Long before Chaim Potok wrote his classic 1967 novel “The Chosen,” the young Hasid was busy making art.
“He was told there were more important things to do, so he gave up drawing and painting, and moved into writing in a serious way,” says Adena Potok, his widow. “He did start painting again as an adult, and our home is still filled with his paintings, pastels and charcoals.”
It’s that conflict — between art and other pursuits — that’s at the heart of “My Name Is Asher Lev,” the celebrated Potok novel now being staged off-Broadway at New York City’s Westside Theater.
A semi-autobiographical drama set in 1950s Brooklyn, “Asher Lev” tells the story of a Hasidic boy who clashes with his ultra-religious father over his desire to paint. Aryeh, the patriarch, strongly disapproves, worrying his son will drift to the “other side.” Caught in the middle is Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, who tentatively encourages her son, but also wants to support her husband. When her brother dies in a car accident, she decides to continue his work, receiving special permission from the rebbe to study and help her husband spread their faith in Eastern Europe.
The couple’s overseas work forces a decision: Will Asher join his parents in Europe, or shock his community by honing his gift with a top New York artist and gallery owner?
‘The central conflict is universal: that you need to be yourself, even when the culture you live in is in conflict’
Despite the Hasidic setting and characters, the story should have universal appeal, says director Gordon Edelstein, who oversaw a May run of “Asher Lev” at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.
For Edelstein, “Asher Lev” is about “what happens when who you are is in irreconcilable conflict with your culture. This conflict is as old as the Bible, and manifests itself everywhere.”
He likens Potok to Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Joyce — authors who were “essentially regionalized writers . . . with an eye toward the specificity of the world they knew, and how it is a metaphor for a larger population.”
“Four-fifths of ‘Asher Lev,’ ” he says, “takes place in Lubavitch Crown Heights — that is culturally specific! Yet the central conflict is universal: that you need to be yourself, even when the culture you live in is in conflict. It’s a conflict between two goods, not between good and evil.”
It’s a tension also speaks deeply to Mark Nelson, who plays Aryeh Lev and struggled as a teenager with the gulf between his own ambitions and his family’s expectations.
“I grew up obsessed with art and theater in a Jewish New Jersey family of doctors and achievers,” says Nelson, who lectures on theater at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. “Becoming an artist was not up for discussion. I first read the book when I was 16, and I can remember it felt like a hot secret. Here was the forbidden truth that . . . art might be a drive that had to be followed, even at painful costs — that loving, well-meaning parents might just be unable to understand.
“I’ve discovered lately,” he goes on, “that lots of people feel that way about this book, and not only Jews.”
Both Nelson and Edelstein — as well as Ari Brand, the 28-year-old who plays Asher — cited friends who outwardly have little connection to Hasidism, but who have nevertheless connected with the story.
“It is like a Mad Lib,” Brand jokes. “Insert anything in the blank — any demographic group, religion or passion. All can relate to the story.”
For Brand himself, however, it wasn’t until previews at the Long Wharf Theater that he identified a parallel between the fictional Lev family and his own.
“It was a similar story,” he says, referring to the clash between his Israeli-born father and Polish-born grandfather, who fought over the younger man’s desire to abandon strict Jewish observance for a life more focused on music.
“My grandfather didn’t have a hard time because his son was a pianist — he supported him and wanted it,” Brand says. “But he had a hard time with his son’s very difficult time following the Orthodox tenets.”
‘It is like a Mad Lib. Insert anything in the blank — any demographic group, religion or passion. All can relate to the story’
While much of the cast and crew felt a personal link to the story, none could match the connection of two of their collaborators — Adena Potok and the couple’s daughter, Naama, who serves as an understudy for the part of Rivkeh.
Adena Potok, who functioned as “Chaim’s first reader” throughout his career, consulted with Aaron Posner to adapt “Asher Lev” for the stage, following Posner’s successful script for a theatrical version of “The Chosen.”
“It was really powerful to see Chaim’s work take shape,” she says of the period before “Asher Lev” was first performed by Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company in 2008.
Naama Potok, for her part, says her late father would “be deeply, profoundly moved” to see the current show. Coming just over 10 years after his death, “Asher Lev” offers a nostalgic reminder of her childhood, as well as the parts of himself that Potok included in the story.
“I remember his paintings on the walls of all the homes we lived in,” Naama Potok recalls, “and how they evolved enormously over time.”
A decade after her husband‘s death and 40 years after the book’s publication, Adena Potok considers “Asher Lev” as timely as ever. “People struggle with two or more loyalties in their lives, and they need to work hard to resolve them,” she says.
“Or,” she says, reflecting on the tensions in the book, “not to.”