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Extremes Collide in My Name Is Asher Lev By: Chaim Potok

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Extremes Collide

In My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok writes about a young boy in a Landover Hasidic community in Brooklyn who is an excellent artist. Asher travels through childhood hanging onto his art, but when his art interferes with his religious studies, Asher's two worlds of art and Torah collide. Potok deliberately chooses the extreme icons and symbols of secular life, such as the world of art, on the one hand, and of Judaism, Hasidim, and the Rebbe, on the other hand, to intensify the contrast between them, because he wants to mold the characters into visions he has, and to show how different the two worlds are and how they conflict and interact.

The way Potok sets up My Name is Asher Lev is to make the two worlds of Judaism and Secularism conflict. He does this with the use of many key icons and symbols of the two ways of life. He employs extreme Jewish symbols and symbol-systems, such as Hasidism, the Rebbe, Asher's father, Gemarah, Shabbos, and very symbolic holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, to portray a barrier between Asher, his community, and the rest of the world. He then uses extreme secular symbols such as, Russia, art, and in art, crusifixions, nudes, and Asher's art mentor Jacob Kahn, to show the radical differences between the two. At one point (in book 3, chapter 10) Jacob says to Asher, "You are too religious to be an Abstract Expressionist..." ... "We are ill at ease in the universe. We are rebellious and individualistic. We welcome accidents in painting. You are emotional and sensual but you are also rational. That is your Landover background...." Potok makes Hasidim out to be a dying culture by telling stories about them in the past, and a big part of Asher's consciousness of his heritage, and his dreams and perceptions of his Grandfather (chapter 3, pg. 98). "He came to me that night out of the woods, my mythic ancestor, huge, mountainous, dressed in his dark caftan and fur-trimmed cap, pounding his way through the trees on his Russian master's estate, the earth shaking, the mountains quivering, thunder in his voice." As for the other extreme throughout the book, there is an ongoing conflict inside Asher of what is expected and permitted to draw from an artistic perspective, and what is deemed unacceptable by his father, Asher's main religious influence. This is most evident when Asher has his first show at the Gallerie, and his father will not go because of the presence of Crusifixions and nudes (chapter 11, pg. 303). Asher explains: "A naked women is a women without clothes. A nude is an artist's personal vision of a body without clothes." "Is such a personal vision important in your art?" "That's what art is, Papa. It's a person's private vision expressed in aesthetic." This makes Asher have to choose between how he was raised and what he truly believes is right, and what is expected of him in the art world.

The most unique way the two worlds interact is the relationship and roles the Rebbe and Jacob Kahn play in the story. Jacob was once more in tune with Judaism, until the War, in which he was saved by the Rebbe. Although he keeps his distance between himself and the Rebbe, yet Jacob still respects him greatly. The Rebbe and his family have always worked hand-in-hand with

Asher's family as Asher's family has worked for the Rebbe's family for generations. These two are carefully devised characters who are opposed, with separate and conflicting goals. The Rebbe's goal is to make Asher into his personal emissary, a role Asher's father has played for the Rebbe for many years, a tool for the Jewish community, while Kahn's

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