Art, Religion and the Encounter between Two Traditions

By | Apr 18, 2013

“This is a religion. You’re entering a world with its own tradition.” Those unfamiliar with Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev would likely think that such a phrase would be uttered to someone thinking of converting to a different religion. In Potok’s book, however, it is said to a religious Jew thinking of becoming an artist.

Potok’s now-classic tale of a Hassidic artistic prodigy has been deftly rendered as a poignant, affective stage production by writer Aaron Posner and director Gordon Edelstein at New York’s Westside Theatre. As a 90-minute play performed without an intermission, it is a brisk yet moving treatment of Potok’s powerful semi-autobiographical novel. The production dramatizes the novel’s highlights and key lines while providing the audience with glimmers of insight into Asher Lev’s characters. As much as any theatrical or cinematic adaptation of a novel can only hope to impart a sense of its source work within an abbreviated window, Posner’s adaptation admirably fulfills these expectations. And the characters, as directed by Edelstein, are highly effective in their roles as well; with a mere three-person cast, Asher Lev is brought alive in an endearing, entertaining fashion.

While Ari Brand’s Asher Lev carries the play, Mark Nelson steals the show. Skillfully alternating between four different roles (Asher’s father, uncle, rebbe and art teacher), he plays each character with aplomb, and his Jacob Kahn—Asher’s witty, acerbic art instructor—is a delight. Nelson plays Kahn as a wry, slightly nebbishy Woody Allen type, which may be discomfiting for those expecting a more detached, intellectual Kahn. But Nelson’s Kahn provides the comic relief for the more somber aspects of the play, which fall to Jenny Bacon as Asher’s mother.

Asher Lev is at once a universal bildunsgroman about a boy discovering himself as a child and developing an identity of his own as an adolescent, and a particularist story about the challenges of engaging in secularist pursuits while adhering to traditional Jewish observance. As a pastiche of James Joyce’s A Portrait of The Artist as Young Man, Sholom Aleichem’s Fiddler on the Roof, and Potok’s own The Chosen, Asher Lev is itself part of a literary tradition that examines the tension between traditional religion and the secular world; in this case (similar to A Portrait), it illustrates the tension between Hassidic Judaism and the secular world of art—a world that, as Kahn tells Lev, seems inimical to the world of Lev’s parents.

Kahn’s attempts to dissuade Lev from entering the world of art are ironically redolent of the biblical story in the book of Ruth, wherein Naomi attempts to discourage Ruth from becoming part of the Jewish people: ‘you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, and you won’t like it,’ are what both Naomi and Kahn essentially tell their eager disciples. The Talmud states that rabbis have a duty to dissuade would-be converts in this fashion, and Kahn seems to adhere to this rabbinic imperative vis-a-vis Asher: “Art is not for people who want to make the world holy,” Kahn tells Asher, “the pursuit of art will destroy your whole life.” Yet, just as Ruth insists upon joining the Jewish tradition, Asher insists upon joining the artistic tradition.

The broader religious implications for observant Jews engaging in artistic pursuits is a weighty issue, and traditional scruples (such as prohibitions against depicting the human body, gazing at nude females, and entering non-Jewish houses of worship) have obstructed observant Jews from seeking to become artists; it is perhaps not coincidental that there have been far fewer Jewish visual artists than literary artists and musical savants. However, the Torah itself praises the visual artistry of Betzalel (the artist who designed the Tabernacle), the Bible expatiates upon the resplendence of Solomon’s Temple, and the Talmud advocates the acquisition of aesthetically pleasing ritual objects (a value termed hiddur mitzvah). Perhaps Jewish artists like Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Lee Krasner, and Potok’s Asher Lev are indications that the Jewish visual arts are resurfacing after a long period of dormancy to assume their rightful place alongside Jewish literature and music as major aspects of the tradition.

Daniel Ross Goodman is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. He is also an attorney and a cum laude graduate of Yeshiva University. Publications in which his writing has appeared include The Weekly Standard, The Forward and The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin.

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