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My Name is Asher Lev

Chaim Potok

Chapter 13

Chapter 12

Chapter 14

Summary

Asher enjoys the beauty of Florence and the many artistic treasures to be found within. He eats with an old woman, whose name he received from his father. He is particularly struck by Michelangelo's Pietà and the doors of the baptistery, by Ghiberti. He studies both of these, sketching them often. He comments that the Pietà struck a chord deep within him, though he could relate it only to his own experiences. He wonders how a devout Christian reacts to the Pietà.

Asher is approached by a Ladover man in Florence and asked to bring a package to Rome. He is met in Rome by a man who asks him to come visit the yeshiva there if he has time; it is the yeshiva that Aryeh helped build. On his last day in Rome, Asher calls the man and arranges to visit the yeshiva. He learns that the yeshiva has grown tremendously over the past five years thanks to the work of his father. On his flight to Paris, Asher continues drawing the Pieta, but now he is experimenting with it, altering it slightly.

Asher's mythic ancestor reappears in his dreams that first night in Paris, this time a very forceful creature. In the morning, Asher heads to a kosher restaurant about which his father had told him and draws another version of the Pietà, further altered. Asher arranges to meet Avraham Cutler, the head of the yeshiva Aryeh had built in Paris. They stop at Montmarte to see Picasso's old studio on the way to the Yeshiva. Cutler invites Asher to live and eat at the yeshiva. He responds that he has a room. Eating dinner at the yeshiva that evening, Asher meets many people who seem to know and revere his father.

Asher writes his parents to tell them he wants to remain in Europe. They respond giving their blessing; his mother writes, telling him she wishes he would come home, but understands his need to stay. Asher rents an apartment in the neighborhood of the yeshiva and converts one room into a studio. Asher contacts Anna to let her know he is all right and living in Paris.

The months go by, Asher paints, and begins to think about his home, his family, and his community. He recalls his mythic ancestor, who had made the nobleman for whom he worked rich. His parents had spoken of the slaughtering of Jews this nobleman and other goyim behaved. But, thought Asher, if the Jew had made him rich, he may also be culpable. Perhaps his mythic ancestor was horrified at what he had wrought and spent the rest of his days traveling to rectify what he had done. Asher wonders whether hiss artistic journey is serving a similar purpose for him.

Asher thinks about his grandfather, his father, and finally his mother. He begins to get a glimpse of the pain she felt through the death of her brother, and the fights between Asher and his father. He is driven to paint his mother in order to give expression to these feelings of pain. He makes one painting, but feels it is incomplete. He then makes another, which he feels is much better. The paintings are crucifixions. Anna Schaeffer visits Asher in Paris and takes his work back to the U.S. for an upcoming show. In January, five days before the opening, Asher returns to New York.

Analysis

Alone in Paris, Asher is filled with memories of his past. Here, he begins to think about the things people have said to him and begins to have a greater understanding of them. For years, Asher has been painting and living in a world without really reflecting on it. For years, he did not really understand what was going on with the people he loved, what effect he was having on their lives. Now, in his solitude, he begins to understand the pain his mother experienced when he was younger. He understands that it must have been extremely difficult for her living in a household, in the midst of the conflict between himself and his father. These moments of reflection are immensely important for Asher. He is becoming an individual more aware of the implications of his actions, more attuned to the influence his work has on others.

The scene in which Asher thinks back to his mythic ancestor is one of true literary achievement. Potok ties together a number of ideas he has been developing throughout the book. Asher employs the image of his mythic ancestor, carrying with it a Jewish and family history central to Asher's upbringing, to understand his own journey. The language Potok uses is immensely terse, and much is implied but not said. Asher thinks, "Had a dream-haunted Jew spent the rest of his life sculpting form out of the horror of his private night?" This is a well-formulated thought that conveys the parallel between his life and his grandfathers. Potok does not spend many pages on the development of this thought, but gives it to us fully formed. The paragraph in which this metaphor is written is written with this intensity throughout. The thoughts presented are meant to overpower the reader in much the same way that Lev, thinking them, is overpowered.

Asher feels that the first painting of his mother is incomplete. He thinks back and remembers his mother asking him, "can you understand what it means for something to be incomplete?" At this moment, he finally understands. This episode comes in the midst of a chapter where Asher is coming to grips with his past. This is yet another significant discovery he has made about his past—it helps him to feel like he understands his mother's pain better. This discovery helps him produce better artwork.

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