Book Review: My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok – a soul-searching must for every creative

my name is asher lev large by chaim potok-640My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven’t known a book to affect me so profoundly as My Name is Asher Lev. The conflict is deep, searing, cutting to the core. It helped me to understand better the nature of being a creative person and the sacrifice it takes to be authentic and honest, even to the point of hurting others. The book is a long, slow burn, every page necessary to set up the final conflict. At the end I was racing through, dreading the end as tears sprung to my eyes and yet terribly curious about how the author would resolve the conflict. How grateful I am that there is a part two, The Gift of Asher Lev, now waiting for me at the library, ready to be picked up in just a few minutes. Continue reading “Book Review: My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok – a soul-searching must for every creative”

Words that Transform – God can speak to you through your library books

This is my monthly column for The Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com.

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Words have power. Through prayer, guidance and meditation, the Bible can change lives. While God speaks most directly through his Word, he can also speak to you through the books you have in your home or that you find at your local library. It’s all a matter of being aware of how and when he is speaking to you.

My mother's copy of Little Women
My mother’s copy of Little Women

I developed a passion for reading four years ago after my mother had died. She had been ill for many years and all I could remember about her was her suffering. Reading acted as a balm upon numbing grief; it was an unexpected gift of grace from God. While cleaning out the family home I came up on my mother’s collection of books by Louisa May Alcott, each volume marked with her personal name plate. As I thumbed through the pages and enjoyed the familiar stories, I imagined my mother as a girl reading them along with me. I found myself wrapped in warm and happy memories of the woman I had called my very best friend.

mr. emerson's wife by amy belding brownBooks soon became a means of spiritual growth. Reading exercised a lazy mind and challenged my heart to open and grow. A novel of historical fiction was my first “breakthrough” book, one that shone a glaring spotlight on my soul and moved me to repent and change. Titled Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown it told the story of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife Lidian. a highly intelligent and accomplished woman who, although married to an “enlightened man,” suffered the plight of all married women of her era. Just a scant one hundred and fifty years ago women were the property of their husbands; they had no legal rights. Women could not own land or a house, they could not vote and they had no lawful custody of their children. There were few options for gainful employment if a woman became widowed. Women in the nineteenth century were in essence invisible and powerless, unable to chart the course of their own lives.

While wholeheartedly agreeing that all people are equal despite gender and race, I have never embraced modern feminism. This, however, did not give me the right to judge others who did embrace it. My judgment was harsh, secretly leveled at dear friends whom I otherwise loved and respected. After reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife, my heart began to open for these women with whom I had disagreed as I came to an understanding of their passion and point of view. I prayed to God for forgiveness and asked him to stretch my small heart, replacing judgment with love. He wasted no time in showing me how to love better and to leave all judgment to him.

Other books challenged me spiritually. A series of novels by Chaim Potok explored the lives of people of great faith whose heritage clashed with their enormous gifts of intellect (The Chosen) and artistry (My Name is Asher Lev, The Gift of Asher Lev). Danny Saunders of The Chosen was a brilliant young man who was the rightful heir to his father, an Hasidic rebbe. Reb Isaac Saunders meant for his son to devote his vast intellect to study of the Torah while Danny hungered to be a scholar, feasting on the knowledge of the world outside of his Jewish community. Asher Lev was an artistic genius, compelled to create provocative paintings and drawings even if it put him at odds with his family and his own Hasidic community.

chaim potok books

Danny and Asher were young men of great courage who pursued their callings while remaining faithful to their Jewish faith. Their stories challenged me to dig deeper to find my own calling while at the same time, reminding me that such digging must be done in complete partnership with God, allowing him to lead me to self-knowledge.

Think about the book you are reading now: how does it speak to you? Can you read between the lines and sense God touching your heart, moving you to change? Does your mind open up to seeing the world around you in a different way? Do you derive comfort from the book? Or does it challenge you and motivate you to repent of some sin? Does it inspire you to step out into the world and serve God’s people?

Consider these possibilities the next time you visit the library. The next book you read could transform your life.

 

Linda Ronstadt finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: the cost of artistic integrity

It appears that Rolling Stone Magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have finally taken notice: Linda Ronstadt has finally been inducted. While it should have been done many years earlier, justice has finally been served.

Linda+Ronstadt+The+Very+Best+of

Ronstadt fans have been aware of the longstanding feud between Rolling Stone and Ms. Ronstadt, mostly because she dared to be outspoken and honest. Blunt she may be but as her book, Simple Dreams shows so clearly, she is an artist with integrity.

512 linda book signingAs I pointed out in an earlier post when I met Ms. Ronstadt for her book signing, I didn’t understand her way of thinking at first but I do now. For her, the art comes first and the art, in and of itself, is the message. If the art, whether it be painting, drawing, singing, playing an instrument, songwriting or writing, is done well, the message will shine forth, loud and clear. If the art is subject to the message, subservient to it, both will suffer.

Great art and a great message – that’s my goal.

I believe whatever art (in this case, music) I have created has suffered from the message being imposed on the art. The message is good and eternal but the message is not just about the words. I used the music as a tool to get out the message. Nothing wrong with that except that in my case, the music suffered. If I had put half the time, effort and study into creating the music that I did in creating lyrics, I could have perhaps created a song that was sublime. In the end, the music was just okay. Some of my songs were good but I don’t believe any of them were great.

In short, my art suffered from mediocrity.

my name is asher levI’m reading one of my favorite authors right now, Chaim Potok, a book called My Name is Asher Lev. Asher Lev is an artist and a prodigy. He is also an Hasidic Jew, faithful to his religion, desperately trying to be a good son to his loving parents. Somehow he must find a way to juggle his gift as an artist (which often cannot be controlled) and his identity as a Hasidic Jew. I read the book because I knew Potok would unearth and reveal the creative mind and heart and so far I have not been disappointed. He puts my dilemma so perfectly into words, describing how the boy Asher felt about the drawings his mashpia [aka school principal] had asked him to make:

“I hated what I had drawn in that sketchbook. I should not have done it. Why had he asked me to do it? I hated the drawings. They were lies, stagnant creations done to someone else’s demand and I despised them.”

While my feelings are not as strong as Asher’s (I don’t hate my work but I don’t love it either), I understand now as never before that art must be honest in and of itself. Yes, you can and should do work for others (otherwise how would a writer be published or a singer or musician be recorded?) and you should follow the guidelines set out by those who are risking their capital on you.

But this doesn’t mean the art created in the end cannot be honest.

It must be honest.

The trick is figuring out how to do that within the confines of the professional and business environment.

My goal as a creative person entering the last phase of my life is to create one thing that is sublime. This will take focus, commitment and belief that it not only is possible but permissible. I still have to get my message out, but it is permissible and desirable to make it as excellent, as beautiful, as compelling, moving, poignant, challenging …

… as good as it can be.

I have been given a remarkable professional opportunity as a writer which I cannot disclose at this time. Suffice it to say it will help to fulfill a lifelong dream. I consider this my shot to create something sublime.

Linda Ronstadt was highly critical of most everything she did but it never stopped her endless pursuit of making the best music that she could. Her book, Simple Dreams, takes you on that journey. While she never believed she created something sublime, her fans did. And now she is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Congratulations Linda. Not on the award.

But on being an artist of integrity, always striving to create the sublime.

May I follow in your footsteps.

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