f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 of Asher Lev – The Dangers of Rereading a Book

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, June 21, 2004

Day 1 of Asher Lev – The Dangers of Rereading a Book

The first time I read My Name Is Asher Lev, it was for a woman. I was deeply in lurve with a gal and as happens at such times, we spent much of our energies trying to get to know each other and trying to let ourselves be known. As with most couples I know, part of that involved sharing songs and movies and books and “art” that meant something to us and that we wanted to share. I got her to watch Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire and she suggested I read My Name Is Asher Lev. Knowing already my interest in the intersection of art and faith, she thought I’d find it interesting. And was I going to say no?

My memories of that first reading is that for the first 150 pages I kept wondering what this woman had found quite so compelling and what she’d thought I’d find in it. I have a fairly ingrained disinterest in orthodox Judaism, perhaps because having grown up in New Jersey it didn’t seem quite so “alien” or “fascinating” as it might to others. And so the story seemed mostly to be about a little boy staring out his Brooklyn apartment window.

The book changed on a dime for me the moment Jacob Kahn met Asher. When they exchange drawings outside the Rebbe’s office, I could sense that this was a pivotal moment for Asher. Now the gift would be examined more fully and not simply be left to run wild. The book was a tour de force from that moment on for me. As an earnest fellow with aspirations of art in my writing (I was then in the midst of my first novel), I found myself connecting with Asher. Certainly I wasn’t in his situation or facing the disapproval of an entire race of people, but the practice of any kind of creative expression sets you apart a little bit. So I felt I knew what he was going through.

That was 1997 or early 1998. Six years have passed and I am in a different state—figuratively and literally.

I have moved to the Midwest. I am married to the woman who told me to read the book. I have completed and published two novels, neither of which shook the world. And more importantly, I am now a father, twice-over. It was harder just to find the time to read Asher Lev again let alone rethink what it means.

And there is a danger to rereading meaningful books or rewatching meaningful movies or listening to that so that seemed so important isn’t there? So much of life is contextual—something is important for a moment and doesn’t seem to stay for the long haul. I’ve reread books I loved—particularly as a high schooler, undergrad—that now seem so overwrought or superficial. And this time, I’d signed you all up for the ride as well and a small part of me wondered if I’d really remembered Asher Lev right. Maybe it was just the whole being in love thing that had made the book work for me?

Simply put, I still love this book. I still think it should be required reading for any and all artists of faith (Muslim, Jew, Ba’hai, Presbyterian, I couldn’t care). I hope you all found it meaningful as well.

My reading did change, however. I found Asher a far less sympathetic character than I remembered. Still fascinating and compelling, but a bit of a griper as well. And I choked up at the most unexpected of times—it was the day before his final exhibition and his father is nearly overcome by pride for his son…but still has no idea what awaits him. I found a real poignancy in that moment, because I knew how fleeting it would be.

I still found the beginning slow, though I let myself linger a little more this time with young Asher. Perhaps it is because I am now a father, but I enjoyed the interplay between parents and son. I still felt the book’s momentum shift with the introduction of Jacob Kahn. And this time, the end hurtled toward me. My nerves sang, knowing what was coming in the final climax at the art gallery. It’s a devastating scene.

So that’s my take on it as a reader. I think we should talk about it as such first. Remember, we have five days on this, so we can take it slow. No need to burn all our thoughts on it at first.

I know on Thursday and Friday, I’d like to talk about what I see as the central issue of Asher Lev, at least as it involves us, and that is the notion of whether we have the freedom within our faith to fully practice our art.

Go to Day 2 of Asher Lev

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Also, I promised a discussion board for this and here it is.