Potok starts off with the main character delivering three short sentences that set up the basis for the entire book. Before the reader learns anything about Asher Lev or the plot of the story they are confronted with the following statement:
I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all - in the way that I am painting. (Potok 3)
These three sentences are the foundation on which Potok builds his entire novel. Without understanding why the Orthodox Jewish community disapproves art, Potok's novel would have no basis. Deuteronomy 5:8 states that:
Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth.
Although art is not expressly forbidden, Orthodox Jews have "a longstanding abhorrence of anything that even smacks of idolatry" (Megilligan n.p.), and art is viewed by Orthodox Jews as "essentially the heritage and property of pagan (Greek and Roman) and Christian culture -- unsuitable by definition for the Jew" (Stern 3141). Therefore, to become an artist, one would have to renounce Hebrew iconoclasm, "the Jewish custom forbidding any formal representation of living things" (Marchesseau 20-21). Throughout the novel, Asher strives to keep a balance between his art and his religion, but ultimately ends up isolating himself from his community.
Himself an artist, Potok draws on personal experience for the writing of his novel. He also uses the life of Marc Chagall (another Jewish artist) as a reference for his protagonist. As in the case of Asher Lev, Potok's painting was acceptable when he a child, but once he reached the age of thirteen (his bar mitzvah), his father was very much opposed, saying painting was idolatrous. But unlike Lev, Potok says he "shifted the hunger to create from images on canvas to words on paper" (Kouvar n.p.). His writing was much more tolerable because it did not violate the Torah. It is only after his literary art became widely published that Potok took up painting once again. The life of Chagall is similar to that of Asher Lev in that his mother supported him as much as she could, and, like Asher, he went to study with a Jewish artist. Chagall ultimately renounced Hebrew iconoclasm, and, while he remained loyal to his Jewish heritage, he "became religious in the broadest sense of the word, rejecting all forms of dogma and embracing, in an abstract Judeo-Christian faith, a divine and merciful universal eternity" (Marchesseau 21,22). But the most important aspect Potok draws from his and Chagall's lives is a crucifixion painting. For Asher, it is such a painting that leads to his exile from the community he grew up in.
Asher's mother, Rivkeh, is perhaps one of the most important characters in the novel. Over and over she sacrifices her own happiness for that of her husband and child, and each of them cause her great suffering. Her husband, Aryeh, travels a lot as a representative for the Rebbe (spiritual leader of the community) to the government and other communities around the United States. Rivkeh worries a great deal about his safety, especially after her brother is killed in a car accident traveling for the Rebbe. His death causes her to sink into a deep depression, and she is only able to rise out of her depression when she goes to school in order to be able to carry on his work. A scene during this period of depression illustrates how she...