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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.