Date of Award

7-2016

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

English

First Advisor

Cheryl Duffus

Abstract

Questions of identity and exile are deep in the bones of the Jewish people. In this thesis I will discuss the manifestations of exile and identity in the works of Chaim Potok, a Jewish-American novelist. Potok’s work has long been excluded from the canon of Jewish-American criticism. I suspect this exclusion is due to critical oversight, as Potok’s characters lead more traditional Jewish lives in terms of religious beliefs, backgrounds, and behaviors. In order to prove the critical value of Potok’s work I will note the gaps in Jewish-American criticism where Potok’s work is missing. Then I will concentrate around two of Potok’s novels, The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, examining these works in terms of exile and identity themes that come across in other Jewish-American works. By finding the aforementioned gaps in Jewish-American criticism and explaining the characteristics of Potok’s novels that fill those gaps, I will connect the new ideas of Potok with the more accepted ideas of other Jewish authors. For many years, Jewish-American authors have remained distanced from their traditional Jewish roots and have written about characters who remained distanced from these roots as well. The choice between Jewish religious tradition and progress in the secular world was just that, a choice. Jewish-American characters were either more Jewish than they were American, or more American than they were Jewish. Through Chaim Potok’s characterization of Danny Saunders, Reuven Malter, and Asher Lev, Potok creates narratives that allow for characters to have a third alternative: to remain faithful to Jewish religious tradition and participate in secular American life. This thesis serves to claim that Chaim Potok’s hopefulness, depicted in The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev must be married with a more typically “Jewish” bitterness in order to provide a clear picture of Jewish-American identity that is true for our world today. Incorporating Chaim Potok’s work into the Jewish-American canon would broaden the spectrum of Jews who are represented in Jewish-American literature and eliminate the pervasive idea of how a Jewish author is supposed to write.

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