another book i just finished.

(Warning: Plot spoiler!)

When I read "My Name is Asher Lev" for the first time, I was seventeen. I loved it. I declared that I wanted to name my first son "Asher" after the main character. I was sucked into the descriptions of him drawing all day everyday in a Jewish community in Brooklyn. I was envious of his artistic genius and his expansive access to all the finest art museums. I got so hung up on the glamorous details of Asher's artistic life and brain that I failed to focus on the larger, looming plot.

This time, the relationships in the story took precedence for me and it felt achingly sad and difficult to read. A lump in my throat settled into place during the hours it took me to finish.

The story takes an extreme case of conflicting traditions with Asher, a Hasidic Jewish boy who has essentially no choice but to paint because of his raw genius; an occupation regarded as evil nonsense to his strict religious community and parents. In the end, he paints his masterpiece; a deeply expressive and honest work that costs him being exiled from his community and disowned by his parents.

In reading the novel this time, I agonized over his decision to alienate everyone from his background for the sake of pursuing his expertise. The first time I read it, I was convinced that his decision had been correct. I felt that he'd been true to himself despite cultural pressures to deny himself of his genius. I reveled and supported him inwardly. But now as someone who has returned from a similar choice to deny myself of my background and upbringing; as someone who sees herself as a prodigal daughter; I find myself evaluating the qualities I shared with Asher as selfish, inward thinking, and immature.

Although my own decision to deny myself of my background was not based on following the traditions of art versus the traditions of my upbringing, I find myself hoping that there is a happy-medium or in-between as I begin my education as a graphic designer. I begin thinking that art can become so selfishly consumed with attempting to break boundaries or achieve a whole new level of shock factor. Can't you stay true to your religion and culture and still become successful in the design/art world? I am convinced there is a way or else I would never pursue it. My family and the creative process are the two things that grant me the most joy in life, and I don't think I'm required to give up one for the other, thank goodness. I am glad that I finished this book in a matter of a few days so that I don't have to exist in a world where such a stark choice must be made.


mim said...

I always felt bad for Asher because his parents disowned him. I couldn't understand why they would do that over some paintings.

I feel like I walk the same line though. Being a Mormon evolutionary biologist was not the easiest decision I have ever made. Remaining committed to marrying a Mormon is even harder. While I don't have any problem being a Mormon evolutionary biologist, lots of people around me have a problem with me being one. Evolutionary biologists hate it, but not quite as much as most Mormons. (It is easier in California though).

I am grateful for a religion that does not conflict with science, and I am grateful for Mormons who know their religion well enough to accept me. Mostly, I am grateful for a family that supports me and my decision to be an evolutionary biologist.

When you left Laura, all of us did all we could to get you back. We are the opposite of Asher's family. Rather than disowning a member, we do all we can to reclaim them when they try to get away.

MiriamR said...

I loved a Tree goes in Brooklyn (that was random I know) I don't know if I can handle a sad book at the moment so I might put this book on a list.I love that your sister is an Evolutionary Biologist!! I didn't know that. Has she seen: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Anyway I had never personally understood abandonment of children for those kinds of things but I know in very strict religions people think its easier to do that than deal with it.

Aubrey and Jardan said...

I read that book a few years ago, and it was difficult for me to understand my reaction to it--my brother LOVED it, and so did a lot of other people I knew, but I was uneasy. I'm glad you wrote this; you explain yourself so elegantly that I look at my own life and feelings in a different way. Thank you, Laura!

Hilary-Dilary-Dock said...

Oh man! I really liked this book a lot. I remember being in awe of Asher's artistic ability. If I ever named a boy Asher, it would secretly be because of Asher Lev. The Chosen was also really good.

maryjane said...

Laura, I love this book too! I read it back in junior high and too wanted to name my son asher. Maybe we've already talked about this. anyway, have you read the gift of asher lev? i remember enjoying that one as well.
you're cool.