This is the story of Asher Lev, a boy born with a prodigious artistic ability into a Hasidic Jewish family, set in the 1950s in the time of Joseph Stalin and the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. During Asher's childhood, his artistic inclination brings him into conflict with the members of his Jewish community, which values things primarily as they relate to faith and considers art unrelated to religious expression to be at best a waste of time and possibly a sacrilege. It brings him into particularly strong conflict with his father, a man who has devoted his life to serving their leader, the Rebbe, by traveling around the world bringing the teachings and practice of their sect to other Jews, and who is by nature incapable of understanding or appreciating art.
In the middle is Asher's mother, who in Asher's early childhood was severely traumatized by the death of her brother, who was killed while traveling for the Rebbe; she suffers anxiety for her husband's safety during his almost constant traveling. It didn’t just affect her, but it affected her whole family and community. After her anxiety had passed, she decided she wanted to continue her brother’s work.
The Rebbe asks Asher’s father to travel to Vienna, since it would make his work easier. Asher becomes very upset about this and complains that he doesn’t want to go to Vienna. His mother decides to stay in Brooklyn with Asher, while his father goes to Vienna. While Asher’s father is away, Asher gets more into his paintings and neglects his Jewish studies.
Asher begins to go to art museums where he studies paintings. He becomes very interested in the paintings, especially the ones of the crucifixions. He starts copying the paintings of the crucifixions and nudes, but this would only get him into trouble. Asher’s father returned home one night after a long trip to Russia for the Rebbe. He then sees Asher’s paintings of the crucifix and nudes and is furious. Asher’s father thinks that his gift is foolish and from the Sitra Achra, or Other Side. Asher’s mother doesn’t know whether to support her son or her husband. She is torn between the two of them.
Yet the gift will not be denied, and finally the Rebbe intercedes and allows Asher to study under one of the greatest living artists, Jacob Kahn, a non-observant Jew who is an admirer of the Rebbe. Asher grows up to be a formidable artist as an apprentice of Jacob Kahn, and even his father cannot help but be proud of his son's success. Jacob Kahn becomes more than just an art teacher to Asher. Jacob Kahn also teaches Asher about life and they eventually become very good friends. However, the gift finally calls upon Asher to paint his masterpiece—a work which uses the symbolism of the crucifixion to express his mother's torment. This imagery so offends his parents and his community that he is asked to leave. Asher goes away not wanting to hurt the ones he loves further.