'My Name is Asher Lev' comes to Jerusalem stage

"My Name is Asher Lev" grapples with some of life’s greatest universal issues.

 DAVID GOLINKIN (center) with costars Jordan Zell and Ksenia Saevich in 'My Name is Asher.' (photo credit: KAREN FELDMAN)
DAVID GOLINKIN (center) with costars Jordan Zell and Ksenia Saevich in 'My Name is Asher.'
(photo credit: KAREN FELDMAN)

Many of us recall the phenomenal success and emotional impact of Chaim Potok’s award-winning first book when it appeared in 1967. The Chosen was a fixture on The New York Times bestseller list for the better part of a year, selling more than 3,400,000 copies.

When the critically acclaimed movie version of the book hit cinema screens soon after, it was crowned one of the top films of the year.

Lightning can strike twice. Potok’s creative genius and literary talent came to the fore again in 1972 with the publication of My Name is Asher Lev. This profound and moving novel grapples with some of life’s greatest universal issues – such as the conflict between tradition and individualism, religion and art, parents and offspring – from a very Jewish point of view. The story probes the painful sacrifices one must often make to follow one’s passion rather than submit to the pressures of family and society to compromise and pursue goals considered more practical and marketable.

My Name is Asher Lev went on to become a theatrical success. Adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner, it wowed critics and audiences in its New York debut and had an extended run of over a year.

Now, to the good fortune of local English-language theater lovers, it is being staged for the first time in Israel this month at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater

The Khan Theater (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The Khan Theater (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For the play’s Israeli premiere, CBDB Productions has assembled some of Israel’s leading talent. Directed by Simon Stout, a veteran of more than 25 productions (assisted by Candice Nemoff), the show’s stars include Jordan Zell, Ksenia Saevich, David Golinkin, Yehoshua Looks and Andrea Katz.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Golinkin, who powerfully portrays Asher’s fiery father, reflected on what makes acting in the play such a profound and moving experience for him.

Asher Lev is a classic exploration of two types of tension between parents and their offspring. The father, Reb Aryeh, who managed to escape to America from Communist Russia, wants his son Asher to follow in his footsteps as an emissary for Ladover Hassidus (a euphemism for Lubavitch), but the American-born son is drawn to an entirely different path in life.

“The father, like many traditional Jews, considers art to be at best narishkeit (foolishness) and some of its content to be absolutely forbidden. Asher is conflicted. He wants to remain an observant Jew but, somehow, also to pursue his love for painting.”

On a personal note, Golinkin adds, “In 2010, I was fortunate to play Reb Saunders in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, staged at Center Stage Theater and Beit Avi Chai. I am happy now to appear as Reb Aryeh and the Rebbe in Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev at the Khan Theater.”

Stout revealed what drew him to wish to direct Asher Lev.

“I was intrigued by how Asher Lev struggles with who he is as an artist in connection with his faith and family. It is an exploration into a complex identity that in many ways we all have.

“Set in postwar Brooklyn, the story centers on a hassidic Jewish boy who wants to be an artist. As Asher matures, he struggles to be accepted by his family and his religious community. It is a coming-of-age story of a prodigy who must be a painter at any cost – against the will of family, community and tradition. His compulsive desire to render the world he sees and deeply feels threatens to destroy his relationship with his parents and forces him to decide who he is and where he belongs.

“Exploring the intersection of religion and art, it is a perfect play for the people of Jerusalem who daily grapple with what it means to live out their faith in the 21st century.”

The fundamental and underlying theme of Asher Lev

ONE INDICATION of how fundamental and potent the underlying theme of Asher Lev is, is the many forms it takes in books, films and in real life. Countless examples come to mind, such as:

The movie The Fabelmans shows how stridently Steven Spielberg’s father acted to discourage his son from pursuing his genius and passion for filmmaking.

In Shtisel, Akiva’s father goes to drastic lengths to block his son from pursuing an artistic career.

In real life, John Lennon’s guardian, Aunt Mimi, summarily dismissed his musical ambitions, famously saying (to what turned out to be one of the most famous and influential musicians of all time), “The guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.”

CBDB Productions head CB Davies noted that the company has been involved with Jerusalem theater companies for several years, has brought a number of successful productions to stage, and was at the forefront of creating theater during COVID.

“Blessed with an extraordinary cast and crew, we are happy to be bringing this important play to Jerusalem for the first time, and we feel sure that the audiences will enjoy and be moved by it.”

You can catch My Name is Asher Lev at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater on February 14-16 and 21-23.