Book Review: Chaim Potoks The Gift of Asher Lev

These past few days I have been reading The gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
Potok has been a favorite author since I was a teen, and I was blessed to be at a forum for Honor Students at BYU in 1987 when he came to speak and was able to ask him a question during the Q & A. I have always loved his writing style and word pictures.
I read My Name is Asher Lev in high school and many times during the 90’s, but for some reason I did not know that Potok had written a sequel until a few months ago.
We have been slowly adding to our home library great works of fiction for our teenagers to read. Before christmas I decided to purchase some of the classic books that I had loved by Potok and Pearl Buck as a family christmas present.
I was surprised when I started searching on Amazon to discover that Ashers story had been revisited by Potok and another book was waiting for me to devour.
I bought eight books for our family off of Amazon and have slowly been reading them all one by one. I started with I am the clay, then read the third in the good earth trilogy by Pearl Buck, A House Divided, I had read The Good Earth and Sons last year, and wanted to read the final book.
Then I read The Chosen and The Promise by Potok. I had forgotten that the Promise contained the story of a mentally ill boy, and found myself in a panic when I read of the decision by Danny, a psychologist, to put the boy in seclusion as a form of treatment. I told my husband that if I had remembered that was in the story, I probably would not have read the book. I was treated in seclusion several times when I had my nervous breakdown in 1989, and the dark memories of that time resurfaced and I had a full blown panic episode while reading the book last week.
Interestingly enough, I found that Danny’s description of why he had chosen to put the boy in seclusion was helpful to understand the thinking behind such treatment (This does not mean I believe it is a good form of therapy however), and I found myself agreeing with his analysis of how this would be a potential breakthrough in the mental disorder of the child.
In remembering that time of being “treated” by the psychiatrists, I was forced to agree that putting someone in a small space with little stimulus would cause that person to dig deeper into their personal resources for help in figuring out what the cause of the distress was. I did in fact experience that as I reached out to my Father in Heaven in a three day long prayer, something I had never before or since been compelled by life to do. I would like to add for anyone interested that I believe strongly the mind will not allow a person to experience more than they are capable of facing, and so, having experienced repressed memories (I did not remember being gang raped in that same hospital for 12 years), I believe that it is prudent for the people around the mentally challenged person to offer much loving support, good nutrition, gentle exercise and the freedom to deal with their issues when the time is right for the patient.
For me that time came after many years of loving support from my husband, and when my mind determined it was “safe”, the memories started to bubble up and I have been able to deal with them one at a time as my body and mind deemed me ready and strong enough to face them. In studying mental illness it is a truism that at the age of fifteen, the body and mind start to face deep seeded traumas, and then again during the thirties and forties generally the time regarded as “midlife crisis”, the body and mind start to delve deep into the soul of the person afflicted by trauma and the healing can start, if the person is in a place where they are ready and strong enough to face the past.
I believe this is a divine mechanism put in place by a wise and knowing Heavenly Father who has promised his children that he will not allow them to be tempted above that which they are able to bear. Trials and temptations are part of earth life, and for me, being mentally ill has been the greatest challenge of all. I love the promise in the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon.

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

Ether 12:27
I don’t know that I can positively say that my mind is “strong”, but I do know that in having this weakness in my brain, which I believe was mostly caused by sexual assault, the Lords grace has been sufficient in allowing me to line upon line and precept upon precept heal from the various traumas that have plagued my life since I was eight months old.
I don’t enjoy having flashbacks of traumatic events, and being in seclusion was one of the most traumatic. As I read The Promise I found myself throwing the book across the room as I came to the passage where Danny was even thinking about putting the boy in seclusion. Then I broke out in a sweat and started to cry. It took a day or so for me to get up the courage to finish the book. Reading Potok again is taking me to the depths of my being.
Anyway, I started reading Ashers first book, My Name is Asher Lev last week, and revelled in the good writing and the depth of the story. Fathers and Sons, the pull between tradition and innovation. The play on a young person passionate to go and do something different even if it means it will hurt the people loved most in his life.
I have experienced those same emotions many times as I have become a part of the Unassisted Childbirth movement and worked as a natural birth activist. My medical friends, doctors, nurses and the like have been somewhat hurt by these choices, as well as certain family members who have expressed shame in my activism. (listen to Amanda Counters testimony of birth however, to get a feel for how important this work is in healing marriages and families). I promote Unassisted Birth simply because I believe it is best for the baby!
When I started reading The Gift of Asher Lev a few days ago I was sad that the book picked up 20 years after the first book had ended. I wanted to hear about the romance, marriage, and the births of Ashers two children. But as I was reading the book, Potok flashed back time after time to share details of the love relationship Asher shared with his wife, the depths of marriage fidelity, the passion for his art, and the relationships he has developed with his own young children.
I have not yet finished the book, I can tell that the book is coming to the climax where it will be revealed that Ashers Father will be the new Rebbe, and thus he, Asher, will be in line for that high calling, as will his son after him. Don’t know that this is the case, but it is what I have taken from the foreshadowing by the author.
These two books will definitely go into my all time favorite books section of our home library, and I hope my children have the desire to branch away from Harry Potter and Orson Scott Card and try something new. The themes in Potoks books are deep and somewhat dark as he goes to the depths of human intimacy and depravation, using the slaughter of the jews as the backdrop for much of the drama in his stories. I feel somewhat melancholy after reading these books, but after blasting through the Ann of Green Gables series over christmas, I was ready for a different style of fiction to fill my brain up with.
For so many years I focused on non-fiction, reading political books, health books, birth books, and education books, it is nice to be in a place where I can relax a little and read some fiction and not feel like I am wasting my time. Overall I do feel edified and blessed by this foray into the fiction of Potok, and perhaps it was time for me to face once again, the reality of the torture I experienced at the hands of well meaning but hopelessly misguided professionals who have lined up lockstep with the marching orders of Big Pharma.
Jenny Hatch

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