Monthly Archives: November 2014

Re-imagining Asher Lev, four decades later

A friend recently loaned me a book we both read a long time ago – My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. It was required reading in 1975, when she and I were students in Mrs. Belhumeur’s ninth-grade English class at Chariho Regional High School. Before she even passed the paperback across the table, I had a sudden, vivid, but rather vague sense of the book: Its sentences, spare and linear, like the subject of the book itself: the drawings of a talented young boy in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn in the 1950s. I remembered the words “chalk” and “paper,” and felt rather than sensed the rhythm of its passages.
Later, as I turned the worn pages, my mind did what it always does when I read: it began to form pictures out of the words. A vision of six-year-old Asher Lev, the family’s two-bedroom apartment with its Venetian blinds, the grieving mother with her wig askew, the father with his curled locks damp from his weekly ritualistic bath. As these pictures flashed behind my eyes, I found I didn’t remember much about the story at all. And then I wondered, what of this apartment I am seeing now in my head? What of the stationery store where Asher Lev befriends a Russian Jew his father has helped immigrate to the United States? What of the lakeside camp where they spend summers?
Was what I was seeing in my head identical to what I had imagined, all those years ago when I first read the book?
This question began to dog me as I carefully turned the pages. The paperback was worn, its spine already starting to split, and I treated it with care – in the same way I was treating this renewed friendship, which had frayed once long ago and which I felt blessed to share again. I realized there was no way of knowing if I was remembering images first conjured nearly 40 years ago, or if I was creating new ones. Who knows where we get the visions that our minds forge out of text?
In 1975, at age 15, my only ideas about a Brooklyn apartment would have come from old black-and-white episodes of “The Honeymooners” or “I Love Lucy.” The Venetian blinds I would have understood: We had them on our living room windows, heavy, dusty louvers that clanked when you pulled the cords up or down, and I would have known the frustration Asher Lev felt each time the slats fell askew. But I knew little about the troubles of Jews living in Stalin’s Russia or the customs of orthodox Judaism. I had never seen a Hasidic Jew, although I would a few months later on a Latin field trip to New York City.
Growing up in a small town in Rhode Island, my frame of reference for any book was narrow. Yet somehow I had wandered the moors with Jane Eyre, followed the March sisters through the woods of Concord, ridden with Nancy Drew in a roadster and dodged the black death in Forever Amber’s seventeenth-century London. Where had these images come from? Was I just cobbling them together from fly-leaf illustrations and pictures in the Book of Knowledge, from old movies on TV and advertisements in magazines, or had the words themselves created the images I was seeing in my mind’s eye? This idea, that words have the power to help us imagine, would mean that the book should be the same each time we read it, shouldn’t it?
Yet I suspect that reading My Name is Asher Lev, despite the vague, familiar chords it has struck, has not been the same experience at 54 that it was at 15. We create images based on experience, too; perhaps there is an intersection of the power of words to help us imagine and of our brains to use the clues of language to create pictures. If that is true, it might also be true that the worlds I had imagined while reading these books as a child or teen were not at all the worlds the authors had intended. That a book is different for each reader, and that our very identities as readers are fluid, so that we read different and newer meanings into texts as we grow older, or as our experiences as readers broaden.
In the same way, this woman across the table is not the same person she was in 1978, when she was my best friend and I wrote in her yearbook that I loved her, “not a romantic love,” but a different sort of love that would stand the test of time. How could I know that a year later, as we settled in at different college campuses, she would stop answering my letters and absorb herself in new friends and new interests that didn’t include me? How could I know that this schism, hurtful at the time, could be repaired, just as a book’s spine can be saved by gentle hands and well placed snips of tape? How could I know that someday she would pass this book across the table to me, inviting me to share once again the experience of visualizing another world?
I do not know what the Brooklyn apartment in my friend’s mind is like. I can’t see the features that she puts onto the face of Asher Lev, or how his mother’s sad eyes look in her imagination. But passing a book to a friend is an act of faith. It reminds us that somewhere, in that mysterious alchemy by which we translate words into images, by which we “see” the story that unfolds in our heads, we will glean something from this text that will bind us together. That even if our visions are different, this book will help us reach across the vast divide that keeps people apart, inside their own heads, to reach some shared understanding of what it means to be human. And that is probably all that really matters.

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