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Are Asher Lev's Paintings Disrespectful to his Parents?
Are Asher's paintings of the Cruxifixion an ultimate act of disrespect towards his parents?
Asher Lev paints against the values of his family and community. He disregards Jewish traditions and observance by pursuing his passion for art. His individuality has him disobeying the Rebbe, the mashphia, his mythic ancestor as well as his parents. Asher does not intend for his artwork to be harmful, but that they convey truths and feelings. Yet, the Brooklyn Crucifixions cause shame for his observant Jewish parents. In that way, he disrespects their teachings and wishes. He challenges the Jewish belief on modesty in creating nude works and disturbs the Hasidic community in his Christian imagery. Worst of all is the reflection of the life-like representation of his family in the paintings. This causes a shocked and angry reaction from the public. The climax evolves towards the last chapter of My Name is Asher Lev, when Asher's parents react hurtingly after the paintings are exposed to them in the New York Museum. Chaim Potok writes their reaction as happening slowly in a step-by-step movement; in silences; building up readers' expectations of a negative outcome.
Guilt and fear of disobedience induces a silence from Asher. "They're not the truth, Papa; but they're not lies either". Asher appears to be speaking in his mind while thinking of the memories that the pictures portray. He disregards his father's lesson on how 'one Jew can cause the rest of the Jews to suffer'. Asher feels his disrespect as a son and justifies himself in his mind, but does not speak to his parents about the Cruxifixion paintings at all. Disrespect for his parents makes Asher scared. He anticipates their disappointment and hurt. Readers sympathize in acknowledging his inner suffering as he struggles to communicate freely with them.
Asher fears his father's reaction more than his mother's reaction for it is his father that disapproves of Asher drawing in the first place. The father appears to be the one who should be feared the most. Other characters suggest this, for example, Asher's teacher who says,"What will your father say if he saw this?" in regards to the picture of the Rebbe Asher drew in his Chumash. His mother is more supportive of Asher and just wants him and his father to get along. After finishing their journey for the Rebbe, she says " I want you and your father to be friends", The tension between Asher and his father is evident throughout the story. When his parents finish travelling for the Rebbe and return to the apartment, their relationship is more distant. When his father sees the paintings in the New York museum, he is in such extreme shock and anger that he says nothing to Asher but gives him a look. "His face wore an expression of awe and rage and bewilderment and sadness all at the same time." Asher's father feels ultimately disgraced by Asher. He does not want to believe that it is his son for no son of Aryeh Lev could be that disrespectful.
Asher deeply cares for his mother and does not want to upset her, but he disobeys her anyway. At four years old he is encouraged by her to "draw pretty things", which is in contrast to Jacob Kahn's advice to draw with passion. Asher's mother already suspects that there would be something in the Museum that Asher would be afraid to reveal to them. Asher looks at his mother and takes her by the hand to comfort her before the damage will be done. "Her hand was cold and moist" suggest that it is too late to stop the 'suffering and shame' soon to be endured. When Asher's mother sees the Cruxifixion paintings, like the father, she is too upset that she barely ounces a word to Asher. The silences from Asher's parents are because of 'suffering and shame' that is inflicted from his disrespect towards them.
Asher's paintings not only profoundly effect his parents, but they are also viewed upon negatively by the community. The community's reactions compile of many instances of silences and whispers in the Museum. It is as though they are singling out Asher from his parents. The community of Jews, as well as goyims, is acknowledging Asher's rebellion and individuality. Those who mostly dislike or find the paintings atrocious would be the orthodox Jews, such as Asher's parents. Hushed whispers is converted into silences when Asher' parents are noticed looking at the paintings. It is obvious that Asher has violated the standard of Jewish religion by depicting his parents in a Christian-based painting. The community is shocked by this and can see the Jewish shame. Readers note the feeling of eyes, stares and silences repeating motifs. The public stares and points out that," That's them." In the elevator, a man also stares at Asher and his parents. Eyes often tell a story; it is able to reveal happiness, sadness, excitement or boredom. In the museum, the eyes and stares reflect Asher's shame upon his parents.
Several patriarchal figures in Asher's early childhood give him advice about painting against Jewish tradition. Because Asher does not follow their teachings, it leads him to compose the Cruxifixion paintings and hence disrespect for Jewish concepts. It is not Asher's purpose in his are to rebel and defy his religion, but to express his feelings. Yet Yudel Krisky calls him a scandal for turning away from studying the Torah and his father repeatedly implies that it is foolish for Asher to draw. Still, it does not stop Asher from becoming an artist. In chapter 5, Asher pleads with his father to not call it foolishness and his mother says, "You are being disrespectful to your father." The Rebbe even warns Asher (after giving his blessings for Asher's bar mitzvah) that he must honour his father. In painting against his father's wishes, it is a breaking of one of the Ten Commandments. Asher is told that knowledge and studying is more important, like the duty of his father's travels for the Rebbe and his mother finishing off Uncle Yaakov's work. But he follows them and instead of studying the Torah like common Hasidic boys, he travels to New York and then Paris because his paintings have caused stir amongst the community.
Asher shivers in the wind, after his father and mother leaves the New York Museum. It is that feeling of coldness and illness again, like the trend in Asher's family. His mother suffers from grief of her dead brother in Chapter 1; his father suffers from a fever in Chapter 2 and Asher appears to be pale and unwell in returning from Paris in Chapter 14. The suffering of coldness is a reminder of Siberia and the persecuted Jews. Asher's father says,"Any man who has caused a single Jew to perish, the Torah considers it as if he had caused a whole world to perish." Asher is told several times that if a Jew is hurt, the rest is hurt with him. Asher is an example. His paintings have disgraced his family and the whole community is aware. The contradicting images of the Cruxifixion triggered by Asher's internal conflict have subsequently ruined his family. This can be regarded as an ultimate disrespect towards his family.
Besides disobedience, Asher's problem is rebellion. This rebellion is not purposely imposed to shame his family, but it is his internal conflict that causes him to release his feelings into his paintings. The pictures of the naked women and the Cruxifixion displayed at the museum are ways in which he tells the whole world of his torment and helplessness. This is revealed as rebellion. Asher pours his heart in his paintings and so when the world around him is suffering, he draws these memories. It is similar to the memory of his mother's suffering, where he uses ash to contour his mother's face of pain and the bitterness of being ridiculed where he draws an ugly sickening picture of the boy at school.
Asher and his art is an ultimate form of disrespect towards his parents and perhaps the Jewish community. They warn him of the day of hurt and resent like the opening day of Asher's paintings in the New York Museum. Asher's father returns from Russia, and says "Do not forget your people Asher" It is the same as if one Jew aches, the whole community hurts, Asher's mythic ancestor haunts him in his dream, and indicates that his art is a waste of time at the end of Chapter 4.
It is Asher's 'gift' that separates him from the Jewish community. He causes so much pain for his parents and the community that the only resolution is too send Asher away, which the Rebbe does at the end. Like the father and the mother, Asher is journeying for him to prevent Jews from suffering. The conclusion ends with Asher's parents watching in silence as Asher's cab pulls away. Similarly, at the museum, he had watched his parents, who did not utter a voice or a glance at him, pull away in a cab. In his parents' eyes, Asher has crossed the boundary of obedience and disrespect, with such immense rage and hurt that it causes a deadly silence between them.