Thursday, February 17, 2011

Visualize this

Papa, can you hear me?  (Guess not.)
I had the strangest feeling at My Name is Asher Lev (left, at the Lyric Stage through March 12); as both a lapsed Catholic and an admirer of Judaism, I felt I was being insulted at one remove- twice. Let me explain: Asher Lev - drawn from Rabbi Chaim Potok's novel of the same name - treats the world of the Hasidim, the mystical, revivalist branch of Orthodox Judaism. In the book (which I haven't read), it seems Potok explores the conflict between Hasidic precepts and the world of art - young Asher is portrayed as a brilliant artist, an idealist whose obsession with the visual flies in the face of his spiritual tradition (which has long viewed all artistic representation as a form of the "graven images" forbidden by "HaShem").

So far, so good; I'm all for critique of everything, including Judaism; and obviously I'm greatly concerned with the visual arts.  And at first glance, you might imagine that My Name is Asher Lev engages with the flowering of Jewish art that occurred with the triumph of modernism.  Indeed, Jews are all but absent from the Western artistic tradition until the twentieth century (the only one I can think of offhand from the earlier century is Camille Pissarro - and nobody comes to mind before him).

Once modernism - a sensibility largely forged in a Jewish salon in Paris - had established itself as a cultural force, Jewish artists began to make themselves known.  And tellingly, the more abstract modern art became, the more Jews dominated the scene - indeed, almost every major follower of abstract expressionism (which flowered during the period of Asher Lev) was Jewish: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston and Morris Louis were all Jewish, as were later artists Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Julian Schnabel - the list goes on and on.  Surprisingly, however, Jews dominated figurative art of the period as well, at least in pop form: Jerome Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman, were Jewish, as was Bob Kane (creator of Batman), and both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, et. al.); American comics are essentially a Jewish tradition.

So a huge cultural shift occurred in Judaism in the twentieth century - one which, it's safe to assume, the Orthodox opposed (and perhaps still do).  But if you're looking for a sensitive treatment of the tensions between Reform Judaism and its more conservative (and perhaps anti-sensualist) brethren, look elsewhere than My Name is Asher Lev.  For Aaron Posner's dramatization strips all historical and religious context from the novel's central conflict.  I have to imagine Potok was more sensitive in this regard - even though in the end, Asher Lev becomes obsessed with painting not just naked ladies (a constant trope of middlebrow theatre!) but crucifixions.  That's right, for some reason this young Hasid feels it's his calling to revitalize a Catholic artistic tradition - even though Catholics were a central force in the attempted genocide of his people just a few years before.  And why? Because, Asher sputters, the crucifixion is the greatest image of suffering he can think of.

Hmmm.  Now it seems to me a few scenes from Auschwitz or Treblinka could give even the Grünewald Altarpiece a run for its money.  But what do I know, I'm just a goy.  Maybe the Jews don't really know from suffering!  Yet when the play climaxed with young Asher painting his mother dying on the cross, I had to wince just about every which way it's possible to wince - I was insulted for both the Jews and the Catholics, as well as for poor old Mama!

Okay, I know this very silly adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel means no harm; it's merely meant to operate in a kind of TV-movie-of-the-week mode, like Herman Wouk's The Winds of War, in which real history and real spirituality (and real art) don't really exist. Hence, perhaps, the utter seriousness with which it's being presented; director Scott Edmiston approaches it on his knees (which only makes this overrated director look more superficial than ever), and actors Joel Colodner, Anne Gottlieb, and Jason Schuchman give it their all. Indeed, whenever Colodner's onstage, his passion almost makes you believe in this schmaltz. (Almost.)  Janie E. Howland's set - seemingly a chunk of Brandeis has landed in the Lyric - is likewise superb, and Karen Perlow's reverent lighting leans heavily on candles flickering in shadow. Sometimes, watching all this serious professionalism devoted to such hokum, I felt myself about to cry out, "Yes, yes! Papa, please - can't you see cute Jewish boys should be free to paint crucifixions?" But then inwardly I'd find myself snickering. I mean, Jesus Christ. Or do I mean oy vey?


  1. In your list of Jewish comic book artists, you forgot Will Eisner, for whom the highest honor in the medium is named. He's generally considered to be responsible for codifying the grammar of the medium.

    Of course, I'd also point out that a good chunk of Lichtenstein's entire corpus is essentially plagiarized from the work of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, and Joe Kubert (and I dare say that he's an inferior craftsman to all three!) I just don't feel Lichtenstein sufficiently recontextualized the appropriated images to qualify as making an original statement the way the goyisch Andy Warhol did!

  2. I believe you are correct. The Lou Reed/John Cale song-cycle Songs for Drella clearly identify Warhol as Catholic, though I believe he was raised Eastern-Rite.

  3. Extraordinary. How stunningly knowledgeable, educated, erudite, crude and wrong someone can be, all at the same time. The adaptation is true to the spirit of the book. I know, I wrote the adaptation. In displaying your contempt and broad understanding, you miss everything that is of worth or importance in the story. Chaim Potok has been regarded as a major, insightful and worthwhile storyteller for more than 50 years. His books are rich in wisdom and insight. They tell of a very particular experience. You are under no obligation to like or engage with it, but you remind me certain undergraduates I used to teach... the more the claimed to hate something-- without considering it on its own terms-- the smarter they felt. It is easy to ridicule and dismiss. It is much harder-- much more worthwhile, many would say-- to look for the value where it may not immediately be apparent to you because of your own frame of reference.

    I have not seen the production of this play in Boston. I cannot speak to the performances or design or direction. And I claim no greatness of my adaptation, which simply made every effort to bring to the stage the spirit, energy, complexity and drama of Asher's journey. I have seen many audiences deeply, deeply engaged with this journey. I am sorry you could not so the worth in it. I can't help but wonder why you would work so hard to dismiss in such an off-handed manner this unique a remarkable story of one journey through a complex and fraught landscape.

    Aaron Posner

  4. Yes, Aaron, it's easy to ridicule and dismiss. But it's even easier to write a bad play. Which is what you have done, I'm afraid. I can't speak to whether the book is as simplistic as your script; I hope not. It occurs to me that when overhearing an argument within a tradition (or a family) things can be communicated via assumptions and shorthand that are opaque to an outsider. Maybe that's the case with Asher Lev - still, even if that IS the case, if you're going to take such a story to a wider world, it's your responsibility to attend to the context of that world, and I'm afraid you don't do that. As I said, there's actually a great drama to be made of the flowering of Jewish art in the twentieth century - but My Name is Asher Lev isn't it; it is, instead, a flower-power-era melodrama with a matinee idol "artist" whose parents "just can't understand." I mean seriously - a "genius" who paints naked ladies and crucifixions after the Holocaust? If that's not offensive to anyone who cares about Judaism, it's certainly offensive to anyone who cares about art.

  5. I just wanted to add that Mr. Posner (who I believe is actually somewhat younger than I am) is quite accomplished in the world of regional theatre - he just left a successful run as artistic director of the Two River Theatre in New Jersey. And from a bio posted on the web:

    Since 1998, in addition to his role as resident director at the Arden [which he co-founded], Posner has worked as a freelance director, playwright, philanthropic consultant and teacher. He has directed acclaimed productions at many of the most prominent regional theaters in America including the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, Alliance Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre, Delaware Theatre Company, The Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and many more. His adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel "The Chosen," which premiered at the Arden, won the 1998 Barrymore Award for Best New Play and has been performed at more than 30 regional theaters across the country including Paper Mill Playhouse. Posner also won a Barrymore for his direction of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" at the Arden, a Helen Hayes Award for his direction of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Folger, and in 2000 was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship. . . . [Posner also] taught for nearly a decade as an adjunct professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, as well as professional training classes at the Arden . . .

    It's quite résumé, isn't it; which only makes his shock at my putdown of My Name is Asher Lev more understandable - and the script itself even more dismaying, IMHO.