The Beautiful Cross of Asher Lev

The weekend in October when Hamas attacked and killed over 1,000 innocent Israeli civilians, a book came in the mail: the 1972 novel by the Jewish author Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev.

This book centers on a devout Hasidic Jewish family living in Brooklyn shortly after World War II. At the beginning of the book, Hitler is dead, but Stalin is alive and well. Like Hitler, he is a raging antisemite and ruthless in his persecution of Jews. It’s only a few short years since the Holocaust, and Aryeh Lev, the father of the young artist and the novel’s narrator, Asher, is always on call trying to get their people out of Russia.

The persecution of the Jews is a constant backdrop in the novel, alluded to from Asher’s innocent and bewildered perspective, but the fundamental tension of the book takes place in Asher’s own family. From an early age, Asher is remarkably perceptive and can translate his vision vividly onto the page. He draws everything—the street, the trees, his parents, his room. Here at the beginning of the novel, Potok’s beautiful prose seamlessly flows alongside Asher’s beautiful drawings:

I remember my first drawing of my mother’s face—longish straight nose, clear brown eyes, high-boned cheeks. She was small and slight; her arms were thin and smooth-skinned, her fingers long and thin and delicately boned. Her face was smooth and smelled of soap. I loved her face next o mine when she listened to me recite the Krias Shema before I closed my eyes to go to sleep.

Asher’s love for his mother, Rivkeh, is wrapped up with his capacity to see her, and thus, to draw her.

At first his father regards Asher’s artistic talent as a forgivable hobby, but over the years, counts it as an obstacle. You can’t be an observant Hasidic Jew and a visual artist, or so Aryeh claims. The world of the arts belongs to the world. Asher’s mother is more supportive of his gift, but is nonetheless loyal to her husband, and wouldn’t dare to defy him in anything.

Hence, the tension—a young artist growing up in a household with little patience for the visual arts with a mother who loves both her experimental son and her steadfast, devout husband.

Potok managed to cultivate sympathies not only for Asher but for each member of the Lev family. However, the father becomes increasingly absent over the course of the book. He travels around the country in service to the Rebbe, the local leader of their sect, and ultimately, goes overseas to Vienna to pilot a refugee neighborhood for Jews fleeing from Russia.

It’s in his father’s absence that Asher develops his depth and brilliance as an artist. He studies and practices under the tutelage of Jacob Kahn, an artist, who, like Asher, was raised in a devout Jewish home but eventually chose to devote his life to his craft instead of his religion. Kahn insists that Asher paint crucifixions and nudes as part of his training, and over time, with his father absent and his mother starting to feel the burden of trying to love both her husband and son well, Asher Lev enters more deeply into the art world.

As the years go on, Asher travels abroad and returns, and is ready to unveil his latest exhibition. By now, he’s acquired some renown, and his father, while still not necessarily supportive of his artistry, is willing to visit the gallery because there are no nudes.

True, no nudes—but there is a crucifixion. And that’s worse.

For the culmination of the exhibit, Asher painted his mother in the window of his childhood home stretched out, as on a cross, reaching towards Asher with one hand and toward her husband with the other. It’s a piercing and devastating portrayal of Rivkeh’s struggle, intensified to a boil by the end of the novel. And it earns his father’s dismissal and his mother’s sad, shocked admonition.

Asher starts out by drawing his mother’s face on a winter day and ends up painting her in agony through the only symbol he thought would do it justice: a cross.

It’s a sad story. It’s also a sad time in history. A time that calls for our lament.

The novel made me think not only of Jesus on the cross, but his incarnation, his physical appearance to us in the flesh, and how art, at its best, is perhaps intended to mirror this sort of embodiment. Asher does not always paint what’s beautiful, although he revels in it whenever he has the chance. But neither does he resort to the nihilism of his contemporaries. And yet, is the cross beautiful? In a way, yes. Philip Ryken writes:

Consider what this new form of beauty—one that “leaves room for scars”—must mean for our own pains and sorrows. Simply put, God is too good an artist to leave all the ugliness as it is. What he did for the body of his Son beyond the grave is the same thing he will do for everyone who belongs to his body, the church.[1]

The cross, though an ugly instrument of torture, demonstrates the beautiful love of the Creator on behalf of his creation. Rivkeh’s love both for Asher and Aryeh are portrayed in a way that perhaps no other sort of medium could match. It’s almost as if there are no words sufficient to address her pain. Only a cross will do.

And in a way, Asher’s father is also a cross-bearer. He’s trying to carry the burdens of his people, and throughout the book, feels their tribulations as if they were his own. When the Jewish people hurt in one part of the globe, they hurt everywhere.

The book, though, shows that perhaps there is no real beauty without sacrifice. The two are inextricably linked. To offer a thing of beauty in the world costs something. It cost Asher Lev just as it cost Christ, but as Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura notes, “Art literally feeds us through beauty in the hardest, darkest, hours. Christians can have a foretaste of what is to come by celebrating through making and through the exegetical work of culture.”[2]

In the darkness of this season, in which our Jewish brothers and sisters, along with countless others around the globe, are suffering, the church and its artists can spread their arms in lament as the hands and feet of Jesus. But it can also point to the hope of the resurrection—the great fact of the universe that suffering, death, and decay don’t have the last word. Only through the cross could Asher Lev depict his mother’s pain, but paradoxically, and beautifully, only through the wounds of Christ can any of us be truly healed.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College (Illinois) and earned a master of fine arts in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University.

  1. Philip Ryken, Beauty is Your Destiny (Wheaton: Crossway, 2023), 126.

  2. Makoto Fujimura, Art & Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020).


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