, is devastating to him. The Arden script takes it for granted that Chassidim object to art without really delineating the areas of concern.

One of the most successful aspects of the Arden production is its character recycling. The decision to collapse the cast to three actors was surely driven more by the economy than any aesthetic concerns, but fascinating new approaches to the novel emerge when characters move in and out of roles. Adam Heller plays Aryeh, the Rebbe, Kahn, and Aryeh's brother Yitzchok. Gabra Zackman performs the roles of Asher's mother Rivkeh, the art collector Anna Schaeffer, a model, and the students in Asher's grade school class.

This exchange of roles speaks directly to Potok's theme of a grand tug-of-war of characters all vying for control of Asher's life. Kahn is the only one who admits it, shamelessly telling Asher he intends to mold him as Michelangelo sculpted Moses, but Aryeh, the Rebbe, Yitzchok also try to sculpt Asher in their own image.

Heller plays a very compelling Kahn, ironic, sly, hedonistic, and grand. But the script can hardly escape the romanticizing of the art-making experience that plagues Potok's novel. Asher insists on several occasions that the purpose of art is to reveal the painter's feelings, and Potok throws Asher into a trace every time he paints. The prodigy is so unconscious of his actions that he does not realize he is drawing on his bedroom wall, on his school notebooks, and even in one particularly sacrilegious moment, all over the Bible. (Mysteriously, the performance has Asher draw in a Siddur, prayer book, rather than a Chumash, which makes a huge difference.)

Potok's "explanations" of the painting experience range from "new shapes [coming] alive and [dying] in the slow movement of color and light" to Asher "drawing with [his] eyes inside [himself], copying the painting slowly, very slowly, and feeling the contours with [his] eyes." This sentimentalizing of the painting act, costs Potok a bit of his credibility, and it can be seen in an uneventful painting Potok himself made of one of Asher's infamous works.

In Potok's novel, everything is either true art or intolerable kitsch, with no middle ground. The Arden play could have sought more aesthetic nuance, and in so doing, also uncovered more religious gradations - for example noting that Chassidim tend to find more religious value in the arts than Misnagdim do.

One of the main specters Potok neglected in his novel is the question of idolatry. Kahn has his theories about true paintings (they must show no cowardice or indecision, the aesthetic version of Polonius' advice in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true"). But Potok gives no indication that the Rebbe might be concerned about the Second Commandment. Instead, the Ladover concerns are cultural (painting is goyish) and historic (it symbolizes anti-Semitism).

Ironically, Asher and Kahn's philosophy of art is perhaps at least symbolically idolatrous, not because Kahn insists upon incorporating pagan symbols, but because by doing so, it allows such a rigid and sentimentalized definition of art. Though the audience never gets a glimpse of either Asher's or Jacob's works, one gets the impression they are likely to appear quite dead.
Despite its problems, the performance comes to a crescendo - at the opening to Asher's exhibit, with the objectionable paintings - that is very moving. Even when viewers know the showdown is coming, Heller, Miller, and Zackman play the scene masterfully. After seeing the pieces in question, Aryeh and Rivkeh turn on their heels and walk "with dignity," in Potok's words, from the gallery. It is hard to hold back tears at the ultimate collapse of the Lev family unit, and that is a testament to the great skills of the actors.

Potok's Asher follows after his parents and tries to explain himself to them, but they close the cab door in his face. Miller's Asher lets his parents walk away, though Rivkeh stops half way and turns to look back at him before Aryeh directs her out of the room. Later, as Asher prepares to leave Brooklyn, Aryeh manages a handshake and Rivkeh asks Asher to write, so all is not lost. Perhaps Asher and his parents will be able to better understand each other from a distance. But one can hope that the Arden players did not choose to soften many of Potok's harsh scenes (like the departure from the gallery) in an effort to be more respectful to the Chassidic lifestyle.

Asher might think his exhibit is to be lauded for its honest portrayal of his feelings, but he is selfish not to consider the implications of his actions and how they will affect his parents. When Aryeh and Rivkeh walk out of the gallery, they do not need any justification for their horror and shame. Perhaps it makes sense for Rivkeh to turn around and consider her estranged son as she reaches the exit, but Jacob Kahn would probably have told Zackman that turning around is not true art, and she ought to get real.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

1 comment:

Karl Miller said...

First off, Polonius gives that advice to his son, Laertes, not to Hamlet. It's not especially good advice, when read in context, and Hamlet sees though it immediately (see Act II, scene ii).

The crucifixion (as symbol) was not conceived as an active rebuke to Judaism. Throughout history it has been deployed that way, but Asher Lev spends a lot of time learning about that symbol and its prevalence in art. The cross means a hell of a lot more than the immediate reflexive offense felt by his father. And that's why Asher chose it for his paintings.

Of course Asher's parents don't need to justify their shame. Their shame was the whole point of the exhibition. Asher may not fess up to this explitly, but it is obvious to anyone who labors to be existentially free. That's why it's not enough for Asher simply to paint the Brooklyn Crucifixions in Paris; he must preserve them and make a show of them back home instead of destroying them. And that's why it's not enough simply to have his show and earn his accolades as a courageous artist; his parents must be there in public to witness their crime (and their crime is not deicide, it's the soul-murder that might have succeeded if Asher didn't happen to have the gift he had).

This public shaming is also what makes Potok's story ripe for theatrical elaboration because theatre was created to air tightly-guarded secrets about ourselves. Potok himself attempted this by extracting the gallery scene for a one-act play called "The Gallery" some time ago.

Thank you for pointing out the passive relationship Asher has to his Gift. As a fellow artist, I found it hard to portray this constant disavowal throughout the play -- until I realized that this disavowal was just an echo of the paternal command that Asher wanted to free himself from.

To return to the specific point of your post, I don't think Asher is an Idolater because he still affirms his identity as an "observant Jew." There is no indication he believes in Jesus, so his appropriation of the crucifix (a la Chagall) does not stem from some newfound reverence for that form as much as inspiration from that image.

Doesn't the very phrase "observant Jew" become tellingly literal by the end of Potok's book? Asher certainly "observes" his faith (much the way he passively observes his gift running amok on its own) but he also has the courage to deracinate everything inauthentic about that faith -- particularly the absurd pain it exacts on his mother.

Can a man follow the long litany of rituals, gestures, rites and utterances that constitutes "observance" while simultaneously knowing that the psychic and emotional concessions to the same god are criminally unacceptable? This is the agon joined (briefly) by Potok's story and our stage presentation of it.

Thank you for your insight into the book and the play. Forgive me if I take your analysis too personally, but I can't remember a single instance of sarcasm in my performance. I agree that Asher is a sadly humorless fellow. The one bona fide "one-liner" I can recall comes towards the end:

"No, no nudes, just a couple of crucifixions."

But even that line owes its humorous disparity to a tension between sex and death that has been thoroughly mined for all its tragic import in the preceding action of the story.

I have rambled enough for now. Please take my contention as evidence of the enduring (and rewarding) disputation ignited by Potok's work. As a lapsed Christian and a struggling artist, I spent a lot of time wrestling with Asher from a very different vantage and I can assure you that none of this labor was devoted to getting laughs. At its best moments, Potok's story uses Art (with a capital A) as a magnifying lens for the quotidian conflicts we all engage with our parents and society. But for this same reason, Asher's false binary (Observant Jew v. Painter) presents an ongoing challenge in direct address performance because it risks commodifying Art with the same arms-length passivity.

If anything, Asher makes an idol of Art. Potok has described his efforts with this book as a kind of wish fulfillment -- if only he were a gifted enough painter to merit the exemption the Rebbe repeatedly gives Asher. But Jacob Kahn rightly points out that "millions of people can draw; art is whether there is a scream inside him waiting to get out." As long as we're working backwards from an infallible Identity (Jew, chosen one, loyal son), that scream can only be read as a momentary deviation. I think Asher's scream hints at something much bigger. And that's why the book has something to offer an atheist artist like myself something, too.