Last night we saw “My Name is Asher Lev” at the off Broadway Westside Theatre Upstairs. The play was beautifully scripted and acted, and raises critical questions about the conflict created when the personal calling of a member of an orthodox religious Jewish community, in this case the Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, goes beyond the traditional scope of the community. My question: “Does beyond the scope mean outside the bounds of the community?”
Telecharge Overview: …It tells the powerful story of a boy prodigy who must be an artist at any cost — against the will of family, community and tradition…
The play gave the impression to my family, and I am sure to many others, that Asher must leave the community because he could not answer his calling to paint and coexist within the community. In fact, when you contrast the positions taken by the Rebbe and Asher’s father, and therefore appreciate that the conflict portrayed is exclusively between the father and the son, not the community or tradition, you realize that the play does not address conflicts with community or tradition.
What follows gives away more details than you might want to know if you intend to see the play or read Chaim Potok’s famous book. I have not read the book, so my comments are not about the book and reflect only my responses to the play as carefully crafted by its author, Aaron Posner.
Just what the tradition is, is held in the mind of each individual member of a community, but the Rebbe represents the community. Asher’s father represents tradition here since any representations of tradition in his conflict with his son come from him. The Rebbe has nothing to say directly about tradition and we must infer his attitude from his wisdom and behavior. Traditions of the art community are represented by Jacob Kahn, Asher’s teacher, introduced to him by the Rebbe, whose prejudices and Red Shoes attitude pervert Asher and muddy the simpler issues at hand.
Asher’s father is dead set against Asher’s following his calling, and never respects Asher enough, that is not at all, to ever hear him out. This is made crystal clear in his conversation with Asher, where he actually disrespects Asher, asking him to help him to understand Asher’s need to paint nudes. He goes to Asher allegedly seeking this understanding, but parries every utterance by Asher with Sophistic responses whose exclusive purpose is to get Asher to accept his position!
We need to realize that the key conflict in this story is between Asher’s father’s attitude and the Rebbe’s. The Rebbe has given Asher his blessing every step of the way, so we must conclude that the Rebbe sees Asher’s situation from a greater perspective. We must take for granted that just as the Rebbe is in communication with Asher, he must be in communication with Asher’s father, as Asher’s father works directly for him. Asher’s father must know that the Rebbe has blessed Asher, and while not blessing what Asher is doing, is blessing Asher nevertheless. If Asher’s father’s behavior reflected the will of the community, that is the will of the Rebbe, he might not be capable of blessing Asher for what he was doing, but could and should bless Asher nevertheless.
If Asher’s father’s had respected the Rebbe’s example, it is not clear how far out of, if at all, Asher would have needed to leave the community. Except for the intrusive art teacher, there are no representations in this play of specific conflicts between tradition and the will of the community that would necessitate Asher’s exclusion.