21 March 2013

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

A lengthy sequel which attempts to popularise and normalise the Ladover Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

The novel is long, at over three hundred pages, and is a sequel to Potok’s earlier My Name is Asher Lev.

The previous book introduced us to the character of Asher Lev’s and his childhood in the Ladover Hasidic Community in New York, focusing on Asher’s developing skill and interest in art and ending with the young man’s social exclusion from the community and his semi-voluntary exile in France. The sequel tells the story of the return of Asher, now in his mid forties, married with a son and daughter, to New York for his Uncle's funeral and his family’s initially unplanned extended stay in the Community.

The earlier part of the book is the more engaging. Here the focus is on Asher’s family as they enter - or in Asher’s case, re-enter - Ladover community life. Potok describes the reactions of Asher’s wife, Devorah, and his two children who hitherto have been living observant lives in a secular France as they now enter the all-embracing Brooklyn Hasidic community. Conversely, we see the reactions of Asher’s parents, relatives and the wider community to the return of the black sheep, Asher Lev.

The story takes off when we learn that Asher’s uncle has bequeathed his valuable art collection into Asher’s trust, throwing him into conflict with his pious and business-oriented cousins.

The second part of the novel is slow moving. Asher returns to France alone on business and we are introduced to his non-observant Jewish friends and colleagues. At the same time Asher;s wife and family are increasingly drawn into Ladover life in New York. Gradually, we are made to realise that the elderly rabbe, the theological and charismatic leader of the Brooklyn community, intends Asher’s five-year old son to be schooled into becoming the future leader of the community.

Overall the book has a powerful conservative message. Asher, the artist, is rebellious, but remains an observant Hasidic Jew. The ordinary members of the Brooklyn community are portrayed as both highly conservative and of limited intelligence; all insight and progressive intelligence emanate from the eighty-nine year old rebbe, who speaks in mystical riddles to clarify his meaning. Potok, though not himself a Hasidic Jew, seems to want to present what amounts to a segregationist sect, managed by a charismatic leader, as an acceptable and normal state of affairs.

The book keeps one's interest, but only just.

POTOK, Chaim, The Gift of Asher Lev, Fawcett Books 1990.


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