I just re-read My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok for the first time in twenty-five years. It was required reading for a Religious Studies course taken in my first year of college, and I thoroughly enjoyed it then. Now, however, it seems to have taken on dimensions that my 18-year-old self could not comprehend. I had not yet lapsed as a Catholic then, so the appropriation of iconography was not something remotely relevant. I had not yet been scarred by the traumas to come, so issues of personal safety were nil. I had not felt the rifts, natural and unintended, from my family unit; the cleaving away from one's parents was a non-issue. Most notably, I was not yet a parent, so the exquisite pain of a mother's love was not yet mine to understand.
As if these were not enough, the author captured something that resonates more now than ever-- the feeling of longing during the act of creation, of dispossession, of feeling apart from oneself in the best and worst ways. There is a passage in which the titular protagonist, a young Hasid boy with a much-maligned gift for painting, recognizes his ability to see things differently for the first time. He is convinced that it is physiological and asks to see an eye doctor. I distinctly the first time I was able to flatten space and reverse the figure and the ground. I found it entertaining, but when I went to explain my game, most people didn't get it. Disenfranchisement and misunderstanding-- yeah, I may know a few things about it.
This passage, though, is everything:
"I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and divine at one and the same time. The demonic and divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. Art was demonic and divine."
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