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The Assimilation Stage

My Name Is Asher Lev and Disgraced bring to New York stages Jews and Muslims struggling with identity

Judith Miller
December 14, 2012
Ari Brand in My Name Is Asher Lev (left) and Aasif Mandvi in Disgraced.(Joan Marcus (left) and Erin Baiano)
Ari Brand in My Name Is Asher Lev (left) and Aasif Mandvi in Disgraced.(Joan Marcus (left) and Erin Baiano)

Disgraced and My Name Is Asher Lev, two ambitious, compelling new off-Broadway plays, explore the limits of assimilation and reach radically different conclusions. In the case of Asher Lev, a story of Orthodox Jewish assimilation, the outcome is bitter-sweet, and ultimately satisfying. In Disgraced, which focuses on a young Pakistani Muslim in New York, the implications are disturbing.

The plays have much in common. Both are taut, well-crafted compressions of ambitious themes in which an artist plays a major role. Both are roughly 90 minutes long—the new two hours on Broadway for limited-run productions that feature small, excellent casts and evocative sets and music. Both plays explore the struggle between being part of a tribe and true to oneself. And both are moving commentaries on the price of assimilation—or in the case of Disgraced, its limits.

Based on the best-selling 1972 novel by Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev has been faithfully adapted to the stage—perhaps too faithfully—by Aaron Posner, a successful director and playwright who worked most often in Washington, D.C. Its theme is familiar, perhaps because it dominates so much of Potok’s most popular works, but also because it has become such a staple of American theater: the coming-of-age rebellion of the son against father. In this case, the rebel is an ultra-Orthodox Jew being raised in Brooklyn in the 1950s. But the audience knows from the start that the strict, well-ordered religious world of Asher Lev is bound to clash with, and ultimately succumb to, his secular destiny as an artist—an approved stage occupation if ever there was one. The play is narrated, as is the book itself, by its main character—played convincingly, if neutrally, by Ari Brand.

“My name is Asher Lev,” Brand intones at the start of the play. He is “an observant Jew.” He does not work on the Sabbath, prays three times a day, eats only kosher, obeys the Rebbe, and tries to honor his parents. But, echoing the memorable monologue taken almost verbatim from the novel, because Asher is a painter—not just of anything, but of crucifixions, in Brooklyn, no less—he is also considered a “traitor,” an “apostate,” and “blasphemer.” He is “none of those things,” he adds quickly. “And, of course, in some ways, I am all of those things.” Thus the struggle within Asher Lev begins with a denial that is not quite a denial, an apology that is more of an explanation than an admission of guilt since, as our narrator asserts, it is absurd to “apologize for a mystery.” The mystery of Asher Lev is how and why he came to be a “prodigy in payos,” as his future mentor will call him, endowed with what the novel and play call a “unique and disquieting gift.” This impossible quest to remain true both to his family and his art is at the heart of this memoir. But as in Potok’s novel, its most powerful moments occur when Asher is a character in, rather than the narrator of, his own story.

As a child, Asher is compelled to draw, he tells us in one of many flashback monologues, which work better on the page than the stage. He cannot stop, not even when his father, Aryeh (the compelling Mark Nelson) commands him to do so. While Aryeh lacks his son’s artistic gift, he does not lack his compulsion. Just as his son must draw, Aryeh, one of the Rebbe’s most trusted assistants, is passionately committed to saving Jews in what is then the Soviet Union. This work involves constant travel and long absences. Asher’s first true rebellion (after refusing to stop drawing) occurs when he refuses to accompany his father and mother to Vienna to save Jewish souls after the death of Stalin.

The Rebbe (also played by Mark Nelson), the political/spiritual leader of his tightly knit Hasidic community, devises a Solomonic solution to the contest of wills: Aryeh goes to Vienna, and Rivkeh, Asher’s kind mother, who is torn between her husband and son, stays in Brooklyn with Asher. The Rebbe, portrayed as a wise, compassionate pragmatist, also averts the crisis between father and son by recognizing that Asher’s gift cannot be denied; he introduces him to the third, and decisive, mentor in young Asher’s life—Jacob Kahn, a celebrated Jewish sculptor whose only religion is art.

Potok created nuanced characters who were not stereotypes in their time. Rivkeh (played by Jenny Bacon) could have been portrayed as a victim of such powerful men. But after the loss of her brother, which nearly destroys her, she too rebels against the strictures of Hasidic family life and insists on enrolling in Russian studies at Brooklyn College. It’s a small protest, especially compared to the sex, drugs, and full-blown women’s liberation movement pioneered by other Jewish women a decade later. But one believes the quiet strength that would have attracted Aryeh Lev to her. Though constantly pulled between the two willful men she loves, she is no doormat.

Mark Nelson convincingly plays the father Aryeh, the Rebbe, and Jacob Kahn, the aging artist who recognizes Asher’s talent and mentors him and is as stern in his own way as Asher’s father. Jenny Bacon is credible as mother Rivkeh, but even better in two other, more sensual parts: the less important, gallery-owning Anna Schaeffer, who shows his breakthrough paintings, and a nude model named Rachel, a symbol of everything trayf in the secular new goyische world in which Asher will soon live. Gordon Edelstein’s direction moves the narrative along and adds memorable touches—mother Rivkeh, standing by the window watching as those she loves leave, hoping for their return.

The play’s weaknesses are those of the novel and its era. Asher, of course, winds up painting two stunning crucifixions with his parents as subjects—a project that humiliates the parents he loves and enrages many in their community from which he is already destined to be expelled—forced out to freedom. But the novel, and hence the play, avoids framing the story in ways that might be tougher on the audience. Asher’s rejection of his comfortable but confining Hasidic life is ultimately inevitable because he is widely recognized as a potential Jewish Picasso, a “magnificent” master of his craft, as Anna and Jacob repeatedly tell him. But suppose he were less talented, but equally committed to his art? Would the choice between remaining part of an observant, sustaining community of believers and the pagan world of art not be more difficult—and dramatically more interesting? What if Asher Lev had been asked to choose between remaining part of his Orthodox world and the risk of becoming a second-rate or unrecognized painter? Or as Jacob Kahn denigrates artistic hacks of his own artistic faith, a painter of “calendars for matzoh companies” and “Rosh Hashanah greeting cards”?

That is a theme that is bravely explored by Ayad Akhtar, a young novelist and screenwriter in Disgraced, a play at the Lincoln Center’s intimate Claire Tow Theater, that explores the choices of its main character, Amir Kapoor, a Pakistani-Muslim who grew up in New York to immigrant parents. Amir is hoping to make partner in a competitive law firm of mostly Jewish partners that specializes in mergers and acquisitions. The play is set in an Upper East Side Yuppie apartment in the summer of 2011—effectively evoked by Lauren Helpern’s haute Bloomingdale’s décor—hung with the trappings of success. As it opens, Amir (the edgy, compelling Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart) seems happily upwardly mobile and assimilated. Married to Emily, a blonde non-Muslim artist coming into her own, he speaks without accent, swills scotch, loves pork, and spends a third of his salary on $600 Charvet shirts and hand-tailored suits.

Emily (Heidi Armbruster), whom he has taken with him on trips to the Middle East, is inspired by Islamic art and in general by things Islamic—the purity and integrity of its abstract designs and its “submission,” not to the religion, but to pattern, repetition, and to finding something larger than oneself through its constraints. But Amir clearly isn’t buying it. When his nephew Hussein Malik—who has renamed himself Abe Jensen—comes to enlist his help as a lawyer for an imam who he claims is being unjustly imprisoned on terrorism charges, Amir reminds Hussein and Emily of some of the less appealing aspects of the world he has left behind—the “backward way of thinking, and being,” the prejudice against Jews, and even his mother’s bare toleration of his marriage to a non-Muslim Western woman. Amir resists getting involved in the imam’s case. “What does any of this have to do with me?” he asks, proclaiming his distance from the cause and community that keep trying to reclaim him.

Succumbing to Emily’s pleas, he reluctantly agrees to help. When the New York Times quotes him during the imam’s court appearance—making it appear, inaccurately, that he was acting as the imam’s legal counsel—and identifies his firm, Amir senses that this spells trouble for him.

The play’s emotional climax occurs during a dinner party that Amir and Emily host for another equally upwardly mobile couple—Isaac (Erik Jensen), a Jewish art curator at the Whitney, who must decide whether to include some of Emily’s work in his next show, and his black wife Jory (Karen Pittman, another jewel), who is Amir’s colleague at the firm and who also wants to be a partner. When Isaac expresses enthusiasm for Emily’s new Islamic-inspired art, Amir bridles. They should read the Quran, he suggests—which he calls “one very long hate mail letter to humanity.” When Isaac suggests that one must distinguish between Islam, the religion, and Islamo-Fascism, its political use, Amir replies that Islam makes no distinction: There is no separation between religion and state. He is an apostate, someone who has renounced Islam, he tells them proudly, as the women try changing subjects by discussing Emily’s salad of fennel and anchovies.

As the dinner progresses, the couples spar over whether wife-beating is permitted by the Quran—centuries of practice suggest that it is, Amir argues—and whether France was correct to have banned the veil. Finally, Isaac accuses Amir of being a self-hating Muslim. In response, Amir keeps drinking and argues that it’s not enough for a Muslim to believe that the Quran is the literal word of God, he must “fight for it, too”—as well as stone adulterers and cut off the hands of thieves. “So,” he plows on, “even if you’re one of those lapsed Muslims sipping your after-dinner scotch alongside your beautiful white American wife—and watching the news and seeing folks in the Middle East dying for values you were taught were purer—and stricter—and truer. You can’t help but feel just a little bit of pride.”

“Did you feel that way on Sept. 11?” Isaac shoots back.

“If I’m honest, yes. I was horrified by it, OK?” Amir adds quickly. “Absolutely horrified.” But he is honest enough to acknowledge that although he has renounced Islam and despises the terrorism conducted in its name, he cannot totally divorce himself from the traditions, culture, and values of the faith in which he was raised. He confesses to having felt a tinge of pride that “we were finally winning.”

The silence that follows is deafening. Emily senses, probably not for the first time, that she may not really know the man she has married. Instinctively rushing to his defense, she insists that he does not really mean what he has said. He does, of course, and he doesn’t. Just as Asher Lev understands himself to be an observant Jew and a traitor to his faith, Amir too is an apostate who believes or fears that at some level he cannot totally abandon his identity.

From this moment of explosive honesty, Amir’s life—his marriage, his job, and ultimately, his sense of who he is—starts unraveling. Unlike Asher Lev, Amir cannot escape the world of his fathers, not only because an America traumatized by Sept. 11 singles out Muslims at airport security lines and takes other measures to ensure that assimilation for Muslims may always be conditional. Amir cannot escape because he is not comfortable with, or even certain of his own identity. He has misled his employers about where his parents were born, it turns out, consciously, or subconsciously, to avoid the stigma of militant Islam. Akhtar has written a compelling character who remains suspended between two worlds. Unlike Asher, he is not a star, not quite good or confident enough to be accepted by the secular American society he so yearns to embrace.

The play has its weaknesses. (Minor spoiler alert: Someone should teach the super-talented Aasif Mandvi how to do an effective stage slap.) And there are a few too many predictable moments. When Amir senses that he is failing professionally—for complex reasons that are partly his own fault—and carries his scotch out onto the terrace, you pray he will not smash the glass against the wall. But these are quibbles. Disgraced is a bold, powerful foray into a world that most writers hesitate to enter and an exploration of themes that most fear to explore. Sensitively acted, crisply directed, and written with piercing, honest prose, the play will close all too soon in this limited run. It should not be missed.


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Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.