I’ve never taught this book, and as an English teacher, I’m a bit embarrassed to say I’ve not read it until now. I do know this: there is no way I could have appreciated this book as a student the way I can as a parent. I’m sure some students would really like it, but I think others would get bored. While it may engage them with the familiar theme of rebellion, I don’t think students could comprehend the agony of choices that comes with parenting. In a nutshell, Asher is born into a Ladover Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1950s (Wikipedia was my friend here–I knew we were talking about orthodox Jews, but I had no idea what Ladover or Hasid actually meant). His father works for the Rabbe (which also confused me as I initially thought it was just a different spelling of Rabbi, but apparently a Rabbe is more of the top guy among a whole sect of people), essentially creating schools and communities that spread their brand of Orthodox Judaism throughout the world. The kids–Asher included–go to school all day learning Hebrew, praying, and reading the Torah, and not seemingly much else. So the goal of school is not so much an education but an indoctrination. I couldn’t help but think this is pretty much what some of the current Madrassas in the Middle East are–schools that teach you to be a religious zealot.
Anyway, Asher is pretty much a child prodigy in art, creating amazing drawings at age 3 or 4. So, it’s a story of conflict: Asher wants to pursue his gift and his dad wants him to pursue his religious teachings and one day carry on his work. The real complexity begins when we see the father not as a villain but as a man who has seen 6 million Jews led to their death in the Holocaust, someone who wants to rebuild what has been taken away. He doesn’t understand Asher; he cannot understand passion for art. It is outside his ability to see the world. And yet, Asher’s gift is so strong, he often paints even when he does not realize he is doing so–when he’s not holding a brush or pencil, he paints in his head, seeing and feeling colors and textures that others cannot even perceive. What does a family do with such strong and dire differences? That’s where the mom comes in, and it’s both beautiful and heart-wrenching to watch her try to bridge this gap between her son and her husband. To allow her son to pursue what brings him life–but to know that further study of painting also means studying Christian traditions, artists, movements, and all aspects of “the Other Side” that so pains his father. What Potuk handles so well is the innerworkings of the family, the struggles, the drive within us that we have little control over. Not that much happens in this book, but the conversations and the body movements are emotionally terrifying. There are no villians or heroes–only a family trying to do their soul’s work without painfully damaging one another.
Just a day after I finished the book, I opened the NYT to this story (The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life) about an organization in Brooklyn and other areas of New York offering counseling and sanctuary to adult children struggling to leave their ultra-Orthodox Jewish families. I had no idea this is still such a challenging issue.