|Papa, can you hear me? (Guess not.)|
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?