Jennifer Spiegel's Reviews > The Gift of Asher Lev

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
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May 14, 2011

it was ok

I’m going to give away the end, so you may need to stop reading. But it’s the end I want to talk about.

First, I adored the earlier book, My Name is Asher Lev (1972). I think it is, without exaggeration, a profound statement on the integrity of the artist. Second, everyone told me that the sequel, The Gift of Asher Lev (1990), wasn’t very good. Well, it wasn’t as good as the first, but it wasn’t that bad, either. I still found it absorbing, worth reading, and very interesting. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of sequels, though I understand the desire for them. It just seems like a sequel is inevitably disappointing, so it’s a set-up for disaster. But the thing is that we just love Asher so much—and Rocky and Han Solo and Bruce Willis (what was his name in Die Hard?)—and we care, so we want to know about their well-being, their fate. We’re suckers for sequels. If Potok had more to say about Asher Lev, I had to find out what it was. Third, what I really wanted, after this sequel, was a memoir by Potok on Potok, no doubt an interesting guy. He never wrote that memoir.

The Gift of Asher Lev finds Asher to be a world-renowned artist, living in France with his wife—a nice Jewish girl—and two kids. He is still a practicing Hasidic Jew, though the religious community is pretty much suspicious of him at every turn. He is in exile. An artist and a Jew. It’s an uneasy relationship, but he manages.

Then, his uncle in Brooklyn dies. He goes back to New York with his French family. A trip to mourn a death turns into months, and then there’s the decision to stay or to go. At the heart of the decision is this gift: Asher, like Abraham in the Old Testament (the book draws this comparison), will sacrifice his son. By allowing his child to stay in Brooklyn, Asher is acquiescing to the Rebbe’s (the rabbi’s) implicit decision to groom the boy to be the future Rebbe. This is the gift of Asher Lev, not his art.

But Asher, despite a happy marriage and children he loves, doesn’t stay himself. He chooses his art. He returns to France, while his family stays in Brooklyn. He will return on holidays. His life as an artist is in France. Asher wonders to himself, as he ponders his gift, whether the Rebbe counted “on the helpless self-centeredness of the artist’s soul.”

That’s about my yearly quota for plot summary.

When I first started reading this sequel, I wanted to write about anger. Asher struck me as slightly angry. I liked him, but his anger stood out. And, then, in my meanderings, I began to wonder if all artists are angry. Is anger part of it? Am I angry?

I probably am. I’m not sure this is a good thing or a necessary thing, though. I just think that art—Art—often involves standing in opposition to something. That can make one angry. But there’s a lot to say about this, and I’ll save it.

Rather, that end. He left his family! You know what? I think that’s B.S.! I think that sucks! The helpless self-centeredness of the artist’s soul! Even if it’s totally true, let’s resist it!

When I read about Asher in Paris and Asher in the South of France, a part of me wants that. I want to sit in cafes, go to Giverny, wander through a garden. But this too is true: I’ve been to a number of exotic locations all alone. While part of it was really great, another part really sucked!

Artists may be myopic, self-absorbed, possessing secret and highly privatized thought lives that allow them to seem present when they’re really not. Artists may be alienated, eccentric, given to depression even. Artists may be lousy parents, lousy spouses, lousy followers of religion. Artists may crave exotic and even solitary ventures upon occasion.

But, really, this made me slightly irate. Don’t be an idiot. When it comes down to it, stay with your kid. Asher, take the family back to France or stay in Brooklyn with them. You think you’re doing your art a favor. You’re not. You’ve got a family, man.

Why so irate? I guess it’s my past. I had a lot of time alone. I wrote a lot. In exotic and solitary places. Everyone who knows about my family life knows how, um, “challenging” it’s been. The last time I traveled abroad was on my belated honeymoon to Alaska. Tim and I were in Vancouver for a night or two. Then, we immediately had kids. I love to travel. I have these cravings, these fantasies: Greece, India, Tibet, Egypt, Indonesia. I’d write and write and write. I’d go on glass-bottom boats, walk through markets, sleep on cots near purple lizards. Somehow or other, I’d be okay with the lizards.

But, really, where is the material, the true grist, the stuff of life? Alone in Paris?

I’m sorry for going crazy. I find Potok and his unique questioning to be fascinating and appropriate and important. I didn’t love this book’s conclusion. The gift was no gift at all.

How old are you? Do you remember the Eighties? Do you remember Wham!? Do you remember when George Michael used to wear those t-shirts that said Choose Life? Life is among the living. Choose life.
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