Nearly all of Sholem Asch’s works are related, in a broad sense, to some religious concern. His many themes are clearly intertwined: the simple, traditional life of the Jew; saintliness in the quest for God and service to humans; the ugliness of poverty but the distinct possibility of meaningful beauty even in poverty; the emptiness of a purely material existence; the Jewish roots of Christianity and the need to close the gap between the two faiths. In fact, faith in both its meanings—trust in God and different institutionalized ways of reaching Him—is a thread running through all of Asch’s works, but especially his later works.
The Little Town
Even in his first major work, The Little Town, Asch had romanticized the inwardness of Jewish life in the shtetl, a different approach from the ridicule usually heaped upon the backward enclaves in literature. Asch perceived nobility and charm in the poverty-ridden, filth-infested shtetl.
Similarly, Asch dealt with spiritual and sacrificial heroism before dealing with it directly in Kiddush Hashem. Living far out in the Padolian steppe, a Jewish innkeeper, Mendel, dreams of the day when other Jews will join him in the town and enable him to build a synagogue and lead a Jewish existence. Mendel eventually overcomes the threats of the local priest, and a small but flourishing Jewish community comes into being. Mendel and the congregation are dangerously sandwiched between the machinations of the Catholic priest and the Greek Orthodox priest. The former is intent on humbling the latter. What better means of debasing his rival than to force him to go to the Jew Mendel to obtain the key to his own church? In his frustration, the Orthodox priest threatens Mendel: Sooner or later “the little brothers” will come to liberate the peasants from the Polish lords and the filthy Jews.
The little brothers eventually come, under the leadership of Bogdan Chmelnitzky, and lay waste not only to Mendel’s but also to every Jewish community far and wide. Mendel’s attachment to his synagogue is such that he refuses to leave, but the rabbi reminds him that the synagogue is only stone, while a human life is a human life. Mendel’s Jews flee, joining the stream of refugees; they put up a heroic fight with virtually no weapons. They are finally conquered through the betrayal of the Polish lords, who are only too willing to sacrifice their Jewish allies in the mistaken belief that they can thereby save themselves.
Through Mendel and his family, which includes a learned son and his beautiful wife, Asch depicts the simplicity and piety of Jewish life and the Jews’ willingness to live and die for “the sanctification of the name.” Jews are offered a chance to save their lives by bowing before the Cross, but they will bow only before their one and only God. All resist the easy way out, sacrificially preferring to suffer cruelty, death, and martyrdom. Although the body may be destroyed, the will and spirit are indestructible. Asch only implies that the Jews’ imperishable faith in God has ensured their survival in the past and will ensure it in the future.
Charles Madison has stated that “Asch’s compassionate brooding gives the tragic tale the poignant quality of imaginative truth.” This critic has also distinguished between two forms of martyrdom—Mendel’s, which is not a pure martyrdom in that it is wholly passive, and his daughter-in-law’s, which is active: She persuades the Cossack captor who loves her that he should shoot her, on the pretense that no bullet can hurt her.
Kiddush Hashem is perhaps Asch’s only novel in which religious motifs and Jewish historical destiny, especially the Jews’ suffering for their survival as a group, fuse successfully. The structure of the novel, on the other hand, is awkward, which prevents it from becoming the masterpiece it might have been.
Mottke the Thief
If The Little Town and Kiddush Hashem are, to use Liptzin’s words, in a Sabbath mood, Mottke the Thief is decidedly workaday. Asch abandons the idealized Jews of earlier works to offer such sad human specimens as Blind Layb and Red Slatke, Mottke’s parents. Layb is a vicious, irresponsible father whose only guidance to his child is the lash, which he uses freely and cruelly. Not only is Jewish life imperfect in Mottke the Thief, in spite of some obedience to forms and tradition, but it also exists on the lowest levels of humanity. Asch shows an exceptional virtuosity in this novel. The first half combines picaresque with gargantuan, larger-than-life features; the second half is Zolaesque in its depressing naturalism. The abused Mottke, first open enough to seek affection even from a curious dog, is transformed into a callous pimp and murderer, a development that calls for considerable skill, which Asch demonstrates in good measure.
Asch’s earlier work might have given rise to the impression that there was something do-goodish in the writer, that his feet were not firmly planted on the ground. With the creation of Mottke, this impression was swept aside. From the moment Mottke joins a group of vaudevillians, uses and abuses them, seduces or is seduced by Mary, the rope dancer, and competes with the treacherous Kanarik, he becomes a character apart from any that Asch had previously created. The erstwhile thief’s descent into total depravity continues. With Mary’s help, he kills Kanarik, assumes Kanarik’s identity, and acquires his own small staff of prostitutes. Yet the Mottke who had once enjoyed something of a Jewish upbringing, however atypical, is not wholly dead. He is fatally attracted to a decent girl, and his love generates decent impulses that have long been submerged. The desire for chastity, piety, and living in the love of and reverence for God, however, has been resurrected too late. Perhaps Mottke’s conversion, which comes to naught, is not the most persuasive part of the book; in any case, Mottke is betrayed by the sweet girl he loves. Yet even in the novel’s variety of depressing settings, Asch still emerges as a man with a profound faith in faith.
Salvation, a story of the saintly Jekhiel and his quest for God and ways of serving humanity, is more in the mainstream of Asch’s fiction than is Mottke the Thief. It is probably the most purely “spiritual” of Asch’s novels—a term he himself used to describe it—and he attributed its relative failure with the reading public to the refusal of the...
(The entire section is 2716 words.)