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My Name is Asher Lev

Chaim Potok

Chapter 8

Chapters 6 and 7

Chapter 9

Summary

Asher calls Jacob Kahn in the middle of March. Kahn is satisfied that he has sufficiently studied Guernica and they agree to meet the following Sunday. Kahn tells Asher to study the story of the Massacre of the Innocents from the New Testament and the painting of the story by Guido Reni. He emphasizes to Asher that he is asking him to read from "The bible of the goyim."

Asher does as he is told, but feels particularly uncomfortable about reading the New Testament. He wonders what his father and the Rebbe his think. His mother brings him a book called The Art Spirit that one of the professors in the art department at her university recommended he read.

The book says that a great artist needs to free himself completely from all the traditional influence people. Rivkeh asks Asher what he thinks about this passage of the book. He responds that he does not feel that he needs to free himself in that manner.

Asher stays up late mulling over art the night before he is to meet with Jacob Kahn for the first time. He forgets to study for his algebra test the next day.

Kahn greets Asher warmly and immediately introduces him to Anna Schaeffer, a gallery owner. Anna questions Asher about his life, his family, and his beliefs. When he tells her that he thinks man's purpose is to sanctify the world, she tells him that he should not become a professional artist. He shows her his artwork and she is amazed by it. She cannot get over the fact that this Hasidic boy has such a prodigious talent.

Kahn berates Asher. He tells him that he can use his skill to create pretty things for which he is commissioned; he does not need to torture himself by becoming an artist, by entering Kahn's world. Anna chastises Jacob for being so discouraging. He replies that he wants to frighten Asher, for him to return home and be a model Jew.

Jacob then lauds Asher. He tells him he will not be able to teach him much about how to see, but will show him about composition and tension. Asher's work now, he says, has too much love. He will spend five years training Asher and hopes that at the end he "will be ready for Anna." Ana takes her leave and tells Asher that he will one day make himself famous and both of them rich.

Asher tells Jacob that he feels responsible to the Jews. Jacob tells him that as an artist, he is responsible to no one, only to art.

Asher tells Jacob that he will not be able to return the following Sunday because his father will be home for Passover. Asher goes back to Brooklyn. His mother is frantic since no one has heard from his father in a while. He is in Russia, Asher says. Aryeh will not return for Passover; that Sunday, Asher goes back to see Jacob.

Analysis

In Kahn's interactions with Asher, he is constantly emphasizing the ways in which Asher, by beginning to study art formally, is interacting with a different world. In their initial phone conversation, Kahn emphasizes to Asher that he does not keep Kosher. Further, when he asks Asher to read the story of the massacre of the innocents, he emphasizes that it is in "The bible of the goyim." These are just some of the many ways Jacob tries to get Asher to understand the gravity of the difference between the worlds in which they live. Jacob wants to make sure that Asher knows what he is getting himself into.

Kahn constantly tells Asher that he should return to the world he knows, the Hasidic world of Brooklyn. Along the way, we get a hint that Kahn has gone through a torturous process to become an artist, much like the process he expects Asher to undergo. He identifies with Asher and wants to make sure that Asher really wants to be an artist enough to justify the pain he will put himself through. Since Asher has no way of knowing how painful a process becoming an artist will be, cannot know what it will do to his relationship with his family and community, he is not fully equipped to make this decision.

We see how Kahn's motivations play into his interactions with Asher. It is also interesting to consider the author's motivations. By introducing Kahn in an adversarial role, Potok accomplishes two important objectives. First, he gives us a glimpse into Kahn's past, shows us that Kahn came from a religious background and left it in order to be an artist. Second, this is a way for Potok to convey the extent of Asher's commitment to art. As a thirteen-year-old boy, he ought to be frightened by what Anna and Jacob are telling him. Yet, he stays, driven by his need to create art.

Rivkeh makes a real effort to help her son and to understand and support him even if this involves exposing him to things that might be "dangerous." In this chapter, she brings him the book The Art Spirit, even though she knows that it says that all great artists need to break free from their nation. Unlike her husband she recognizes that it is better to raise issues and deal with them, even if it is uncomfortable. She tries to engage Asher about her concerns and discuss them.

The reader might notice that the day Asher meets Kahn for the first time, on a Sunday, he also goes to school. It is not uncommon for Jewish schools to be open on Sunday, particularly in Hasidic communities. In such communities, Saturday, not Sunday, is the Sabbath. By treating Sunday as a normal day, they specifically aim to resist the Christian influence, to specifically not act on Sunday as Christians would.

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