The great Jewish-American novelist, Chaim Potok, who died over a decade ago, may have been the first multicultural artist of any serious note. The Chosen, his best known book, has become almost as ubiquitous on high school readings lists as The Catcher in the Rye or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- except that The Chosen, also a coming-of-age story, telegraphs from its very title that it's a story about Jews, and religious ones at that.
While the Jewish novelists of the second half of the 20th century -- Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Cynthia Ozick, among others -- also wrote about the Jewish experience, their stories, for the most part, involved Jews that would have been equally at home in a Woody Allen movie or a Henry James novel.
Potok's characters were neither Jewish parodies nor Jews who cared little about where they came from and desperately wished to be somewhere -- and someone -- else. The fictional world of Chaim Potok, who was also an ordained rabbi, involved Orthodox Jews trying to find a way to co-exist in two worlds -- the one grounded in the Hasidic past, and the other a siren song of seductions that springs from modern life. The question for Potok always came down to: Are such neat divisions and reconciliations even possible?
My Name is Asher Lev, Potok's most ambitious novel, has been adapted into a quite wonderful and poignant Off-Broadway play, currently playing at the Westside Theatre. The creative team, led by playwright Aaron Posner and director Gordon Edelstein, are very much aware of their source material, and the moral, intellectual and aesthetic dilemmas that Potok's characters cannot avoid but confronting.
Asher Lev, played with great sensitivity and deftness by the very fine Ari Brand, is in the quintessential Potok bind: He descends from a long and distinguished line of religious Jews, but the Creator of the Universe either blessed or cursed him with the talent of a great expressionistic painter. It is the worst kind of Greek tragedy, with a Jewish twist: A boy dressed in Hasidic garb is a prodigy not with Talmud but with brushes and paint. With those instruments he is given the prophetic voice, and the higher power to depict a vision of the world in all its fractured, debased beauty -- which includes painting nudes, and even transgressive re-imaginings of the crucifixion.
Did I mention that he is a Hasidic Jew? Asher Lev makes Matisyahu look like beat-boxing was never meant for anything more racy than a bar mitzvah.
The rabbinic leader of his Hasidic sect wisely recognizes that Asher cannot be constrained within the confines of Brooklyn's old-world ghetto. He must be loosely permitted to venture outside the faith. After all, Asher's creative powers are not man-made; he cannot help himself -- he was, like the Lady Gaga song, "born this way." His is a world of blank canvases made wild with color through the magic of art, whereas the parchment of the Torah reveals a black and white script written long ago. But no one, not the rabbi, and surely not Asher's parents, can anticipate just how all mighty his artistic muse will be. Cultural history, and even all those religious rules, ultimately cannot interfere with destiny. In this tension between the secular, modern world and the imperatives of the past, not even God can stand a chance.
The play also features Mark Nelson, one of New York's true dramatic talents, who portrays a number of the male roles -- the mentors and patriarchs who Asher will both delight and disappoint. Ilana Levine is a convincingly long-suffering wife and mother to these polar opposite men. And adding yet even more color to this dazzling canvas of a production is Naama Potok, the novelist's daughter, a fine actress in her own right, who serves as Levine's understudy.
His name is still Asher Lev, but at least for the time being, he lives on a New York stage as well as in Chaim Potok's iconic book.