A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 12: Chagall, the Real Asher Lev


Self-Portrait with Seven Digits, 1912-13

Artists inspire artists, art begets art.

As I continue to consider a crucial novel to my own artistic journey, “My Name is Asher Lev”, I was led to the real life artist that inspired, at least in part, the story by Chaim Potok. That artist was the Russian-French master Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Chagall was born and raised in modern day Belarus in a Hassidic community by devout parents. His gift was something so strange and unique to arise from his small-town, Jewish context. Chagall himself claims he didn’t even know what drawing was until he enrolled in a non-Jewish school.

The expression of his incredible gift was equal parts faith-inspired and  avant-garde. His use of color and dreamlike images influenced countless other artists, especially those of the Surrealistic movement. He and Pablo Picasso are considered by many to be the greatest painters of the Twentieth century. Picasso himself said, “When Henri Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” His use of crucifixion imagery in telling Jewish stories was revolutionary and directly influenced Potok’s story.

Below is a small gallery of some of my favorite Chagall paintings. See if you are observant enough to notice which painting inspired the musical “A Fiddler on the Roof” 😉


White Crucifixion, 1938



The Praying Jew, 1915


The Blue Circus, 1950


I and the Village, 1911


The Lovers, 1913-14


Solitude, 1933


A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 11: Potok the Painter


It shouldn’t surprise me but it always does: An artistic genius in one field can also be an accomplished and excellent artist in another field. I know better; I know creative people are creative all over the place in their lives: Actors are musicians, painters are writers, musicians are photographers, dancers are singers, and on and on.  I would never claim genius status for myself but I am an artist in more ways than on paper or canvas; acting, writing, singing, playing guitar and drums; I even did a choreographed dance once! I wish I had a video of that one!

Artists are never satisfied with just one outlet, usually several are what they dabble in. Yet when I discovered that the author of one of my favorite books, “My Name is Asher Lev”, was also a painter and a great one at that, I was amazed.

As I was reading up online about Chaim Potok for my blog post yesterday, I found out that he was a visual artist as well as a writer. In fact, he painted the “Brooklyn Crucifixion”, a painting I had always assumed was fictional because it is the pivotal work that Asher Lev creates in the novel. The “Crucifixion” piece is the one that drives the final wedge between Lev and his parents, faithful Jews who were part of a Hassidic community. It represents his mother, suffering between her love for her husband and his traditional views and her love for her son, the gifted artist who goes completely against the grain of his upbringing.

I never knew that this conflict was very real in Potok’s own life. He, like his fictional antagonist Asher Lev, was caught between faith and art; between his Hassidic faith community and his drive to create and express himself. This tension was felt profoundly in his own family as he felt support from his mother but resistance from his father. It led him to paint the “Crucifixion”, using Christian imagery to illustrate the agony of his own mother.

Here’s is Chaim Potok’s painting:



It was stunning to see this. I felt even closer to the author of the book that has meant so much to me. I realized that his novel is such a masterpiece because he drew from his own experiences and struggles. He knew deeply what it meant to exist in that unsettling yet necessary place where faith and creativity collide.

It was helpful for me as I continue my own search to understand what it means to be an artist and a man of faith at the same time. I felt like I re-discovered another guide to help me navigate these questions.

Here are a few more paintings from the author of “My Name is Asher Lev”…