As a teenager who was already committed to a life in the arts, Naama Potok was "extremely moved" when she read "My Name Is Asher Lev," a novel about a young man who feels compelled to become an artist even though his family is opposed to it. Her father, Chaim Potok, wrote the novel.
Forty years after the novel's publication, a stage adaptation of it by Aaron Posner is launching Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre with Naama Potok in the cast. She is the understudy for Asher's mother.
The actress was not alone in her reaction to her father's book. "A number of people told me that "My Name Is Asher Lev" changed their lives, even saved their lives," says playwright Posner. Identifying with the character, Posner noticed, did not require any direct connection to either the artist's life or Jewish tradition, though the story focuses on a Hasidic Jew growing up in Brooklyn. "People responded who grew up in one or another set of circumstances and found themselves feeling different," Posner says, "whether it was a liberal growing up in a conservative family, or a gay person in a world that didn't accept this difference."
The novelist drew partly from personal experience: "He started painting before he started writing," his daughter learned. "Apparently, this was really frowned upon by his father."
Though ordained as a rabbi, and descended from a Hasid dynasty, Chaim Potok did not grow up in a Hasidic household. He turned his characters into Hasids to heighten the opprobrium Asher must overcome. ("There are Hasidim who are artists today," Naama Potok says. "There's more acceptance now.")
As a child, Posner identified with a different Potok novel, "The Chosen." Thirteen years ago he collaborated with the author in adapting that work for the stage. "The Chosen has [since] had 40 professional productions," Posner says. The playwright had already begun exploring a second collaboration when Chaim Potok died, in 2002, at the age of 73. Debuting in 2008, My Name is Asher Lev has been produced 15 times, by the playwright's count, most recently at the Long Wharf in New Haven, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Edelstein is directing the New York premiere as well, with a cast that stars Ari Brand, who played Asher in New Haven and is joined by Mark Nelson and Jenny Bacon as his parents and several other characters. To prepare the actors for their roles, Edelstein took them on a tour of Hasidic Crown Heights, including a matzoh factory. "It was a tour I had taken in eighth grade," says Brand, who as Asher plays both the narrator and himself, ages six to 22 years old. But Brand at first struggled to understand what Asher was going through. "I've always been supported in my art," he says. It wasn't until the play was in previews at the Long Wharf that he realized his own father, Natan Brand — who died when Ari was a young child — had a remarkably similar story: Natan had been a piano prodigy in Jerusalem, a gift unappreciated by Ari's heart-surgeon grandfather.
Suddenly, Brand says, it all clicked. "As working, and sometimes non-working, actors, we're focused on paying the bills," Brand says. "It's only in the rehearsal room and on the stage that we can remember why we do all this. Because of the art. Because of the thrill of creation."
(This feature appears in the November 2012 Off-Broadway issue of Playbill magazine.)