My Name is Asher Lev: Art for truth’s sake

As the title suggests, My Name is Asher Lev is related by Asher Lev, born in Brooklyn in 1943 to parents whose marriage united two prominent Hasidic families.

front dust-jacket of My Name is Asher Lev shows the artist at work.
What is Asher Lev thinking as he eyes a blank canvas?

Asher is a very sensitive child, but he cannot communicate his feelings except through art. His earliest playmates “are Eberhard and Crayola.”

Asher’s mother, an emotionally fragile woman, likes him to draw pretty birds and flowers.

Asher’s father, principled and highly disciplined, thinks art is at best a waste of time; at worst, it’s a violation of the Law.

Mr. Lev travels as a missionary/community organizer, setting up schools in Jewish communities in communist countries.

When Asher enters yeshiva, his mother enters college to study Russian so she can work with her husband in stead of waiting for him to return.

The Rebbe, a faceless figure at the periphery of Asher’s life, arranges for him to study art with the world’s most prominent Jewish artist.

Asher grows distant from his family even as he grows mature enough to understand why they view life as they do.

Chaim Potok’s characters are complicated, sometimes puzzling to themselves as well as to those around them.

In Asher Lev, as in The Chosen and The Promise, Potok writes straightforward prose that mutes profound meaning: I burst into tears after reading the novel’s last line.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, © 1972, 373 p.
1972 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of the 1969 bestsellers

The three bestsellers of 1969 that retain the most value for 2017 readers each deal in very different ways with family relationships: The Godfather by Mario Puzo, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, and The Promise by Chaim Potok.

The Godfather is first a father.

I suspect  The Godfather is known as a Mafia thriller because more people saw the film than read the novel.

There’s certainly enough blood and gore in the book to make an emergency room crew feel at home, but the deeper stories of family, culture, and crime-as-a-business are more important.

Don Vito Corleone quote on need to treat extortion as a business.

Don Vito Corleone is  getting old. He can’t delay much longer selecting a new CEO of the family’s gambling and extortion businesses.

Mike, his youngest son, has the best temperament for the job. Unlike the eldest son, Mike is levelheaded, and unlike the second son, he has proven leadership skills. Mike also has a proven record of killing when required: Mike is a war hero.

The problem is that Mike got his war-hero status by defying his father and enlisting in the Marine Corps.  Home from the war, he chose to attend an Ivy League college, where he’s fallen in love with a rich daddy’s girl with impeccable WASP credentials.

The novel traces Mike’s journey from rebellious son to his father’s successor as godfather. Becoming a mob boss was never Mike’s wish, but his upbringing and personality make it inevitable.

Along the way, readers learn about the European Mafia operated for centuries as an elaborate system of interpersonal favors before becoming an international business operation in the twentieth century.

The Promise

Compared to The Godfather, The Promise may seem tame, but it deals with incidents that, although bloodless, are emotionally lethal.

Quote from The Promise saying each generation fights same battles with different people.

The story, like Potok’s earlier bestseller The Chosen, focuses on Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders, two brainy Jewish boys whose fathers are each rabbis.

Reuven, who has always had a close relationship with his father, is studying to become a rabbi himself. Danny, whose relationship with his father was emotionally distant, has rejected the rabbinical life and is a doctoral student in psychology.

The relationship between the two friends becomes strained when Danny recommends a radical treatment of a disturbed young boy to whose family Reuven introduced him.

Reuven finds Danny’s isolation treatment, so reminiscent of Danny’s own upbringing, as appalling as he had earlier found Rabbi Saunders’ refusal to interact with Danny.

Reuven also finds himself out of sympathy with his own father, an unfamiliar and upsetting experience.

Like the Godfather, The Promise places twentieth century characters in situations firmly rooted in centuries-old culture. They all have to figure out how to fit their heritage and their ideals into a world they are reluctant to belong.

Portnoy’s Complaint: Too much family

self-deprecating quote from Portnoy

Portnoy’s Complaint is related by Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist.

Alex has no end of problems, all of which he blames on his parents. Had they never had him, he would have been fine.

Even with his psychiatrist, Alex attempts to disguise the extent of his misery under a barrage of wisecracks.

Alex is so funny, it’s hard to imagine even a psychiatrist failing to laugh at his jokes.

But it doesn’t take a shrink to see that Alex is a seriously damaged individual—and his parents probably had a big role in that.

The question is whether Alex has enough willpower to try acting differently than he learned to do as a child.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni


The Promise: Cultural clash on personal level

In The Chosen, Chaim Potok explored how two brilliant teenage boys struggled to find a way to reconcile their orthodox Jewish faith with their academic interests.

NYC sidewalk scene on cover of The Promise
Cover for Potok’s 1969 bestseller about two young Orthodox Jewish scholars.

The Promise again brings Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders, now both graduate students, together around a problem to which they respond differently.

Reuven meets a famous Jewish scholar who, though unable to believe in the Jew’s God or their theology, believes in Judiasm’s ethics and culture.

Prof. Gordon’s son has mental problems.

Through Reuven, the Gordons learn of Danny, who is doing brilliant work in psychotherapy. They agree to letting Danny isolate Michael until he opens up to Danny.

The very idea appalls Reuven.

He has his own problems.

The man who will determine whether he passes the smicha exam and becomes a rabbi is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who has violently attacked Reuven’s father for heretical views.

Potok weaves these and many more threads together into a exploration of friendship, father-son relationships, faith and orthodoxy, and the potentially lethal consequences of the zeal of the persecuted becoming a club by which they can persecute others.

The Promise is as good on second—or seventh—reading as on the first.

The Promise by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. 368 pp. 1969 bestseller #8. My grade A.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni


My picks of 1967’s bestselling novels

From the 1967 bestsellers, I can recommend two very good novels and one good collection of quotations.

The very good novels are The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and The Chosen by Chaim Potok.

The good collection of quotations is The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

Quote overlaid on photo of Black Lives Matter rally says white people can't help taunting and tormenting blacks.

Confessions is a novel, but one that’s based solidly in fact, with just Styron’s finessing to make it coherent and powerful for a twentieth century audience.

Nat Turner, a Negro slave who was raised as a “house nigger,” was educated by his owners at a time when allowing a black to have any schooling was a crime.

The family also had Nat trained as a carpenter, gave him his own Bible, and promised him his freedom at age 25.

Before that date rolled around, the family fell on hard times and had to sell their most valuable assets.

One of those assets was Nat.

Because of his carpentry skills, Nat manages to survive under the plantation system, but because of his education, in the white South he finds himself without companionship.

Loneliness warps Nat’s mind.

He begins to believe God wants him to lead a slave insurrection.

In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia — far fewer than Nat expected to join him — rose up against their white overlords, slaughtering mercilessly.

Styron presents Nat’s story from two perspectives. One is the story he tells his lawyer,  who is more interested in making a name for himself from the trial than in defending Nat.

The other is the story he doesn’t tell his lawyer: the story of what Nat saw, felt, and believed about the people and incidents that shaped his life.

Nat’s inner story is gripping.

He can’t ever be friends with white people:

Even when [white people] care, even when they are somehow on your side they cannot help but taunt and torment you. ~

And he can’t even hope to better himself by talent and hard work:

A Negro’s most cherished possession is the drab, neutral cloak of anonymity he can manage to gather around himself, allowing him to merge faceless and nameless with the common swarm: impudence and misbehavior are, for obvious reasons, unwise, but equally so is the display of an uncommon distinction, for the former attributes can get you starved, whipped, chained, the latter may subject you to such curiosity and hostile suspicion as to ruinously impair the minute amount of freedom you possess.

An historical note in the novel’s afterward reveals that Nat was right to be wary of whites:

All of the insurrectionists executed were given a decent burial except Nat. His body was handed over to doctors who skinned it. A purse was made of the hide, the flesh cooked for grease.

The Chosen

Chaim Potok’s novel about Hasidic Jews in New York City, revolves around a teenager with a different sort of relationship issues.

Two Jewish rabbis talk. Both love their sons.

Danny Saunders, a brilliant boy with a photographic memory, is being raised in an Hasidic home. His father, Rabbi Saunders, refuses to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud.

Danny loves his father, but he’s boiling with anger and resentment about his father’s silent treatment.

At a Jewish inter-mural high school baseball game, Danny vents his hostility on the opposing team’s pitcher: Danny’s powerful, carefully directed swing smashes Reuven Malter in the face with the baseball, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize to Reuven.

The two boys, finding they are both without intellectual peers among their classmates, become friends.

Reuven’s father becomes a mentor to Danny.

Reuven becomes a conduit by which Rabbi Saunders tells Danny that his father is sincerely, lovingly doing what he believes is best for him.

The Chosen is a shortish novel, and there’s nothing self-consciously literary in Potok’s writing style. Nevertheless, The Chosen isn’t a novel that can be skimmed: It requires thoughtful attention or readers will miss the love underlying the seemingly fractured father-son relationship.

The Eighth Day

Unlike The Chosen and Confessions, which are short novels with emotionally dense stories, The Eighth Day is a long novel with hardly enough story to fill a novella.

Wilder fills space with ramblings. They don’t make a good novel, but they make clever quotes.

These three quotes could be a comments on The Confessions of Nat Turner:

Man is cruel to man and even those who are kind to those nearest them are inhuman to others. It’s not kindness that’s important but justice. Kindness is the stammering apology of the unjust.

♠ ♠ ♠

Suffering is like money… It circulates from hand to hand. We pass on what we take in.

♠ ♠ ♠

There are no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages. There is the oceanlike monotony of the generations of men under the alternations of fair and foul weather.

These two comments might be stimulated by reading The Chosen:

No man can be a good father until he has understood his own.

♠ ♠ ♠

Men and faith and men of genius have this in common: they know (observe and remember) many things they are not conscious of knowing. They are attentive to relationships, recurrences patterns, and “laws.”

Here are three other quotes from The Eighth Day, to show to range of Wilder’s wanderings.

Boredom is energy frustrated of outlet.

♠ ♠ ♠

There is no creation without faith and hope.

♠ ♠ ♠

All mothers love their children. We know that. But maternal love is like the weather. It is always there and we are most aware of it when it is undergoing change.

♠ ♠ ♠

That wraps up my reviews and ramblings about the 1967 bestselling novels. The next time we meet, it will be to look at the bestseller list of 1968.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni


“The Chosen” examines friendship, faith, fatherhood

collage of photos of Hasidic Jews, a baseball glove, broken glasses.
The Chosen begins with Hasidic Jews, baseball, and broken glasses.

Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen opens with a baseball game between two Jewish parochial schools.

The Hasidic school’s best player is Danny Saunders. Reuven Malter leads the orthodox school’s team, which the Hasidim consider as bad as Christians.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok
© 1967. Book Club Edition, 284 pp. 1967 bestseller #3. My grade: A.

Danny slams back one of Reuven’s pitches, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize.

Reuven is smart, Danny, with his photographic memory, is brilliant. A friendship springs up between the boys who have no intellectual peers in their schools.

Through the boys’ friendship, Potok takes readers deep into the orthodox scene.

Reuven is very close to his scholarly father. He finds Rabbi Saunders’s refusal to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud appalling.

Danny is hurt by the silent treatment, but loves and respects his father.

As the boys begin college, the question arises: What will happen if they want different careers than their fathers have chosen for them?

In Potok’s deceptively straightforward narrative, it’s easy to miss details that reveal motives deeply rooted in the two faith communities. Some readers will need to read the novel twice to grasp the faith context.

Others may read The Chosen twice because it’s worth reading more than once.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni