The Chosen, My name is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, and The Book of Lights

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Assimilation and the American Jew in Potok’s The Chosen, My name is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, and The Book of Lights. America has always been a country of immigrants, since it was first settled by Europeans over five hundred years ago. Like any country with a considerable immigrant population, American has always faced the problem of assimilation. Because America was founded and settled by immigrants, her culture is a combination of the cultures of other countries. Should these immigrants isolate themselves from the mainstream American culture, or should they sacrifice the culture of their homelands for the benefits American culture has to offer? Judaism in particular has had to deal with the assimilation question. One of the world’s oldest religions, it has remained strong over its six thousand year history by remaining distinct – and isolated – from other cultures. Chaim Potok focuses on how Orthodox and Hasidic Jews have handled this problem in his books The Chosen, My name is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, and The Book of Lights. Many of Chaim Potok’s characters want the American Jewry to remain isolated from the mainstream American culture: The world kills us! The world flays our skin from our bodies and throws us into the flames! The world laughs at Torah! And if it does not kill us, it tempts us! It misleads us! It contaminates us! It asks us to join in its ugliness, its abominations! (The Chosen 127) The Chosen “deals with the problems Jews have faced in trying to preserve their heritage – in particular, the problem of how to deal with the danger of assimilation” (Young). The Jews have always been professionals occupying jobs in medicine, law, education, and other fields requiring a college degree. American Jews, however, face a dilemma: “Ideas from this secular world inevitably impinge upon an individual born in a church community or a synagogue community, especially when that individual embarks on a college experience” (Potok 2). American Jews must either take on nonprofessional jobs, assuming an identity completely different from that of European Jews, or expose themselves to secular America. Isolation is thoroughly impractical for the American Jew. Chaim Potok’s works often focus on main characters whose talents draw them to the outside world: When individuals are brought up in the heart of such a community or culture [as Danny’s and Reuven’s did in The Chosen] they learn to commit themselves to its values … They see the world through the system of values of that unique community.

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