Last night, free tickets in hand, Gregarious Son and I went to see the Cleveland Playhouse's performance of My Name Is Asher Lev, based on the Chaim Potok novel with the same title.
Having taught in an Orthodox Jewish school for several years, I have read much by and about Chaim Potok. This work follows a familiar pattern: the story of an observant Jewish boy pulled between the rich and demanding tradition of his faith culture and the rich and demanding tradition of another world as he grows into manhood. In The Chosen, the best known of Potok's novels, the conflict forms the life of Danny, the brilliant son of the rebbe who raises him in silence, so that he will know the pain his father sees as essential to his becoming a legitimate and compassionate leader of his people. Danny leans, however, toward the new field of psychology, and the contributions of Jewish but atheist Freud, and eventually leaves the Brooklyn yeshiva world for the secular environment of Columbia University.
Asher Lev's gift lies in painting, a completely unacceptable pursuit in the eyes of his Hasidic father, who expects him to study Torah and live the strict life of the most radically observant of Torah Jews. Thanks to their rebbe, the unquestioned leader of their small community, Asher receives an introduction to the painter ~ Jewish but not observant ~ who agrees to train him for five years, beginning, significantly, in his Bar Miztvah year. Jacob Kahn, the painter, reminds Asher repeatedly that he is entering the world of the goyim, that his path will be one of pain, separation, and isolation ~ within his family, within his community, and within himself. The two of them make an intriguing pair, Jewish men seated in art museums, studying and copying the work of the great masters, whose subject matter largely concerns the Christian narrative.
One of my favorite lines in the play comes from Jacob Kahn, who tells Asher that he must learn the tradition ~ Titian, Michaelangelo, the other greats of the Renaissance ~ before he can add to it or rebel against it. Applicable to all of us, in all traditions.
The gulf between Asher and his religious family and community widens as he pursues his work, learns to paint nudes, and becomes the source of increasing conflict between his parents. Commercial success does not diminish the interior anguish that propels his work, much of it rooted in his understanding of his parents and their world. The final denouement comes after he visits Italy and becomes absorbed in its art, particularly the Pieta. He returns home to paint the pieces that will both seal his reputation as a great artist and drive him from the community that sees his work as the ultimate betrayal.
The performances were wonderful, and I left with two intensely personal reactions. First, I felt carried back to my teaching days in the Orthodox community, to my memories of life in a culture distinctly different from my own but that has nevertheless shaped many of my ideas about community, identity, and God. I was not surprised to discover the name of one of my former colleagues on the program, a rabbi and high school teacher who served as a consultant to the production.
Secondly, I awoke this morning pondering the final crisis of Asher Lev, which leads him to paint a crucifixion with his mother as the subject and his father and himself, the two poles of her life, standing on either side of her outstretched arms. The subject matter, the crucifixion itself, is profoundly off-limits to an observant Jew, but Asher says that he could not find in his own tradition an adequate rendition of the suffering of his mother, who has lost much (parents, brother, and now his own presence) in her lifetime. I was quite taken with how, as an outsider to the Christian tradition ~ and not just an outsider, but an outsider to whom the cross is particularly abhorrent because of the avalanche of horrors it has unleashed upon his people ~ not only could he interpret a Christian icon of such significance in such a deeply personal way, but he could find within himself and his own story the freedom to interpret it so fully, by placing the small and yet powerful feminine figure of his mother at the center.
The word tradition is at the heart of this work ~ the tradition of the Torah world, the tradition of the artistic world. (One can practically hear Tevye.) Asher Lev is the outsider and participant in both, reminding us that the vision of a community and its work depends upon the mingling of perspectives of both those within and those without.
Image: Noel Joseph Allain as Asher Leve, here.