‘Asher Lev’ is a faithful adaptation of Potok novel

Robert Thibaut and Lee Anne Mathews star in the New Jewish Theatre’s Production of ‘My Name is Asher Lev’. Photo by: John Lamb

By Robert A. Cohen, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

When the late novelist Chaim Potok was a featured speaker at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival some years back, he wondered aloud: “How can a Jew remain rooted in his Jewishness while at the same time come to terms with the very seductive, Western civilization in which he lives?” Potok wrestled with this dilemma in several of his books, including his 1972 novel “My Name is Asher Lev,” about a young man born with a considerable gift as an artist, who defies the Second Commandment ban on creating “graven images.” Asher Lev wants to be a loyal member of his Hasidic community in Brooklyn in the 1950s, but his calling and talent as an artist bring him into constant conflict with his father.

The New Jewish Theatre opened its 14th season last week with a faithful adaptation of Potok’s novel to the stage by Aaron Posner. Deanna Jent does an excellent job as director of the small but capable cast, who move through the 90-minute play without interruption on a sparse stage.

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Robert Thibaut is endearing as Asher Lev, who is shown at various stages of his life, from small child in an insular community in Brooklyn, through his struggles with his father and his eventual emergence as an acclaimed but controversial artist.

The other two actors in the play, Lee Anne Mathews and Terry Meddows, portray several characters each, though mostly they embody Asher’s loving but deeply conflicted parents.

Aryeh Lev cannot fathom his son’s stubborn insistence on being not only an artist, but one who paints such “forbidden” things as “naked women” and crucifixions. Aryeh is heavily involved in working for the Ladover Hasidic Rebbe of his community, who is a revered figure not only in New York but internationally. Meddows also plays Asher’s Uncle Yitzchok, his father’s older brother, “a round, happy man, already successful.” Uncle Yitzchok cheerfully describes Asher as a “little Chagall,” offering hope that Asher can follow in the footsteps of Marc Chagall, who emerged from his Hasidic roots in Russia to become an immensely successful modernist painter. Significantly, Chagall also painted crucifixion scenes, juxtaposing the execution of Jesus by the Romans with the persecution of modern Jews by the Nazis in the Holocaust.

Mathews does a convincing job in the demanding role of Asher’s mother, who struggles to be nurturing while attempting without success to bridge the growing divide between Asher and his father. In addition, she appears as Asher’s first nude model and as the head of a major New York art gallery, which showcases Asher’s work.

There are some riveting arguments between Asher and his father, the latter of whom insists that his son give up his obsession with drawing and painting. “I can’t help it,” Asher insists. Asher defends his painting of female nudes, denying that there are merely “naked women.” Art can be used to either hurt or to heal, and under the tutelage of mentor Jacob Kahn (also played by Terry Meddows), the young artist Asher Lev learns to express his full and true emotions and intellectual concerns in his paintings.

When Asher’s mother suffers the loss of her beloved brother Yaakov, the young artist can only find the kind of pain she endures in the face of Michaelangelo’s immortal statue, “La Pieta,” which depicts Mary cradling the broken body of her dead son after his crucifixion. Asher insists that every artist of significance in the Western canon has depicted the crucifixion, a central symbolic element of Western civilization. In order for a Jew to “come to terms” with the temptations of Western host cultures, he must “conquer” them by incorporating them into his creative consciousness.

And so Asher Lev continues to embrace his “unique and disquieting gift,” living a life as a gifted artist answering the insistent calling of his soul, and at the same time insisting that he continues to be “an observant Jew. A Hasid. What some would call a Torah Jew.” Many of the struggles of the 20th and early 21st centuries involve people attempting to be both true to themselves as well as to their families and communities. When values clash and when seemingly unbridgeable gaps exist between generations, the drama of life becomes intense. The NJT’s production of “My Name is Asher Lev” certainly does justice to that intensity.