Yiddish Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Yiddish Literature


Yiddish Literature

Yiddish literature flourished during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, becoming the preferred medium for many Jewish writers during these years.

Yiddish was the common language for millions of Jews living in Eastern Europe for many years. Although many religious and scholarly Jews did not use the language for literary or academic purposes, Yiddish was the most common speech of Jews in the nineteenth century and before. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, with the availability of mass, secular literature, many Jewish writers—Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz among them—used Yiddish as a means of literary expression, sparking a revitalization of the language among Jewish cultures across Europe and abroad. The advent of Nazism and the resulting genocide, as well as the Russian suppression of Yiddish language and culture following the end of the Second World War, led to a diminishing of interest both in reading and writing in Yiddish. Additionally, many Jews, forced to leave their native lands because of religious or political persecution, opted to discard the study and use of Yiddish in order to adapt to their adoptive countries. Although Yiddish writers continue to write in countries such as the United States, now home to the largest Jewish population in the world, Yiddish-language literature is mostly produced in Israel.

One of the most significant events in the history of Yiddish letters was the publication of the Kol Mevaser, a Yiddish-language paper that was issued from 1862 to 1871. Originally published in Hebrew, the paper did not sell, forcing the publisher, Alexander Zederbaum, to set aside his embarrassment at publishing a Yiddish paper. The change was a success, marking the beginning of additional Yiddish papers across Europe as well as providing a means to standardize Yiddish as a literary tongue. Impetus for the development of Yiddish as a means of literary expression also came from the realization that most Jews did not understand Hebrew, and that literature written in that language would not reach a mass audience. Therefore, writers such as Sforim began writing and publishing in Yiddish. They believed that the use of Yiddish was the best means to convey new ideas and concepts to the people, and because the language was reflective of real life, it would provide a better means of communication and education for both writers and readers. This, coupled with the publication of several anthologies by writers such as Aleichem and Mordecai Spektor, who included the work of several older writers as well as historical Yiddish texts, began the growth and establishment of modern Yiddish literature. It was also during this time that the controversy between Yiddishists and Hebraists took root. Because Yiddish was considered the common tongue among Jews, many scholars viewed Hebrew as the only “pure” Jewish language. The language controversy, generated in part by the growing popularity of Yiddish literature, polarized many Jews, and the discussion continues today, with many Yiddishists arguing for the proclamation of Yiddish as the Israeli national tongue.

At the same time that Yiddish literature was enjoying a revival in Europe, many Jews had begun immigrating to the United States and England. They carried the enthusiasm for the language with them, and because of the freedom of expression available to them in America, Yiddish literature, journalism, and theater flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Once again, debate about Yiddish as a literary language was revived, resulting in the publication of many essays on the subject. A seminal text and the first history of Yiddish literature was also issued at this time by Leo Wiener, titled Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1899). Other critics and scholars, Baal Makhshoves and Abraham Reisen among them, also published essays outlining the significance of Yiddish as a literary language. In Europe, one of the most important Yiddish writers was I. L. Peretz, who authored such works as Monish (1888) and Die goldene Kaite (1907; The Golden Chain). In the United States, one of the most well known works of Yiddish literature was Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) by Abraham Cahan. The story is about a Russian Jew who wants nothing more than to become a “yank.” Many scholars have studied this work as an example of writing that reflects both Yiddish and American influence.

Although Jewish writers continue to write in Yiddish, its popularity as a language has waned over the years. In the beginning of the twentieth century, however, in addition to being their common language, Yiddish was significant for Jews living in Europe and across the world as a sign of their nationality, and the flourishing Yiddish literature and theater was a significant uniting factor for Jewish culture in America and elsewhere. By mid-century, though, Yiddish as a language was little understood by Jews living outside of Israel. Assimilation into their adoptive lands and cultures has led many Jews to adopt other languages in favor of Yiddish. Also, the greatest impetus to the formation and growth of Yiddish language and literature was provided mostly by a people escaping from anarchist and socialist regimes bent on destroying their heritage—in the late twentieth century, lacking such a radical uniting factor, the study and use of Yiddish has declined greatly. Yet, scholars acknowledge that this literature was and continues to be a significant part of the Jewish literary heritage, providing readers with a deeper understanding of the culture and history that informed Jewish and European life.

Representative Works

Sholom Aleichem
Yidishe Folks-Bibliotek (anthology) 1888
“The Haunted Tailor” (short story) 1901

Sholem Asch
God of Vengeance (play) 1918

Abraham Cahan
Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (novel) 1896
The Rise of David Levinsky (novel) 1917

Uri Zvi Greenberg
In the Rush of Time (poetry) 1919
Twilight Gold (poetry) 1921
Mephisto (poetry) 1922

Yosef Papiernikov
In the Sunny Land (poetry) 1927
Red on Black (poetry) 1929

I. L. Peretz
Monish (poetry) 1888
Die goldene Kaite [The Golden Chain] (play) 1907

Anna Rappaport
“A bild fun hungers noyt in 1893” [“A Picture of the Hardship of Hunger in 1893”] (poem) 1893

Yente Serdatsky
“Mirl” (short story) 1905

Mendele Mokher Sforim
Dos Kleyne Mentshele (novel) 1864
Di Kliatshe [The Mare] (novel) 1873

Yakov Shtol
A Wedding in Kastra (novel) 1931

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Satan in Goray (novel) 1935
The Family Moskat (novel) 1950
The Magician of Lublin (novel) 1961
In My Father's Court (novel) 1966
The Manor (novel) 1967
The Estate (novel) 1969

Mordecai Spektor
Hoyz-Fraynd (anthology) 1888

Abraham Sutzkever
Geheymshtot [Secret City] (verse) 1952
Gaystike erd [Spiritual Soil] (poetry) 1961

Leo Wiener
Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century (nonfiction) 1899

Alexander Zederbaum
Kol Mevaser (journal) 1862-1871

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Emmanuel S. Goldsmith (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Goldsmith, Emmanuel S. “The Emergence of Yiddishism” and “The Growth of Yiddishism.” In Architects of Yiddishism at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century: A Study in Jewish Cultural History, pp. 45-69, 259-75. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/London: Associated University Presses, 1976.

[In the following essays, Goldsmith traces the emergence, development, and growth of Yiddish literature around the world.]

Alexander Zederbaum (1816-1893), the publisher of the first Hebrew newspaper in Russia, was embarrassed at the thought of publishing a Yiddish newspaper. At first his Hamelitz, which began appearing in 1860, contained...

(The entire section is 14305 words.)

David G. Roskies (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Roskies, David G. “Yiddish in the Twentieth Century: A Literature of Anger and Homecoming.”1 In Yiddish Language and Culture: Then and Now, edited by Leonard Jay Greenspoon, pp. 1-16. Omaha, Neb.: Creighton University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Roskies explores the themes of anger and rebelliousness that he sees as defining the Yiddish literary canon.]

Back home in New York I am a member of a khevra kadisha, a Jewish burial society. It has taught me to distinguish between the living and the dead. No amount of verbiage or hype can bring a dead man back to life. When the oxygen stops flowing to the brain and the blood stops pumping from...

(The entire section is 6070 words.)

Criticism: Major Authors

Charles A. Madison (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Madison, Charles A. “Isaak Laybush Peretz: The Father of Modern Yiddish Literature.” In Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers, pp. 99-133. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1968.

[In the following essay, Madison focuses on Peretz's major works, also discussing the themes Peretz explored in his stories and poems.]

There are evidences that Peretz's family was one of the Sephardic group of Spanish Jews who settled in Poland not long after their expulsion in 1492. His immediate ancestors were anti-Hasidic, and a number of them were scholars and businessmen of high repute. Although his parents were not as wealthy as their predecessors, they...

(The entire section is 12375 words.)

Charles A. Madison (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Madison, Charles A. “Yiddish in Israel.” In Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers, pp. 500-21. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1968.

[In the following essay, Madison provides an overview of Yiddish writers and poets from Israel.]

Yiddish was the speech of East European Jews from the time of their settlement there in the late Middle Ages, and was developed by them into a modern literary language during the second half of the 19th century. The pogroms and activated anti-Semitism of the early 1880's started an exodus of these Jews to nearly every part of the inhabited earth. For years it was a mere trickle, with most migrants going to the...

(The entire section is 7843 words.)

Norma Fain Pratt (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Pratt, Norma Fain. “Culture and Radical Politics: Yiddish Women Writers in America, 1890-1940.” In Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, edited by Judith R. Baskin, pp. 111-35. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Pratt presents a brief history of Jewish and Yiddish female writers whose works appeared in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, noting that their writing is reflective of the social issues they were confronting.]

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the cultural traditions East European Jewish immigrants brought with them to America were fundamentally...

(The entire section is 7445 words.)

David G. Roskies (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Roskies, David G. “The Demon as Storyteller: Isaac Bashevis Singer.” A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling, pp. 266-306. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Roskies analyses Singer's work in the context of his Yiddish background, focusing particularly on his use of the image of the devil in his writing.]

If Hell exists, everything exists. If you are real,
He is real.

—I. B. Singer, 1943

Nothing is more Jewish than a Jewish demon. What the golden-haired Lorelei are to the Rhine, the dark-haired sheydim are to the Jewish home, creeping out from behind the stove on a...

(The entire section is 19098 words.)

Criticism: Yiddish Literature In America

Joseph C. Landis (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Landis, Joseph C. “Yiddish Dreams in America.” In Handbook of American-Jewish Literature: An Analytical Guide to Topics, Themes, and Sources, edited by Lewis Fried, pp. 143-65. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Landis chronicles the growth of Yiddish literature in America, focusing particularly on the image of the New World as represented in the writing and poetry.]

Collective dreams, unlike private ones, are a public affair and simpler to explore since their content tends to be more overt than latent. The wishes they reflect seem more obvious to the eye. It is not difficult to observe, however, that when wishes are held with such...

(The entire section is 9914 words.)

Matthew Frye Jacobson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Jacobson, Matthew Frye. “‘The Quintessence of the Jew’: Polemics of Nationalism and Peoplehood in Turn-of-the-Century Yiddish Fiction.” In Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American Literature, edited by Werner Sollors, pp. 103-11. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Jacobson discusses the changing nature of Jewish identity in America through the works of Cahan and other Yiddish writers.]

Among the first and most famous pieces of Yiddish literature in the United States is Yekl, Abraham Cahan's account of a tragicomic Russian Jew who wants nothing more than to become,...

(The entire section is 4609 words.)

Hana Wirth-Nesher (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “‘Shpeaking Plain’ and Writing Foreign: Abraham Cahan's Yekl.Poetics Today 22, no. 1 (spring 2001): 41-63.

[In the following essay, Wirth-Nesher explores the intermingling of Yiddish literary tradition and American influences on Cahan's writing in his first English-language novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto.]

In 1896, fourteen years after immigrating to America from Lithuania at the age of twenty-two, Abraham Cahan published his first novel in English, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. Despite his active career as a Yiddish journalist for the Socialist Yiddish weeklies Neuetseit and Arbeiter...

(The entire section is 9887 words.)

Criticism: Yiddish And Judaism

Isaac Bashevis Singer (essay date May 1995)

SOURCE: Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “Concerning Yiddish Literature in Poland (1943).” Prooftexts 15, no. 2 (May 1995): 113-27.

[In the following essay, Singer recounts the growth of Yiddish literature in Poland, making a close connection between the Jewish way of life and the writing it inspired.]

The Jewish Shtetl in Poland did not experience the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, at the same time or in the same evolutionary form as did Russia and Lithuania. Until 1914 the majority of Jewish market towns in Poland were traditionally pious. Life went on as it had a hundred years before. In the larger, and even smaller, cities there were isolated Maskilim—adherents of the...

(The entire section is 6739 words.)

Naomi Seidman (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Seidman, Naomi. “A Stormy Divorce: The Sexual Politics of the Hebrew-Yiddish ‘Language War.’” In A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish, pp. 102-31. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Seidman explores Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's influence on the polarity of vernacular Hebrew and Yiddish in Europe, aligning the former language with masculinity and the latter with femininity.]

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda,
What a far-out kind of Jew.
Words, words, words, words,
He concocted in his feverish brain.
And he had a son, and thus said he:
My firstborn shall be called Ben-Yehuda, Itamar
From the...

(The entire section is 13821 words.)

Emmanuel Goldsmith (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Goldsmith, Emmanuel. “Yiddishism and Judaism.” In Politics of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Literature, and Society, edited by Dov-Ber Kerler, pp. 11-22. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Goldsmith investigates the differences and similarities between Judaism and Yiddish culture and language.]

Ever since the Emancipation and the Enlightenment, there seems to be no end to the making of definitions of Judaism. Although Aristotle spoke of a definition as “a sentence signifying what a thing is”, Samuel Butler was probably more to the point when he described a definition as “the enclosing of a wilderness of ideas within a...

(The entire section is 5338 words.)

Further Reading


Adamczyk-Garbowska, Monika. “I. B. Singer's Works in Yiddish and English: The Language and the Addressee.” Prooftexts 17, no. 3 (September 1997): 267-77.

Examines Singer's works in Yiddish and English from the context of the reader, noting their differences.

Bliss, Steven J. “Inventing Yiddish: Observations on the Rise of a ‘Debased’ Language.” Judaism 46, no. 3 (summer 1997): 334-45.

Provides a brief overview of the significance of Yiddish to Jewish culture in America through a review of two histories of the Yiddish language.

Chaver, Yael. “Outcasts Within: Zionist...

(The entire section is 621 words.)