Published in 1972, My Name is Asher Lev is Chaim Potok’s third novel. Like his best-selling debut The Chosen, the story creates drama from the conflict between Orthodox and secular Judaism. Set predominantly in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn during the 1950s and 1960s, the story also combines elements of autobiography with the bildungsroman coming-of-age of its young protagonist.
The source of tension is the titular Hasidic Jew with a desire to contradict the expectations and conventions of his religious beliefs and pursue a career in art. The primary antagonist standing in the way of Asher’s pursuing his happiness is his own father who, ironically, is pursuing his own passion to help those suffering from repression in Europe following World War II and who travels around the world thriving yeshivas. The central dilemma over which narrative hangs is that of identity rather than art.
Asher’s aching desire to follow his dream of being an artist is tied to his search for identity. For an Orthodox Jewish kid in New York in mid-century America, one’s identity had already been established thousands of years ago. Asher is forced to confront the heavy expectations of a culture which has changed very little over the course of those millennia, including what he views as an illogical rejection of art as even a path worth consideration. And yet within that path is what Asher views as his one chance to establish an identity of his own separate from that which he not only shares with others he knows, but which he shares with millions who’ve faced the same decision in the past.
Much like the novel that brought him to the attention of the world, My Name is Asher Lev pursues the same narrow confines of The Chosen. As Potok has explained it, while narrow within the confines of culture and setting, it also offers a more expansive opportunity to examine characters within the construct of reality rather imposing artificial dichotomies pitting good against evil. The conflict that drives the story of Asher Lev’s coming-of-age is not that creates heroes and villains; Asher and his father may vehemently disagree with each other’s opinion on the matter of the son’s dream of becoming an artist, but they both respect each other and the author delineates their oppositional perspectives with equal respect.
In 1990, Chaim Potok published The Gift of Asher Lev, a sequel that takes up his character’s life in middle-age. In 2012, a stage adaptation of the novel earned an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play.