The conflict between art and religious tradition takes on extraordinary dimensions in My Name is Asher Lev, which is playing at the Long Wharf Theatre.
The play opens in the 1950s in Brooklyn with a narration by Asher Lev (Ari Brand), who has been torn since childhood between his extraordinary gift for painting and drawing and his religious and cultural upbringing. As all artists have done, he studied paintings exhibited in museums by copying them, and his original drawings and paintings are of -- hold onto your hats -- nudes and crucifixions. Oy vey! This is more than just disturbing to his parents, Ari (Mark Nelson) and Rivka (Melissa Miller), emissaries whose jobs are to spread Orthodox Jewish observance, specifically the teachings of their fictional Ladover Hasidic sect.
Asher’s fascination with nudes and crucifixes is not simply adolescent rebellion or flirting with forbidden fruit. As a “Torah Jew,” he studies at a yeshiva and observes Jewish laws such as praying thrice daily, keeping the Sabbath and eating only kosher food. But his need to draw and paint is overpowering. Asher starts to neglect his religious studies. “I return to find a pagan in my home,” Ari says dismally after a trip back from Vienna. Asher stops drawing for three years after his maternal uncle, Jacob, died in a car accident while working for their Hasidic group. After Rivka began to recover by taking classes in Russian studies at Brooklyn College, Asher picked up a pencil and began to draw uncontrollably in his prayer book. His parents seek the intervention of their Rebbe (Hasidic leader), whose teachings and advice are considered infallible in their community. The Rebbe allows Asher to study under one of the greatest living artists, Jacob Kahn, but asks that the 72-year-old non-observant Hasid guide him and keep him from evil ways. “I do not know what evil is when it comes to art,” says Jacob. “I only know what is good art and what is bad art.”
Jacob demands that Asher devote himself completely to art, including drawing and painting nudes and crucifixions because they have always been important in Western art. He tells Asher that if he is going to worry about what his community thinks of his art, he may as well “paint calendars for matzoh boxes.” He says, “I don’t have five years to give to anything that is less than a marble for David” and urges him, “Paint the way you feel. Do not lie!”
His success as an artist, both critically and economically, came with the price of being shunned by the community and asked by the Rebbe to leave. While his parents acknowledged his gift, they follow the party line and let him go to Europe.
The play, based on the Chaim Potok novel of the same name, is immensely powerful because the conflict can never be resolved. The story of this artist is set against the background of an insular community, the wounds still raw from the Holocaust, the tyranny of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the growth of Israel as a nation, which is still not yet embraced by all Hasidic groups. The character of Asher Lev is somewhat autobiographical. Potok was reared in an Orthodox Jewish household, but was ordained as a Conservative rabbi and remained observant. He was also an artist and creator of "The Brooklyn Crucifixion."
The role of Asher is a solo one, played nicely by Brand, with the purity of youth and art. Miller portrays Rivka credibly as a mother who wants to defend and support her only son and a woman who feels she must carry on her family tradition and continue their work as emissaries. She also plays an artist’s model and the art dealer who propels Asher’s career. Nelson does an impressive job as the father, the Rebbe, Jacob the mentor and Jacob, the late uncle, each with distinguishable accents and body language.
There are a few minor errors in the play and program’s glossary, but Aaron Posner treats his characters with the utmost dignity and respect. Ideally, there would be more actors in the play, at least three for the role of Asher because Hasidic men wear beards and he is clean-shaven throughout the play, but that would be a financial strain on the production. The play has been produced seven or eight times since its debut in Philadelphia in 2009, but has yet to come to New York. Even with the minor issues, it is ready for the Great White Way.