Asher Lev introduces himself to the reader as a painter mired in controversy. He is an observant Jew and an artist, and he has been painting crucifixions. He then begins to tell of his family history, detailing the lineage of his parents and finally arriving at himself, letting the reader know that he was "born with a gift." From the time Lev can remember, he drew. He recalls fond memories of his mother and his drawings from his early childhood. Lev's father traveled often on missions for the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Jewish community of which Lev's family was a prominent member.
When Lev was six years old, his uncle died, causing his mother to fall ill. She is hospitalized, but eventually returns home. Lev's uncle had, like Lev's father, worked for the Rebbe and was killed while on a mission for the Rebbe. When Lev's mother returns home, his father ceases his travel.
Lev's mother is home, sick and mentally unwell for quite some time. Lev is concerned for her and often attempts to comfort her with drawings. To help the family through this time, Mrs. Rackover begins to work in the Lev household. To keep Asher out of the way, his father often brought him to his office. There, Asher heard his father speaking in many languages with people from around the world and began to get a better sense of the work his father did, trying to help Ladover families come to America.
Many of Asher's conversations with his mother during this period of time center around his drawings. He would often draw the world as he saw it. She asks him if he draws pretty things and implores him to "make the world pretty." His responds that he does not want to make the world pretty and, from early on, distinguishes between a good drawing and a pretty one.
One day, Asher's Uncle Yitzchok comes for a visit. He chats with Asher, complimenting his drawing abilities and offers to buy one of his drawings. Asher agrees. Yitzchok takes the painting out of Asher's room, but leaves it behind in the house, not interested in taking it with him. Asher's father returns the drawing to him. Asher is happy to have his artwork back, but disappointed that his uncle did not want to keep it.
Asher continues his obsessive drawing. One day, his father finds him drawing his sleeping mother. He tells him he would prefer that he not draw so much.
Before Passover, Asher and his father go down to a store owned by a Ladover in order to buy food that is kosher for Passover. Behind the counter is Reb Yudel Krinsky. Aryeh Lev introduces him to Asher as a man who just came over from Russia. Krinsky sings the praises of Aryeh Lev. Outside the store, Asher discovers that his father had helped the man come to America. Asher is fascinated by this man and mentions him to Mrs. Rackover upon his return home. Asher learns that he had lived in the bitter cold of Siberia. Later, in his room, he thinks about Krinsky and draws him.
Asher's mother begins to recover. She speaks of the work of her brother as incomplete and decides that she wants to begin college. Aryeh asks her to wait a few days before contacting the college so that he might ask the Rebbe's permission. Rivkeh responds outraged, "The Rebbe killed my brother." However, she assents to wait.
The Rebbe gives his permission for Rivkeh to begin college. Asher's father continues his travels. Asher begins his study in a Ladover Yeshiva, a school of Jewish learning.
In the first pages, Lev talks to the reader as if the reader knows who he is. He references a controversy in which he has been involved, concerning his artwork. These few introductory remarks before the beginning of the narrative of Lev's life serve two purposes. First, they introduce two ideas central to the book—Lev's artwork and the tension in his relationship with Judaism. Second, this opening presents Lev as a man of importance and interest. By giving us some detail, but not all, the author creates an air of relevance and mystery about this character in order to draw the reader in to the story and engage the reader's interest.
The personal history Lev gives at the beginning of the chapter has a ring of Jewish culture to it—the Ladover community from which Lev comes would have been extremely concerned with Lev's, or any Ladover's, personal history.
When Asher is in his father's office and asks about his father's speaking a strange language, his father tells him that it is French and that he learned it at the request of the Rebbe. This last bit should strike any modern reader as odd. The notion of doing things for the Rebbe, the religious, spiritual, and political leader of a group of Hasidic Jews, is quite common in Hasidic communities, even today. This cultural difference is highlighted throughout the book, with the many references that are made to people doing things at the request of the Rebbe or asking the Rebbe's permission to do things.
The discussions Lev has with his parents about art are meant to give us a glimpse into his personality and foreshadow his independence of thought. In one instance, he talks back to his father, telling him that, "a drawing is not foolishness." Especially in the community in which Asher is raised, such dissent at an early age would be extremely rare. His mother often asks him to draw a pretty world. From an early age, however, Asher draws the world as he sees it. This shows his willingness, even at an early age, to deviate from his mother's simplistic model of what art should be, to draw as he sees appropriate.
Furthermore, from an early age, Lev's art is the medium through which he relates to his world. He speaks of his memories of drawing certain things. When he retreats into his room alone, he draws. Drawing is set up as the young Asher's way of relating to and dealing with the world.
After meeting Yudel Krinsky in the supermarket, Asher asks his father, "is he one of us?" There is a clear dichotomy being set up between those who are Ladover and those who are not. This is only one indication of the extreme insularity of the Ladover community in which the Levs live. This insularity is combined with a feeling of extreme responsibility that each member of the community has for others. This is evidenced by Aryeh Lev's work in bringing Ladover Jews to America and suggested in his comment to Aher in this very same conversation that "we'll find other work for him (Krinsky) later." The Ladover community of this book is set up to take care of all of its members.