"I can't help it, Papa," I said.
"A man has a will," my father said. "Do you understand me, Asher? [God] gave every man a will. Every man is responsible for what he does, because he has a will and by that will he directs his life. There is no such thing as a man who can't help it. Only a sick man can't help it."
"I have a will, Papa. It makes me want to draw."
"I was watching you," he said quietly. "I used to pray once. Do you talk to God when you pray?"
"I have lost that faculty. I cannot pray. I talk to God through my sculpture and painting."
"That's also prayer."
He smiled faintly, the morning sun on his face. "The Rebbe said precisely that. You are following the party line, Asher Lev. But we know it is not the same thing, don't we?"
"I love gossip. It is one of my more delicious weaknesses."
"Florence is a gift."
"How do you explain a man who has a master's degree in political science, has traveled through half the world, has lived in Europe for years, and doesn't understand the first thing about painting?"
"Asher Lev, there are professors of art who do not understand the first thing about painting."
"Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way."
"Or a laugh," she said. "Picasso laughs, too."
"Or a laugh," he said.
He said to me two days later, "What are you painting?"
I said, "A classmate."
"Do you hate him?"
I was quiet.
"You hate him and are afraid to paint your hatred. Yes?"
I did not say anything.
"It is a false painting. It reeks of cowardice and indecision. In art, cowardice and indecision can be seen in every stroke of a brush. If you hate him, pain your hatred or do not paint him at all. One must not paint everything one feels. But once you decide to paint something, you must paint the truth or you will paint green rot. This boy in your class he mistreats you?"
"He is mean to you? He laughs at you?"
"These marks on his face—they are pimples?"
"And you hate him?"
"Then paint him the way you feel about him. Use your lines and colors and shapes to make your statement simply and clearly. Do you understand?"
He came over to me later and peered at the canvas. He nodded slowly. "It is an excellent painting." He looked at me soberly. "I would not like to be hated by you, Asher Lev."
"This is the world you want to make sacred. You had better learn it well first before you begin."
"These are Jewish lives, Asher. Nothing is more important in the eyes of the Master of the Universe than a Jewish life."
"Any man who has caused a single Jewish soul to perish, the Torah considers it as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and any man who has saved a Jewish soul, it is as if he had saved a whole world."
"Is it dead, Papa?" I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.
"Yes," I heard him say in a sad and distant way.
"Why did it die?"
"Everything that lives must die."
"You, too, Papa? And Mama?"
"Yes," he said. Then he added in Yiddish, "But may it be only after you live a long and good life, my Asher."
I couldn't grasp it. I forced myself to look at the bird. Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?
"Why?" I asked.
"That the way [God] made His world, Asher."
"So life would be precious, Asher. Something that is yours forever is never precious."
"Be a great painter, Asher Lev." He was still looking out the window at the sun and the sky. "That will be the only justification for all the pain your art will cause."
"Someone once asked how it is possible to establish a connection between man and the Master of the Universe. The answer was that man must take the first step. In order for there to be a connection between man and the Master of the Universe, there must first be an opening, a passageway, even a passageway as small as the eye of a needle. But man must make the opening by himself; man must take the beginning step. Then the Master of the Universe will move in, as it were, and widen the passageway."
Gently, my father put his hand on my cheek.
"It's not a pretty world, Papa."
"I've noticed," my father said gently.
"A regular Chagall," my uncle said.
I turned in my chair and looked up at him. "No," I said. "My name is Asher Lev."
I gazed out the window. "I've never seen so much snow. Is there this much snow in Siberia, Mama?"
She looked at me. After a moment she said, "More, Asher. Much more."
"More snow than this? How can anyone live eleven years in more snow than this?"
My mother was quiet.