Leon Feinberg

Yiddish Literature

Yiddish Literature, writings by Jews in the Yiddish language, produced mainly in Eastern Europe and the United States. Yiddish literature may be divided into three periods: the period of preparation, the classical age, and the postclassical period.

The Period of Preparation

As early as the 12th century, Jewish minstrels wandered through Germany reciting Yiddish translations of contemporary Gentile verse romances. Aside from these, Yiddish literature before the 19th century consisted mainly of devotional works designed to make the Jewish religion intelligible to everyone. The best known of these writings is the Tz'enah ur'enah, a free reworking of stories from the Pentateuch, composed by Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi. Other notable examples of devotional literature are the Maaseh Buch (Story Book, 16th century), a collection of moralistic tales, and the Tehinnot, devotional prayers for women. The only noteworthy nondevotional works written before the 19th century are the memoirs (first pub. 1896; trans. 1932) of Glueckel of Hameln, which abound in perceptive descriptions of contemporary German Jewish family life; and the diary of the first Swedish Jew, Aaron Isaac.

Yiddish literature flourished under three main influences, Haskalah, Hasidism (see Hasidim), and anti-Semitism. Haskalah (Hebrew, "enlightenment"), an 18th-century movement to familiarize Jews with Western culture, was initiated by the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. The leaders of the Haskalah, regarding Yiddish merely as a jargon, preferred Hebrew or the languages of their countries of citizenship. Nevertheless, they were compelled to write in Yiddish, for it was the language of the masses. Hasidism, a popular religious movement opposing official Judaism, helped to give dignity to the Yiddish language and literature. Anti-Semitism intensified the self-consciousness of the Jews and their appreciation of Jewish culture. As a result of such experiences as the series of Russian pogroms (see Pogrom) launched by the czarist government in 1881, many Jews of Eastern Europe lost all hope of ever participating in general European culture.

The Classical Age

The brief classical age of Yiddish literature, from the late 19th to the early 20th century, is epitomized in three great writers of fiction: Shalom Jacob Abramowitz, better known as Mendele Mokher Sefarim (Mendele the Itinerant Bookseller); Shalom Aleichem; and Isaac Leib Peretz. All wrote about everyday life in the Jewish Pale of western Russia and particularly about life in the shtetl, the Jewish village. Their work represents a balancing of folk and literary influences and shows an awareness of life outside their ghettos.
Mendele Mokher Sefarim was the first to use Yiddish as a vehicle of literary creation. In his stories he combined a compassionate love for his people with a rejection of the degradations of ghetto life and of the stultifying influence of antiquated Jewish traditions. Shalom Aleichem, the most loved of all Yiddish writers, depicted with humor, sadness, and tenderness the characters in the ghetto. Peretz, who had assimilated the influences of the great Russian authors of his time and of the classic literature of Western Europe, was the most intellectual and the most cosmopolitan of the three writers. His stories and novelettes have a psychological subtlety worthy of his Western European masters.

The Postclassical Period

After 1914 the traditional Jewish life of Eastern Europe began to disintegrate under the impact of wars, migrations, revolutions, and persecutions. Many Yiddish writers who survived the succession of catastrophes fled to the United States and settled in New York City, which soon became a Yiddish literary center second only to Warsaw in importance; some migrated to the countries of Western Europe or to Palestine. Others, living in Russia, were affected greatly by the turmoil of the Bolshevik revolution. Among the most outstanding Yiddish authors of this period were Abraham Reisen, who wrote poetry and evocative short stories based on his poverty-stricken childhood; Sholem Asch, who is known to non-Jewish readers for his novels about the beginnings of Christianity; Israel Joshua Singer, author of The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936; trans. 1936), who, along with Asch, helped to perfect the full-length Yiddish novel; and Zalman Schneour, who introduced erotic themes into Jewish writing. The social realists Moshe Kulbak, a poet, novelist, and dramatist, and David Bergelson, a novelist and journalist, were among the many Soviet Yiddish writers liquidated in the purges that were carried out during Stalin's dictatorship. A group of gifted American Yiddish writers known as the Young Ones, including Leivick Halpern, known under the pen name H. Leivick, and Joseph Opatoshu, rebelled against the emphasis on social problems in many Yiddish works of the period; instead, they stressed individual creativity and pure art. Another group of immigrant poets and writers, including Jacob Glatstein and Aaron Glanz, treated various cosmopolitan themes. The stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, although they often deal with lofty and tragic themes of the Jewish faith and its perversion, are frequently tinged with fantasy.

Poetry, Drama, and Journalism

Yiddish poetry did not attain true literary merit until the 20th century. All the leading poets were born in Eastern Europe; most of them eventually migrated to the U.S. or to Palestine. The outstanding poets were Simon Samuel Frug, who wrote songs expressing his yearning for Zion; Morris Rosenfeld, who spent much of his life in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City and who composed impassioned protests against the sufferings of Jewish workers in the slums and sweatshops there; and Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the greatest of modern Hebrew poets, who also wrote verses in Yiddish. Other noteworthy poets include Melech Ravitch, who settled in Montréal, and three writers who went to the U.S.: Aaron Zeitlin, Itzik Manger, and Chaim Grade. Grade was noted for his poems of the Holocaust and his short stories re-creating the life of yeshiva students.
Yiddish drama began to achieve artistic distinction only toward the end of the 19th century, largely through the work of the playwrights Jacob Gordin; Shloime Anski, author of the well-known Between Two Worlds, or The Dybbuk (1916; trans. 1926); and David Pinski. Abraham Goldfaden founded a Yiddish theater in Iasi, Romania, in 1876. Theaters were also established thereafter in Odesa, Warsaw, Vilnius (Vilna), and other cities in the Jewish Pale. After 1883, when the Russian government closed Yiddish theaters, most of the actors moved to New York City, which then became the center of the Yiddish stage; into the 1980s plays, and especially musical comedies, in Yiddish have remained popular. At their zenith, the Vilna Troupe, the Moscow Yiddish State Theater, and the Yiddish Art Theater of New York were among the finest drama groups in the world. Each year since 1915 in New York City the Folksbiene, or People's Stage, has presented at least one production a season. One of the most famous of all Yiddish amateur theatrical groups, it is devoted to plays of serious literary worth, by Jews and non-Jews, contemporary work and the older repertoire.
Journalism figured significantly in the development of Yiddish literature. Because the demand for books was limited by the poverty of potential readers, most writers depended on newspapers both for livelihood and as outlets for their creative work. The first successful Yiddish newspaper was the weekly Kol Mevasser (The Voice That Brings Tidings), founded in Odesa in 1863. In 1865 the first Yiddish daily newspaper, Yiddishes Tageblat, was founded in New York City. The Jewish Forward, established as a daily in New York City by the American editor and author Abraham Cahan in 1897, and still being published weekly (in Yiddish and in English), attained a large circulation.

Recent Developments

Yiddish literature generally catches the special flavor of ghetto life, particularly its deprivations, narrowness, and insecurity. It reflects also the warmth and personal feeling of people who have little contact with the land or with the larger world about them, and whose relationships are mainly with each other and with their God. Life in the New World, however, gradually stimulated a more universal orientation in Yiddish literature. Chief among the interpreters of the new culture were Max Weinreich, a historian; Abraham Joshua Heschel, a philosopher and theologian; and Haim Greenberg, an essayist and proponent of Zionism.
The Holocaust is reflected in many Yiddish literary works-records of martyrdom and heroism and inquiries into the nature of evil. Outstanding among these are the poetry and drama of Itzhak Katzenelson, who took part in the Warsaw ghetto uprising and was executed in a concentration camp. One of his poems, written in 1943-44, is considered to be among the greatest literary expressions of the Holocaust tragedy. Other witnesses to the tragedy are Emanuel Ringelblum, who perished in the uprising, author of Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (1952; trans. 1958); and Elie Wiesel, author of many novels concerned with the Holocaust. Wiesel, who lives in France and New York City and now writes in French, is nevertheless steeped in the spirit of eastern European Jewish culture. By the 1980s Yiddish writing showed a slight resurgence in several parts of the world: in the works of younger writers such as Leybel Botwinik, in Montr�al, founder of a Yiddish periodical New Generation (1978), and Elinor Robinson, a non-Jewish English poet who has written in Yiddish.
Melech Ravitch edited a three-volume anthology of Yiddish writers (1954-58), and the American critics Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg coedited several anthologies of Yiddish stories, poetry, essays, and memoirs.

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