The other night I dreamt I was a Jewish painter. Freighted with the responsibility of my culture and my faith, but born with a gift.
I had just finished reading Chaim Potok's novel "My Name is Asher Lev," and I think I carried the gravity of the story of Asher Lev with me into the world of dreams. In the murkiness of my dream, I could almost feel the weight of responsibility both as a Jew and as an artist that Asher Lev carried. I wept when I read the conclusion of the story, realizing all that Asher had lost and gained (yes, I know he is a fictional character, but at the time, it didn't seem to matter).
One of my favourite parts of the book is an exchange between Asher Lev and his artist-master, Jacob Kahn:
Often in the early mornings, I came out of the house and walked across the dunes to the beach. The dunes were cool then on my tefillin. Those mornings, the beach was my synagogue and the waves and gulls were audience to my prayers. I stood on the beach and felt wind-blown sprays of ocean on my face, and I prayed. And sometimes the words seemed more appropriate to this beach than to the synagogue on my street.
One morning, I finished praying and came back across the dunes and found Jacob Kahn on the porch.
"I was watching you," he said quietly. "I used to pray once. Do you talk to God when you pray?"
"I have lost that faculty. I cannot pray. I talk to God through my sculpture and painting."
"That's also prayer."
He smiled faintly, the morning sun on his face. "The Rebbe said precisely that. You are following the party line, Asher Lev."
This story of a Ladover Hasidic painter is told from Asher Lev's perspective. It begins with a boy who cannot keep himself from drawing. A boy who cleverly uses the ashes from a cigarette to complete a drawing of his mother. An Orthodox Jew who absentmindedly doodles in a Chumash (a book-bound edition of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible). As a child, he can barely begin to understand the weight of this "gift." With a mother and father who see it as a curse and a community that rejects him as an outcast, Asher Lev is very much on his own from the beginning. Under the tutelage of an established Jewish painter, Jacob Kahn, Asher Lev begins to cultivate his skill and establish himself as an artist. With every drawing he makes, Asher moves further from the expectations of his reputable father and must juggle the commitment to his faith with the genius that compels him to make great art, regardless. The climax of this subtly epic story is Asher's distressing completion and exhibition of the two greatest paintings of his artistic career: Brooklyn Crucifixion I and Brooklyn Crucifixion II.
"Asher Lev, Hasid. Asher Lev, painter. 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 the divine at one and the same time... Asher Lev paints good pictures and hurts people he loves. Then be a great painter, Asher Lev; that will be the only justification for all the pain you will cause. But as a great painter I will cause pain again if I must. Then become a greater painter. But I will cause pain again. Then become a still greater painter. Master of the Universe, will I live this way all the rest of my life? Yes, came the whisper from the branches of the trees. Now journey with me, my Asher. Paint the anguish of all the world. Let people see the pain. But create your own molds and your own play of forms for the pain. We must give a balance to the universe."
Reading the story of Asher Lev, I came to realize the gravity of our gifts. I have often wondered why it is that I have been gifted the ability to paint, the mastery of light, or the means to put lines and letters together so that they tell a great story when others have an ability that is much more tangible, useful, and accepted. I cannot begin to understand the intentions of the "Master of the Universe" when he knit us together just so. But I do know that it was done with great purpose. I think we have a responsibility to honor our gifts. To live in gratitude and in fullness, seeking to "give a balance to the universe." When the branches of the trees whisper, "Be great at what you have been given. Yes, you will cause pain. And yes, you will feel pain," therein lies the story and the affirmation of a Creator who has given us the grace to see it through.