After reading the penultimate draft of my latest novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a trusted reader and one of my closest friends from the Iowa Writers Workshop, author Josh Rolnick, suggested I take a moment to read Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev.
At first, I couldn’t quite imagine how a novel about a Hasidic Jew in twentieth century New York City would relate to my story, which centers around the creation of Rembrandt’s first masterpiece, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” set on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632. But Josh has never steered me wrong in the past, so I followed his advice.
Potok’s 1972 novel tells the life story of a young Orthodox Jew with prodigious artistic talent growing up in a cloistered Hasidic community in Brooklyn, who finds himself torn between his family’s expectations and his artistic calling. The more he follows the path that seems to be his destiny, the more he finds himself in serious conflict with his father and alienated from his community. In the end, Lev paints an image that makes it impossible for him to ever return home again: a crucifixion.
After reading the book, I could see certain immediate parallels with my own novel. In Potok’s novel, Lev invokes Christian iconography to explore a non-Christian theme: Jewish suffering in general, and in particular the suffering of his own mother, Rivkeh, who has been at the center of the emotional tug-of-war between father and son. (Marc Chagall also painted a crucifixion scene, by the way, “White Crucifixion” (1938), which is widely regarded as a representation of the suffering of the Jewish people). In my novel, Rembrandt brings Christian iconography into a totally secular setting: the intellectual and medical arena of the anatomy theater.
Rather than a crucifixion scene, Rembrandt painted a secular group portrait of surgeons, barbers, and apprentices at a dissection as though they were disciples standing around the dead Jesus. That’s one interpretation, of course. It’s also possible to read the dead man in Rembrandt’s masterpiece as a kind of Lazarus in the tomb. Scholars over the years have suggested both. In either case, Rembrandt has employed biblical imagery in a context where it would’ve been considered highly provocative, if not scandalous.
Rembrandt doesn’t appear to have been much of a churchgoer, but he was clearly a reader of the bible, and he painted scenes out of both the Old and New Testaments. More importantly, like Asher Lev, he was a student of art history, and western painting begins, of course, with Christian imagery: crucifixion, Madonna-and-child, last suppers, ascensions, descents from the cross… A painter can’t be a master, even today, unless he or she is familiar with this imagery. For Rembrandt in the seventeenth century and for a painter worth his salt in twentieth century New York, invoking classical western art traditions in this way was more about painting than religion.
But this may not have been the main reason Josh suggested I read My Name is Asher Lev. What he was offering me, by way of Potok, was a model for a narrative arc that would help me take my novel to the next, and higher level. That is to say, a way to have the novel explore how a man comes to break through his personal and cultural barriers to create a work of art that is both of himself and beyond himself – i.e., in some way universal.
That was the fundamental shift that my novel needed to contain, and after reading Asher Lev I was able to go back to The Anatomy Lesson with fresh eyes, and a clearer perspective on the larger narrative arc that my novel needed to take. I was grateful to Josh for the suggestion, and to Chaim Potok for showing me the way.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.