Asher Lev is a child with an extraordinary gift for painting. His father, Aryeh, is an emissary for the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Hasidic community. When he is younger, his uncle, His mother Rivkeh's brother, dies and it destroys her. Asher's mother becomes ill. She stays at home sick for a while after being released from the hospital. At this time, Asher spends much time with his father at his office and becomes entranced by the work his father is doing in Russia. Furthering Asher's fascination with Russia is recent immigrant, Yudel Krinsky, whom Aryeh helped bring to the US and whom Asher befriends. As Rivkeh's health improves, she decides that she wants to go to college. Aryeh asks the Rebbe for permission, which he grants.
Asher's early summers are spent in a bungalow colony. There, he has opportunity to grow closer with his mother. Aryeh's work with Russia intensifies. The entire community, Asher included seems obsessed with the Russians and their persecution of Jews. Asher begins visiting with Krinsky more and often returns home late, causing his mother great worry.
The Rebbe asks Asher's father to move to Vienna in order to better perform his work. Asher does not want to move to Vienna and makes this known to his parents, his uncle, and Krinsky. Asher begins drawing again. Asher's parents and teachers are concerned about him. Asher asks if he can live with his uncle. Asher's father begins to worry about his son's drawing. Asher draws a menacing looking picture of the Rebbe in his Chumash one day in class. The Mashpia calls him in to talk to him about how he is doing. Asher breaks down and expresses how distraught he is over the prospect of moving to Vienna. The Rebbe decides that Asher cannot be brought to Vienna. Aryeh moves to Vienna alone.
Rivkeh and Asher adjust to life at home together. His interest in art intensifies and she buys him oil paints. Asher begins to neglect his studies, rousing the concern and ire of his teachers and his father. Asher seems unfazed by the criticism heaped on him. His mother takes him to the museum and explains the paintings of crucifixions to him. Asher begins to sketch crucifixions and nudes. These arouse the ire of Aryeh, who discovers them when he returns home for Passover. When Aryeh leaves to go back to Europe, Asher resolves to improve his scholastic performance. The next summer, Rivkeh joins Aryeh in Europe and Asher stays with his Uncle Yitzchok.
Asher has a meeting with the Rebbe before his Bar Mitzvah. Jacob Kahn, a prominent artist, has been called to the Rebbe's office and introduces himself to Asher as Asher is leaving. The Rebbe has decided that Asher shall study art with Kahn. Kahn gives Asher an assignment and tells him to call him in two months. Asher calls Kahn and arranges to go to his studio for the first time. At this first meeting, Kahn introduces Asher to gallery owner Anna Schaeffer. He also berates Asher and tries to scare him out of becoming an artist. Asher is not deterred. Kahn takes Asher to see paintings of crucifixions. He brings a woman into the studio to model so Asher can paint nudes.
Asher's mother begins contemplating a move to Vienna. Asher, however, refuses to go along. Rivkeh finally decides to move to Vienna without him, so that she can be with her husband. Asher meets with the Rebbe to discuss this move and his developing artistic talent. Around this time, Asher learns that he will one day have his own show. Asher moves in with his Uncle Yitzchok.
Asher spends the summer with Jacob Kahn at his beach house in Provincetown. It is a joyous summer dedicated to painting. Asher maintains his religious observance while there. Toward the end, Jacob Kahn withdraws for a few days, in an awful mood.
Asher begins high school, but continues studying with Kahn on weekends. Kahn has a show opening that fall. Asher's uncle renovates the attic to give Asher more space to paint. Asher and Jacob begin to travel to some exhibitions together. Asher's parents return for Passover, and Asher and Aryeh fight. Asher's family pressures him to try moving to Vienna. He goes, gets sick, and comes back. He has his first art show and it is a moderate success. Asher is now in college. His parents return home after years in Europe.
It is awkward living with his parents again. Asher's parents are unhappy when he includes nudes in his next show. Asher tries to explain art to his father, but it is a miserable failure and they get frustrated with each other. Asher begins to plan a trip to Europe.
Asher goes to Florence and is enthralled by the artwork. He is particularly taken with Michelangelo's Pietà. He moves on to Rome and then Paris. He begins to experiment with alterations in the Pietà, alterations in the artistic form of the crucifix. He decides to move to Paris temporarily, gets an apartment, and sets up a studio.
In Paris he has time to reflect on his past, on his upbringing, on his community, and on his family. He realizes the pain his mother went through during his upbringing. He wants to express this in art—the only symbol he has at his disposal is the crucifixion. He makes two paintings of his mother that employ the crucifix.
At a major show in New York, Asher displays these paintings. His parents are horrified by the paintings, as is the general Ladover community. Asher has crossed a line. His parents become cold toward him as do all the Ladover who one supported him. The Rebbe calls Asher into his office and asks him to leave the community. Banished, Asher moves back to Paris.