A dream Rabbi Daniel Grodnitzky has had for nearly six years will finally come to fruition next weekend.
Chabad Jewish Center for Students in Philadelphia and the Kugel Collaborative: A Jewish Student Arts Space will put on a production of My Name is Asher Lev, an adaptation by Aaron Posner of the novel by Philadelphian Chaim Potok, at the Gershman Y starting on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m.
The play tells the story of a young painter torn between his Chasidic upbringing and his passion for art and how it affects his relationships with his family and community.
It’s a play that Grodnitzky has wanted to put on at the University of the Arts for a while, especially because of the significance of Potok’s history in Philadelphia, but the timing — until now — wasn’t right. Fortunately, the play’s director, UArts sophomore Ethan Abrams, wanted to direct the play as much as Grodnitzky wanted to produce it.
“[Potok’s] whole inspiration for writing the book My Name is Asher Lev is from his connections to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which came about through his connection to the head emissary in Philadelphia, Rabbi [Abraham] Shemtov, who started bringing Chaim to the Rebbe in Brooklyn in the early ’70s,” Grodnitzky explained.
The Asher Lev character has a close connection to the rebbe in his community, who even sets Asher up with an artist mentor upon learning of Asher’s talent and passion.
“I’d always felt there’s such a deep story to tell — particularly being a part of Chabad-Lubavitch and the story really revolving around Chabad-Lubavitch,” Grodnitzky said. “That we could tell the story in a very unique way, having some of the background, secret information that maybe outsiders wouldn’t have … of just how unique Potok’s relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe was and just how it informed his writing of the book.”
Grodnitzky served as the production’s dramaturg to provide historical context and help the students with their Yiddish pronunciation.
“The story is written in more of a post-Holocaust, postwar-type era, but it’s still so significant today that there’s still maybe certain lines that people put up to divide religiosity from what people might consider more secular pursuits,” he said. “And this story is about, one, the friction that can be created to kind of join those two together, but also some of the incredible things can come out of using it if it’s done properly.
“There’s also so many universal themes and really deep lessons in the story about a child struggling to grow up and questioning who he is and his relationship with his parents,” he continued, “and there’s a lot of powerful scenes about his relationship with his parents and him trying to find himself, which I think are just really commonplace in everybody’s experience.”
Grodnitzky had a personal connection to Asher Lev’s experience, too.
Although he is now a Chabad rabbi, he grew up in Abington as a rebellious, non-observant Jewish boy — a hippie with dreadlocks trying to buck societal standards.
“I was a musician and artist and still am somewhat, and then, interestingly, all that led me to really discovering, thank God, how much there was in my own religion that I never realized,” he said.
Like Asher Lev, Grodnitzky found a connection between Judaism and the arts, especially as he sought out arts schools when looking to start a Chabad House. In the play, Lev remains true to his roots while pursuing his passion — which was compelling, as Grodnitzky says, since his art may have defied what was deemed normal or traditional (Lev is most fixated on painting nudes and crucifixions).
Though, as Ethan Abrams notes, you won’t really see the art, which is the point. As in the novel, there are few details about the art itself.
“It talks about them but never shows them, so it lets the audience project their own imagination onto the play and allows every person to have a unique experience where they project their own feelings and beliefs onto the characters,” he explained.
For the directing major from Cherry Hill, Asher Lev’s art brings up the notion of censorship in art.
“My Name is Asher Lev really brings up an intricate and beautiful story in which the censorship of Asher’s art comes from something he feels so passionately about, being his faith, his religion, his family, his friends and his community,” he said.
While censorship is usually brought up in regard to propaganda and politics, he added, in this case, it’s about how “the art that we create really does make people feel things and what happens when you create that makes people feel poorly.”
Directing this play has been an “absolutely phenomenal” experience, Abrams said, and he hopes it inspires dialogue.
“The story is really important to tell specifically right now with where we are as a nation,” he noted. “There’s a lot of talk in the artistic community about generating art about our times, but not only political art but art that showcases how we feel, to help express ourselves in times when many members of the artistic community are being silenced as well as many members of politics themselves who are not part of the artistic community, per se, are being silenced in politics.
“Silencing someone is similar to censoring someone,” he continued, “and so Asher’s story about how he goes about generating art that is self-expressive of him and his need, drive and desire to do so is incredibly relevant to today and the drive of both the artistic and political community in expressing themselves in the state that our nation is in at the moment.”
Grodnitzky is looking forward to seeing the audience’s reaction.
“We hope they’ll leave with lots of questions about their own Jewish identity, own relationship with the Torah and realizing that there’s many paths to the same point,” he said, “that they should never assume the religious world or Chasidic world is totally black and white — there’s a lot of shades of how you can be part of this beautiful palate of the Jewish experience.”
My Name is Asher Lev plays at the Gershman Y Feb. 25 at 8 p.m., Feb. 26 at 2 and 8 p.m. and Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at mynameisasherlev.eventbrite.com.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740