The late novelist Chaim Potok often said his most autobiographical character was Asher Lev, a boy raised in a strictly Orthodox home who longs to be an artist. In the 1972 novel My Name Is Asher Lev, the artist risks the ostracism of his family and community when he paints an image they consider blasphemous.
In real life, however, Potok was embraced by the wider Jewish community, an embrace that continues more than a decade after his death in 2002. With its ageless depiction of the struggle between parents and children, a stage version of My Name is Asher Lev has been playing Off-Broadway to critical acclaim.
The play also has strong links to New Jersey’s Jewish community. Sharon Karmazin, a resident of East Brunswick, is its producer, and among the cast are performers from Teaneck and Westwood.
Karmazin, a strong supporter of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and Rutgers Hillel, has arranged for a special program in which cast and production team members will answer questions and talk about the play.
Tickets for the Sunday, March 3, program are being offered by the Middlesex federation, Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, Rutgers Hillel, Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, and Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
Reaction to the play has been “incredible,” said Karmazin. “I get calls and e-mails from people to tell me how much they love it. It resonates with people of all ages.”
My Name Is Asher Lev opened at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre and played throughout the country before opening Nov. 28 at the Westside Theatre in New York. Potok’s widow, Adena Potok, assisted Aaron Posner — who collaborated with the author to bring his The Chosen to the stage in 1999 — in this latest production.
For Adena Potok, helping to bring her late husband’s work to the stage is “a labor of love.”
“Asher Lev is timeless,” she told NJJN in a phone interview from her home in Lower Merion, Pa., outside Philadelphia. “Chaim always wrote about the conflict between good and good, not good and evil. He was interested in exploring different goods and different aspirations, different interpretations of life and beliefs, and every one of his books explored the conflicts that erupt in families.”
Describing herself as “a kind of midwife” for Posner, Potok said she provided information on Jewish background, history, theology, religious life, and Yiddish terms.
“I attended virtually every rehearsal [in Philadelphia] except those on Shabbat,” said Potok, whose daughter, Naama, is an understudy for the role of Asher’s mother. “To see the play becoming a play was quite an experience. I was there opening night in New York. It was very, very powerful. The response was electric.”
Karmazin, who received a Tony Award last year when another play she produced — Clybourne Park — was named best play, has been nominated for a Tony four times and has produced about a dozen plays. Some, including 13 and Golda’s Balcony, have had Jewish themes.
Her latest Broadway production, Hands on a Hardbody, went into previews Feb. 23 and will open March 21 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Asher Lev has a “universal theme” that makes it appealing to a wide spectrum of audiences, said Karmazin. “Jewish people react and identify with the Jewishness of the story; others identify with the generational theme of someone who must leave a tradition to pursue a passion that goes beyond religion,” she said. “It’s the same reason the book has been a classic for 50 years.”
Karmazin, retired as director of the East Brunswick Public Library, got her start in producing through her involvement at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, where Anne Meara’s Down a Garden Path debuted in 1999 and moved to Off-Broadway.
“I became one of the producers and became so interested in producing I took a course at the Theatre Development Fund,” said Karmazin, who received her first Tony nomination in 2002 for Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses.
In addition to her theatrical pursuits, the Douglass College alumna in 1996 established the family-run Karma Foundation, assisting activities and programs in arts, culture, autism, education, literacy, health and human services, and the development and enrichment of Jewish life
It provides funding for the Middlesex federation’s J Team teen philanthropy, Rutgers Hillel alternative spring break, and the Rutgers Jewish film festival.
For her service to Rutgers, Karmazin will receive the Douglass Medal at the college’s reunion on June 1.
The play also has other NJ connections. Ilana Levine, who took over the role of Asher’s mother on Feb. 26, is from Teaneck. Mark Nelson, who plays Asher’s father, grew up in Westwood and is a lecturer in theater at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts.