My Name is Asher Lev is about Asher's development as an artist with a focus on the conflicts this raises for him with the religion with which he has been raised. When Asher is younger, this conflict is more external. His artistic impulse drives him to do certain things of which others in his community disapprove. The story explores how a younger Asher deals with impulses that he does not completely understand and with a community that often chastises him for succumbing to them.
As Asher grows, the conflict becomes more overt. He makes more conscious decisions about which trade-offs he wants to make. Toward the end of the book, the conflict becomes one not only of Asher's art, but of his need to express his feelings through it. The only way Asher knows of expressing his mother's pain is through a Christian symbol. Asher's art has led him to adopt a world that is antithetical to his Ladover society, to derive meaning from Christian symbols.
For much of the book, it looks like a balance can be found between religion and art. While Asher is on the fringes of the society in which he grew up, he is at the fringes of that society. However, at the explosive end of the book, these two worlds collide and Asher chooses the world of art over the community of his parents.
Travel plays a central role in the book and appears in very different places. Early on, it is Asher's father who is traveling. He jets around America, working for the Rebbe. Later, he travels around Europe, sometimes accompanied by his wife, to fulfill his holy mission. He is impelled to travel because of his strong belief that in doing so, he is spreading God, Torah, and Truth. Asher, as he grows older, also begins to make travel a central part of the fulfillment of his life's mission. Jacob Kahn takes him traveling around the United States to attend art exhibitions. On these trips, Asher is exposed to a large variety of art he might not otherwise have seen and learns things critical to his development. Continuing in this vein, Asher feels the need to make a trip to Europe, to see large parts of the artistic heritage that were created and remain there.
When Rivkeh's brother dies at the beginning of the book, she feels a terrible pain. The work that he set out to do for the Rebbe remains unfinished. She feels the need to go to college and study so that she can go out and finish the work he began. She cannot bear the thought of allowing his work not to be finished. Asher picks up on this idea at the end of the book. His first crucifixion is unfinished. He feels like he will be a fraud—a fraud to himself if he does not create another one that more fully expresses the feelings he is trying to convey. Both Asher and his mother are driven, at different times and in very different circumstances, to perform significant actions in order that something important to each of them not remain unfinished.
Asher's payos, his earlocks, are an important symbol of how he feels about Judaism and art. The uncut tufts of hair growing from the side of his head above the ear are a distinctive feature of how he and most Ladover appear. They set him apart visually from the society of artists of which he wants to be a part. When he tucks them behind his ears, the first summer he spends in Provincetown, it shows confusion on his part. He wants to fit into the artistic world and is worried that the earlocks might prevent him from doing that. Yet, he does not have the conviction to simply chop them off. He still bears an attachment to them. The summer after his parents have returned from their years in Vienna, Asher is far more mature. A college student and a much more accomplished artist, he feels much more confident of himself and his decisions. He expresses his independence by cutting off his earlocks. He also expresses disregard for tradition and distance form his father. After all, Asher has noted that his father wore earlocks because his father did. For Asher, this is not sufficient reason to perpetuate the hairstyle.
The Rebbe, the spiritual leader of the Ladover community, takes on an almost divine status. To the people in the Ladover community, he is an omniscient leader, to be listened to in all circumstances. He is a father to all, one whose permission needs to be asked before one deviates from the standard path. We see specific instances of this in his interactions with the Lev family. First, Rivkeh, because she is a woman, needs to ask the Rebbe's permission to go to college. Aryeh is highly respected and his travel seen as special because it is done in the service of the Rebbe. Finally, Asher's life path is severely influenced by the Rebbe. The Rebbe decides that Asher will study with Jacob Kahn, against the wishes of Asher's father. Even as Asher gets older, the Rebbe is able to tell him to study French and Russian. Still, the Rebbe knows his limits. He does not, for instance, tell Asher to stop painting. Nevertheless, the Rebbe appears as a dominating and all-knowing force in the Ladover community.
When Asher is little, he is told the story of his great-great-great-grandfather, a man who created immense wealth for himself and his employer and who, in middle age began to travel a lot. He traveled, his parents told him, to spread the word of God and to comfort those in need. This man appears to Asher many times in dreams as a representative of his past, his history. As history is a vital part of Jewish life, this man becomes a symbol for Asher of the ways he is supposed to act. The man haunts him when he steps out of line. When Asher is away in Europe, he rediscovers his mythic ancestor and appropriates him for his own use. He imagines that his ancestor had unbalanced the world and was traveling in order to right the wrongs he had done. Asher finds a new way of connecting with his heritage, with his past. He imagines himself aligned with this man, as he, too, feels that he has unbalanced the world. Through his need to create art, Asher has created much tumult. He, too, hopes to correct the way he has left the world out of balance.