My Name is Asher Lev
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My Name is Asher Lev

An interview with Adena Potok

“The Chosen” might have been the name of a painting.

The beloved Jewish novelist Chaim Potok originally was a visual artist, his widow Adena Potok said. He drew when he was a young child, took art lessons during the Depression, then moved on to pastels and watercolors. Once he approached bar mitzvah age, however, it came to a halt. “His father decided this was enough already; it’s all narishkeit,” nonsense, she said.

Potok grew up in a strictly observant home, and his father worried that art was taking him away from his studies. The elder Potok was not interested in art. “The art that was in museums was not Jewish,” Adena Potok said of her father-in-law’s approach. “It was either pagan or Christian.” He didn’t have the same reaction to literature, though. If his son wrote stories, “that was fine as long as it didn’t take him away from his studies.”

As an adult, Chaim Potok put that early love of the painted image into his 1972 novel “My Name Is Asher Lev,” the story of a religious Jewish boy who is consumed with art and grows into a famous and controversial painter. The novel was adapted as a play several years ago and had its maiden performance in Philadelphia at the Arden Theatre. Now “My Name Is Asher Lev” is being performed at the Westside Theatre in New York. The play stars Ari Brand, who appeared in “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Broadway Bound,” and is directed by Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of the Long Wharf Theater.

Adena Potok collaborated with Aaron Posner, who had worked with her husband to adapt his best-known novel, “The Chosen,” for the stage. The two began to talk about adapting “Asher Lev” as well, but Chaim Potok died before he could complete the task. “He talked to me about this, and I gave him what I thought was the spine of the book,” his widow said. She acted as consultant to the production crew as well. “I found working with [Aaron] was a delight. We argued well.”

Adena Potok was her husband’s first reader throughout his writing career, giving him her reactions and insights. The two met at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where both were counselors, and when they married, she moved to California, finishing her social work degree at UCLA.

Asher Lev struggles to satisfy his parents as well as being true to his artistic self. He comes under the sway of an art teacher who insists that a true artist is dedicated only to his own feelings and ideas. That’s a conception of the artist that came to the fore during the Romantic period; it would have seemed bizarre to the classical artists or those of the Renaissance, who created art to glorify the gods or satisfy a patron. Chaim Potok’s novel is firmly in that Romantic camp, and Asher must choose between his community’s norms and his own personal integrity.

“In the ’50s, the artist was an individual who expressed his feelings about many things,” Adena Potok said. That was when her husband grew up. In the novel, Asher paints a work called “Brooklyn Crucifixion,” which shocks his parents and teachers. Chaim Potok created the same painting. “He wanted to see if in fact as a work of art it would stand up,” his wife said.

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