Born as a Hasidic Jew, Asher Lev is compelled to choose between his people’s traditions and his obsession with drawing the world. The traditions of his people have been practiced for generations. According to his critics, Asher is a child prodigy in art, but a failure as a son. Asher Lev’s obsession with art alienates him from his family, though it finally landed him into the arms of his mentor, Jacob Kahn. It is Jacob who nurtures Asher Lev’s painting talent through his puberty and all the way to his manhood. His advice to him was that good art has no religious boundaries. He encouraged him to be true to himself and to bring out what was in his mind through painting without fear. His painting titled ‘Brooklyn Crucifixion’ separated him from his family and the rest of the society completely. In this painting, Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, is depicted as having been crucified on a cross. This symbolizes the struggle that had been going on between her husband and her son. Painting his own mother brings despair to his parents and the Jewish tradition. This forces Asher to leave his home.
Asher is devoted to God, but does not stop to nudes and crucifixions. He argues that this helps him to become a very good artist. According to him, his faith regards the paintings as being indecent, but to art the paintings are a tradition. This clearly brings out the outstanding boundaries between art and religion. During his childhood, he was in constant conflict with his father who devoted much of his lifetime to serve their religious leader. His father used to travel around the world teaching other Jews about their religious teachings. He does not appreciate art naturally. On the other hand, Asher’s mother is deeply traumatized by her brother’s death, which occurred while on a mission to represent their religious leader Rebbe. She is also concerned about the safety of her husband. The trauma affects her and the whole community. She later on decides to carry on with her brother’s work.
As he was growing up Asher started going to the art museums to study various paintings. He became very much interested in the paintings about crucifixions. He later on started copying these paintings but this gets him into a lot of trouble. One day his father comes across some of his paintings of the crucifix and nudes after coming back from a trip to Russia. His father becomes so much infuriated by these paintings. He believes that these paintings are foolish and do not conform to the teachings of their religion. On the other hand, Asher’s mother is faced with a dilemma when she discovers these paintings. She does not know whether to support her son or her husband.
This family split even more when the Rebbe asked Asher’s father to go to Vienna on a mission. Asher’s mother chose to remain in Brooklyn with her son. Asher takes advantage of his father’s absence to get more into his paintings. At long last, the Rebbe intervenes and allows Asher to study under the guidance of Jacob Kahn. Kahn is an admirer of the Rebbe but does not follow the Jewish teachings. Asher finally grows up to be an outstanding artist under the mentorship of Kahn. His father remains with no other option other than being proud of him. Apart from teaching him about art, Jacob Kahn also teaches Asher about life issues. They become very good friends indeed. This is the moment at which he paints his masterpiece; his mother’s image, to express her torment. The image is not appreciated by his parents and the community. He is therefore asked to leave.
Asher faced a lot of suffering when his own father decided to go against his artistic career. He is negatively viewed by many people; his father, teachers and peers. He does not follow the Jewish religion because he chooses to identify with art. Art seems to be his religion such that even his own mother has to suffer for it, since he tries to portray his mother’s suffering through his masterpiece; crucifixion is a symbol of suffering in the Christian tradition. As such, tension arises between him and his parents who are very religious because of this piece of art. His father refuses to acknowledge his gift. He asks him to end his love for art which he terms as foolishness. It is ironical that his father is dedicated so much into doing God’s work, while he does not seem to follow in his footsteps. These two conflicting scenarios present a painful state of affairs.
Asher’s devotion to painting alienates him from his childhood. It causes a rift between his family members. One sad incident occurs when his parents walk out on him at one of his shows. This is because they saw a painting that incorporated Christian iconography. They considered it as something that was against their faith. Throughout his life, Asher struggles to express himself through his art. At the same time he tries to remain a part of his Hasidic community. As he grew into adulthood, he felt the pressure getting even more intense. He had to be a responsible Jew and follow in his father’s footsteps, while on the other hand fulfill his love for art. As such, he has two forces pressing against him. He had to choose between two identities; art and the Jewish religion. Nevertheless, he chose to identify himself with art. He did this through discovering the truth and enjoyment that one can get from art. He felt that he could bring out the real him by use of art. He also tried to identify with his religion though his art sometimes forced him to go against what the Jewish community expected of him. However, we see Asher Lev as a very faithful Jew since he tries very much to conform to his religious way of life even after choosing to push on with his career in art.
Asher faces a lot of suffering because the Hasidic community does not allow its members to exercise total free will. The Rebbe acts as a guide in their lives. However, he advises people wisely by looking at their inborn abilities and talents. Asher had a gift for art which went against the Jewish values and traditions. His father feels that he should follow in his footsteps in serving the Rebbe the way their ancestors did. He expected his son to continue with his religious work and finish what he could not do. This is not the case though; Asher looks different right away from birth and seems disinterested in their religion. He does not care what happens as a consequence of his love of art, even if it meant being pushed away from the community. As Asher grows up, his Hasidic friends and family seem to reject him. This shows conflict between Hasidism and contemporary art.