I discovered Potok in high school, and entered a world very different from my own. (And isn’t that part of why we read, to find the places where things are so very different, yet common threads run through them?) Hasidic Judaism and big cities are neither one familiar to me, and yet the points on which this story turns are accessible because they’re based on human connections. What I read as lovely background, people from other communities and cities would read as familiarity; perhaps Potok’s genius lies in depicting a world so well, people from both sides of the window can see it without distortion.
Potok has a lovely way of just telling his story, and letting you think what you will. He almost writes like a literary television: here is the scene. What, you don’t understand the facial expression on the protagonist? Well, figure it out.
I really, really like writing that gives the reader his/her own sovereignty. Asher Lev is about a brilliant kid who, if you want to put it in simple terms, was kind of born into the wrong family. Except he wasn’t. They love him, but he’s… wrong for their way of life. He’s a very gifted artist in a family that doesn’t even have pictures in the house because of strict beliefs. His genius leads him to create a division in his family that causes all sorts of things, including a betrayal of his religious identity and, ultimately, his parents. He betrays his father by painting his mother, while his whole life is one long, slow betrayal of her, as she stood between the two of them and helped her son achieve greatness. In doing so, she gave him the tools to cut his father to the core. It’s an amazing story.
But the whole story is told from Asher’s point of view, much of it as a child, so it flows past in the background while he concentrates on making art. He’s something between a straight shooter and an unreliable narrator. When his parents won’t buy him paint, he takes him mother’s coffee and cigarette ashes and uses them with pencil to create a color effect, without recognizing what his father sees, watching him do that. Did you see the scene in the film Billy Elliot, where the dad–opposed to his son’s dancing all this time–watches him break into dance in their kitchen, and gives up?
Asher is a sickly kid, but his mom is pursuing a PhD at the behest of the Reb, and his father is deeply involved in politics and even some clandestine missions on behalf of the community. None of which this child cares about. He’s painting. It makes an interesting read, and a conflicting experience as to whether Asher is a heroic protagonist or not.
The story reminds me a little bit of an essay called “The Monster,” about what a horrible person Wagner was and how incredible his music is. Asher Lev is a book sort of like Vanity Fair, one of my other favorites. It has many heroes and none.