It is the first book I’ve read by Chaim Potok, but it will not be the last. He knew how to write, when to describe, how to persist, when a point had been made. This book is intense, stark, vivid, replete, dreadful, astonishing and right. It is full of a zeal for truth. Think about it: if you tell lies so that people realize the truth, you’re serious. Art lives in its effects.
It is a book about art. About what art is, what it does, what it is for. The ingenious thing here is to give us the coming of age story of a Hasidic Jew who is not merely an artist, but a great one. I do not mean that it is about a celebrity, but one of a more intense consciousness, a wrestler, if you will, with darker demons. As he grows in understanding of his vocation, he has to understand and he has to explain, and what Chaim Potok gives us here is worth the book even if you don’t like the story (the story is tremendous, though). You can ask the book the question, Why is art a lie which makes us realize the truth? or, How is art a lie which makes us realize the truth? You will get an answer, a satisfying and an ingenious answer.
Because it is about a Hasidic Jew, it is of course about religion. It is full of it–if Chaim Potok did not grow up a Hasidic Jew then I will be in awe of him for what he has done. What you learn about that way of life is beyond informative, but even beyond that, the book demands that the reader wrestle, as the narrator wrestles and as Potok’s prose makes one wrestle, with the relationship of religion and vocation. It is a strong thing about the twentieth century: what shall I call it? A frenzy and madness for truth? A deep need for truth at all costs. What about the individual and truth? I think Potok implies that individual appropriations of truth, genuine personal encounters with TRUTH, these things are the real basis of worthwhile religion; and I think he’s right. Our common humanity is something located deep in the self.
Do you know where this Hasidic Jew reaches when he needs an aesthetic form to talk about ultimate suffering and sacrifice? Here’s where Potok was controversial and I think brilliant. He doesn’t have his character just randomly reach somewhere, but shows how he grows in the understanding, wrestles with a tradition his own has sought to disown, that he has with infinite labor and great sacrifice begun to understand and finally appropriates it ancestrally. I’m giving nothing away, you’ll read about it on the first page. But the point is not what, it is how. How does Asher Lev come to be the painter of the Brooklyn Crucifixion?
Ribbono Shel Olom!