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The Struggle in Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev

Conflict and sacrifice finds everyone. They are inevitable parts of being human; you cannot flee from them. In the novel My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok develops the idea that an individual’s attempt to live unconstrained by conventions or circumstances is often accomplished through conflict and sacrifice, especially when there are various relationships at stake.

My Name Is Asher Lev portrays conflict between the protagonist’s artistic impulses and the conventions of Hasidic community he’s growing up in. This conflict started for Asher at an early age when he was struggling to study the Torah as a “boy [his] age should” rather than drawing faces of the Rebbe and scribbling in his Hebrew notebooks. His unconscious desire to be his own person “need all [his] strength and left Asher seeing only one path; a path contrary the values of his community. As Asher ages and develops as an artist, his devotion to his art again rebels against his community and family values. Creating the nude art work for the exhibit divided him from his religion to an extent which he “crossed a boundary” and was now “alone”. The disapproval from the community did not hold back Asher back from reaching for his inner individual desires.

Asher’s decisions to embrace his artistic talents not only divided him from his community; but also required him to sacrifice his family unity. Potok clearly articulates the depth of the families love for each other; but even love is not enough for his father to forgive Asher’s blatant disregard for the conventions of his family to embrace his sense of self. Often, like when Asher’s father returns from home after being away at work, his father “did not greet [him]”. Instead, his father was “in an uncontrollable rage” and even lashed out physically when he learned Asher went against the teachings of the Torah when he drew Jesus and nudes. Asher’s pursuit to answer to his own conscious made him the antithesis of his father, who was arguably the very essence of traditional Hasidic faith. This sacrifice to his art Asher then lived a life where he didn’t understand why his father hated him; why his father thought “he was wasting his life”, why his father thought he “betrayed him”. Ultimately by Asher’s single-minded attempt to live unconstrained by his community’s expectations Asher sacrificed the unconditional acceptance from his father.

Rivkeh, Asher’s mother, also faces conflict and sacrifice as she lives against the conventions of her life in order to support Asher. Rivkeh must decide between nurturing her son’s artistic talents and being faithful in her duty toward her husband. This brings her clearly into conflict with Asher’s father. Her sacrifice is so great that it becomes the subject matter of Asher’s most controversial paintings in the Brooklyn Crucifixion.

In Chaim Potok’s novel the conflict between conventions and individualism is prevalent throughout. Where Asher’s family and community supported that “a life should be lived for the sake of heaven”, Asher believed his life should not be sacrificed for achievement of his dreams and passions. Asher made existed through conflict and sustained enormous sacrifices to be true to himself. Asher’s encompassed the idea that “an artist is a person first. He is an individual. If there is no person, there is no artist”.

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