Artistic genius clashes with Hasidism in ‘Asher Lev’ at New Jewish Theatre

Amy Loui and Spencer Sickmann perform in New Jewish Theatre’s production of ‘My Name Is Asher Lev.’  

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

A deeply affecting production at the New Jewish Theater of “My Name is Asher Lev” compellingly paints a vivid picture of the clash between a revered Hasidic rabbi and his artistic prodigy son, whose God given gifts are both brilliant and blasphemous.

Caught between the pious and dogmatic father, Rabbi Aryeh Lev and the art-obsessed son Asher, is the boy’s mother, Rivka, who cries out with a primal scream when she learns that her beloved scholarly brother has suddenly died.

Adding to the vivid palette of the story is Jacob Kahn, a fiercely secular Jewish painter who encourages Asher to let all of his emotions pour into his work even at the risk of a permanent break with his parents. 

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Not only does Asher paint female nudes, which his parents condemn, but he even dares to paint two crucifixion scenes, which cross the line of disrespect. 

Aaron Posner adapted the play from a novel of the same name by Chaim Potok. Under the skilled and sensitive direction of Aaron Sparks and a small but superb cast, the NJT production is emotionally riveting and a highly satisfying intellectual experience.

Spencer Sickmann shines in the challenging role of Asher Lev, while Chuck Winning does stellar work playing all the other male roles, including Rabbi Lev, the artist Kahn and a revered Hasidic rabbi for whom Lev’s father works tirelessly to rebuild Hasidic yeshivahs in war-ravaged Europe. Also virtuosic is Amy Loui as Asher’s mother, Rivka, as well as the other females in the play, including a model who poses for Asher, and a sensuous, flirtatious art patron who shepherds the young artist into becoming a national and global superstar.

Within the play are frequent references to the genius Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagall, who also painted the crucifixion and female nudes, and other Jewish-ly taboo subjects.

For centuries, a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment prohibition of making graven images blocked observant Jews from becoming painters or sculptors. Thankfully, brave Jewish artists like Chagall, Modigliani, Pissarro and Rothko embraced their genius and produced brilliant works of which Asher Lev would have been proud.

Kudos go to scenic designer Rob Lippert and his crew for the sparse set, and to resident designer Michele Friedman Siler for the effective costumes. These touches and more seamlessly help bring the multiple roles to life in a thoroughly rewarding production.