Asher Lev, the titular character, is born into a Hassidic Jewish community with strict values. From early on, he expresses both an interest and talent in art, which his father tries to squelch.
On the other hand, his mother encourages his career, which manifests itself in his later works. When his mother falls ill after the death of her brother, Asher’s father Aryeh stays home and works to help people emigrate from Russia. When she recovers, she begins to attend college because she thinks that that’s what her brother would’ve wanted. As time passes, Asher spends more and more time with an immigrant his father rescued from Russia, a man named Yudel Krinsky.
When Aryeh gets an opportunity to continue his work in Vienna, which Asher opposes. When this anger manifests itself in a picture that disturbs his teacher and family, the decision is made to let him live with Rivkeh, but he eventually moves to his Uncle’s and stays in America.
A little bit before his Bar Mitzvah, he is called into a meeting with the Rebbe, or religious supervisor. He meets a man named Jacob Kahn, who teaches him art. The summer after he moves into his uncle’s, he spends time with Kahn at the beach. He spends the entire time painting and remaining true to his religion.
When Asher starts high school, he begins going to showcases, which progresses as he starts college. He achieves a fair amount of success, much to his father’s disapproval. Even though his relationship with his parents is rocky at best, Rivkeh still tries to understand Asher’s point of view.
He eventually travels to Italy, and it exposes him to the cross and when he moves to Paris, he uses it in his works. He views what he has created in Paris as mistakes and is sickened when he views them, as they show his mother on a cross. Nevertheless, the art collector Anna Schaeffer loves them.
She puts them as the final piece in a showcase, which his parents eventually view. His parents essentially disown him and he is banished from his community. Asher leaves, presumably forever, and moves to Paris.