Sholem Asch Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)
ph_0111207056-Asch.jpg Sholem Asch Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although Sholem Asch (ahsh) is remembered chiefly as a novelist, much of his early work consists of dramas. When Der Got fun Nekome (pr. 1907; The God of Vengeance, 1918) was performed on Yiddish stages in Russia and Poland, Max Reinhardt, who understood Yiddish, decided to produce it at the Deutsche Theater. This was the first time that a Yiddish work had appeared in the international literature. This play, in which a brothel owner purchases a Torah to place in his daughter’s room, hoping it will protect her from the impurities in the apartment below, was widely condemned as sacrilegious. Many other dramas followed, including adaptations of such novels as Mottke the Thief, which enjoyed considerable success on Yiddish stages.

Asch also published From Many Countries: The Collected Stories of Sholem Asch (1958) and other collections of short fiction, as well as an autobiographical essay, What I Believe (1941), in which he reacted to criticism levied against him by the Jewish community.

Sholem Asch Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Until 1950, Sholem Asch was indisputably the best-known, most translated, most successful Yiddish writer. More than anyone before him, he managed to inject the Yiddish word into world culture, making the world aware of a major literature that had been unjustly ignored. This broader world sometimes seemed more kindly disposed to him than the segment of his Jewish readers who objected to his delineation of the seamier aspects of Jewish life in some works and to his sympathetic treatment of Christianity in others. The bulk of his Jewish readers remained faithful and recognized in him a lover of the poor and weak, a God-seeker, a gentle soul keenly aware that humans did not live by bread alone.

In spite of his high regard for Christianity, Asch remained faithful to Jewish life and tradition, acutely aware of the anti-Semitism all around him. While his characters accept this intolerance as a fact of life, Asch himself could not always assume the same stance. He returned a medal awarded to him by the Polish government when he realized that the policies of that government permitted a heightened anti-Jewish feeling.

A student of the revered I. L. Peretz, whose influence he acknowledged as late as 1951, Asch went beyond the teachings of this master and dealt with topics that Yiddish literature had theretofore avoided. His work marks an abandonment of the rational ways that the Jewish enlightenment had made obligatory for Jewish writers. Like Isaac Bashevis Singer, who replaced him as the Yiddish writer on the world stage, Asch was attracted to folkloristic and irrational elements. Because of the diversity of his oeuvre, critics have found it difficult to classify Asch. There is the Romantic who idealized the life of simple Jews and insisted on the primacy of tradition and faith in faith; there is the naturalist who brilliantly depicted the milieus of thieves, jugglers, and prostitutes; there is the didactic moralist who strove to teach the meaning of the good life. There is even a hint of the publicist who fought Hitlerite anti-Semitism by underscoring the basic nobility of Jewish existence and demonstrating the common bonds uniting Judaism and Christianity. This very multiplicity suggests Asch’s enduring appeal.

Sholem Asch Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Brodwin, Stanley. “History and Martyrological Tragedy: The Jewish Experience in Sholem Asch and Andre Schwarz.” Twentieth Century Literature 40 (1994): 72-91. An excellent comparative analysis of Asch’s novel Kiddush Hashem and Andre Schwarz-Bart’s Le Dernier des justes. The novels focus on the biblical injunction of Kiddish hashem, in which both the Jewish individual and the Jewish community are called upon to sanctify the name of God by suffering martyrdom.

Fischthal, Hannah Berliner. “Christianity as a Consistent Area of Investigation of Sholem Asch’s Works Prior to The Nazarene.” Yiddish 9 (1994): 58-76. Focuses on how Asch treated Christianity in the works he wrote prior to The Nazarene, his controversial 1939 novel based on the life of Jesus Christ.

Landis, Joseph C. “Peretz, Asch, and the God of Vengeance.” Yiddish, 1995, 5-17. An article that situates Asch carefully in the tradition of Yiddish literature.

Lieberman, Herman. The Christianity of Sholem Asch. New York: Philosophical Library, 1953. Lieberman, a columnist for the Yiddish-language newspaper Forward, provides a scathing denunciation of The Nazarene, claiming that Asch’s novel about the life of Jesus “may lure away ignorant Jewish children into...

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