What an amazing amount of wisdom and insight has been packed into the ninety minute play My Name is Asher Lev about a young Jewish painter growing up in a very orthodox household. This play is about being an orthodox Jewish boy, but it could be about any child being talented in a non-nurturing home. Anyone can relate to the story without needing to be Jewish. And if you are, well, then you are in for a real theatrical treat.
This is a play that is likely to hit a nerve, after all. How many of you heard discouraging words about careers in the arts or humanities or other career choices when you were younger. “Be a doctor,” we were told, “or a lawyer, ditch digger, anything, but not an artist!” Especially if you were a male, which meant your whole manhood was often called into question when uncomprehending fathers were terrified out of their wits about the prospect of an “artistic” son. At least with Asher Lev, it was more a question of drawing simply being dismissed as a foolish waste of time better left to the goyim.
I was raised in a conservative Roman Catholic household with a disciplinarian father, and attended parochial school run by doctrinaire Dominican nuns. So I have some things in common with Asher Lev. That’s why, from the moment the lights came up it was impossible not to became totally mesmerized by this story, adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok. His tale grabbed my heart and never let go. With a stern Hassidic father (the Hassidim are the most conservative of the Jewish sects) and a mother who always reminded him to honor his father (and by proxy his every judgement) his home life was stifling, at least to the idea of being an artist. For Lev, art was something that grew, like a seed, from childhood on. Of course, Asher grew and blossomed throughout his childhood and teen years into a great artist. Somehow he also managed – through a feat of juggling – to stay true to both his art and his religious tradition. On stage with all the players and situations it becomes a balancing act of amazing dexterity.