A Staging of Potok’s ‘Asher Lev’
In My Name is Asher Lev, a Hasidic Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn has a prodigious artistic gift, placing him at odds with his family and community. Playwright Aaron Posner, who penned the stage version, also dramatized Potok’s The Chosen a few years before the rabbi-author’s 2002 passing.
“Chaim was very receptive and incredibly helpful,” says Posner, cofounder and former artistic director of Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre and its resident director.
“Conflict is the life blood of the theater, and Chaim was always dealing with deep and rich core conflicts about family and faith,” he adds. “Aside from his conflicts with others, Asher Lev is conflicted about his own artistic gift: Is it a burden?”
Autobiographical elements are woven into Asher Lev, as in Potok’s other works. Arguably, the artist is the character he most identified with.
“When Chaim was 9, he started a summer art program and loved it,” says his widow, Adena Potok. “He wanted to be an artist before he became a writer.”
Also raised in a Hasidic household, Potok was encouraged in his love of art by his mother. But his father declared: “Enough with the narishkeit (nonsense); its time to study for your bar mitzva.”
Rebelling against “rigid Orthodoxy,” Potok turned to writing—working on his first novel while serving as chaplain during the Korean War. “Asher Lev is about the struggles he would have had if he persisted in the desire to become a fine artist,” Potok says.
Although Chaim Potok was firmly rooted in his Judaism, he was proud that readers and theater audiences around the world responded to his work, notes Posner. “These are universal conflicts—how do you juggle the needs of your soul with those of your family and community? You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the story, only to have humanity.”
Asher Lev is a “remounted” and somewhat altered version of a play Posner wrote and staged earlier. Ari Brand is re-creating the title role he first performed at Long Wharf Theatre, whose artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, is overseeing the Off-Broadway production.
Potok’s daughter Naama is also involved in the production: She is understudying the sole female actor in the three-character play. That same performer portrays Asher Lev’s mother and the owner of an art gallery, in addition to a third smaller role.
“I’m very grateful and excited to be part of this production,” says the actor, who has performed in regional and other theater venues and had an uncredited part in the 1981 film version of The Chosen. “Asher Lev was very close to my father’s heart and spoke to him for so many reasons—this is an artist who needs to do what he is doing, without regard to those he loves.”
At the same time, he cannot divorce himself from that love—either of family or tradition.