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.
Yidishe Folks-Bibliotek (anthology) 1888
“The Haunted Tailor” (short story) 1901
God of Vengeance (play) 1918
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
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
“A bild fun hungers noyt in 1893” [“A Picture of the Hardship of Hunger in 1893”] (poem) 1893
“Mirl” (short story) 1905
Mendele Mokher Sforim
Dos Kleyne Mentshele (novel) 1864
Di Kliatshe [The Mare] (novel) 1873
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
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 only articles in Hebrew and in German in Hebrew characters. When the newspaper failed to sell, however, Zederbaum decided to issue a newspaper in Yiddish that would be called Kol Mevaser, together with Hamelitz. More than any other single factor, Kol Mevaser, which appeared from 1862 to 1871, contributed to the standardization of Yiddish orthography and the development of modern Yiddish literary diction. It marked the emergence of Yiddish as a standard literary tongue.
Kol Mevaser helped establish a mass audience for Yiddish and a Yiddish writing profession. It paved the way for the Yiddish newspapers of the seventies in Rumania, Galicia, England, America, and Palestine. It introduced the Jewish...
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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 heart, a person ceases to be among the living. Rumors of a renaissance do not a resurrection make.
As a member of a khevra kadisha, I have also learned to recite the entire book of Psalms. But when first it came my turn at shemirah, “to guard” the dead person on the eve of burial, I was not prepared to confront the full range of emotion expressed in this ancient anthology. Having studied the Siddur in the Jewish People's School of Montreal, I was of course familiar with the psalms of thanksgiving and praise that make up the Kabbalat Shabbat service and the Psukei Dezimra. Having then attended a Protestant high school, I learned to recite the Lord's Prayer, Psalm 23, by heart, in English. Nothing in my...
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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 adhered to the family's charitable tradition.
Isaak Laybush, born in Zamoscz in 1852, received the usual training in Hebrew lore. Bright and thoughtful, he in his early teens exhibited feats of learning that gained him the plaudits reserved for a prodigy. Even at this time he was speculating about the meaning and end of life, digging to the depths of his being with the sharp nails of doubt. Wherever men congregated, he listened and pondered. At the time he appeared, as he remembered, with “little thin hands, and feet—like sticks; a large head and a wrinkled forehead; beneath—large, searching, groping, painfully questioning eyes.”
At the age of 15 a happy chance gave him access to a relatively large...
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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 United States, but some settled in Western Europe and a few went to Canada, South Africa, and South America. A handful of dedicated Zionists departed for Palestine (hereafter referred to as Israel). After the widespread massacres of 1905, the exodus rose to a tidal wave, adding up to millions, and remained an outpouring in the 1920's. It ceased catastrophically after 1939 when around six million Jews were trapped and incinerated in the Nazi crematoria—only to resume as a pathetic outflow of the few thousand harrowed survivors.
Wherever these Jews gained a foothold, they were quick to establish their religious and cultural institutions. Not knowing the language of the land and unfamiliar with the social patterns of their...
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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 recast, yet few cultural historians have considered the extent to which these transformations were an expression of class and gender. This study, based on the lives of some fifty Yiddish women writers whose extensive literary works appeared in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, confronts diversity, class difference, and especially gender as sources of change in American Jewish life.1
All of the women under consideration came from the poorer classes of East European Jewry. A few were daughters of impoverished merchant families; others were raised in an artisan environment; but most came from the proletarianized Jewish classes of recently industrialized Russian Poland and the Austro-Hungarian...
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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 Sabbath afternoon, when the household is away at prayers. From birth until death a Jew must contend with these sheydim, who eat and drink just like humans; with ruḥin, disembodied spirits, and with lilin, who are possessed of human form but also have wings. Ketev Meriri is most harmful at noon and in the heat of summer, while Lilith, Samael's consort, attacks newborn infants and their mothers. (This goes back to a time before time when Adam and Lilith got into a marital squabble; together, nonetheless, they produced many demons.) Jewish men, warned by the mystics of demons that are sired from every nocturnal emission, had good reason to tremble at bedtime. Bratslav hasidim recite a prayer composed by Reb Nahman to guard...
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Criticism: Yiddish Literature In America
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 tenacity as to border on illusion, the corrections administered by reality are often bitter. Such certainly was the case with the European dream of America, which was from the outset imbued with illusion. Columbus's confusion of desire with reality became a pattern for many who followed him in thinking about America. But it took four centuries for that contrast between expectation and event to find its marvelously ironic embodiment in the Yiddish-speaking immigrant's wry exclamation, “Kolombuses medine!” (Columbus's country), a phrase that embraces simultaneously a whole range of feelings between admiration and despair. During the years that intervened between Columbus and the Jewish rediscovery of his medine, there were, of...
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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, in his words, “a real Yankee feller.” Because it found its way into English early on (it appeared in Yiddish in 1893 and in English in 1895), the novella has attracted more critical attention and has reached a wider audience than any other piece of Yiddish-American fiction. Indeed, Yekl was introduced to an English-speaking audience, amid much fanfare, by none other than the “Dean of American letters,” a laudatory and enthusiastic William Dean Howells.
Howell's involvement seems to have forever stamped Yekl as a certain kind of novel accomplishing certain kinds of cultural work: Cahan has become a cultural ambassador, by most accounts, who served up the Jewish ghetto and made it accessible for an...
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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 Tseitung, it was his reading of English and American novels that inspired him to write fiction in English. Yekl is a story about Americanization. A Russian Jew named Yekl leaves his wife and son in the Old World and immigrates to the United States where he becomes Jake, a sweatshop worker so enamored of the America of prizefighting and dancing schools that he cannot resume his former life when his family eventually joins him. Moreover, he finds his wife Gitl's Old World appearance and behavior so repellent that he divorces her in order to marry Mamie, a flirtatious Americanized sweatshop operator. The divorce frees Gitl to marry Jake's nemesis, Bernstein, a Talmud scholar turned grocer in his quest for prosperity in America....
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Criticism: Yiddish And Judaism
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 Haskalah—as well as small groups of socialists, but Jewish life in general remained as it had been. The Haskalah as a mass movement arrived only with the First World War, but because of its lateness and momentum it assumed nearly epidemic proportions. The revolution in Russia, the occupation by the Germans and Austrians, the establishment of the Polish state, the Balfour Declaration—all had a simultaneous effect. Processes that elsewhere had developed over decades materialized here literally overnight. Young yeshiva students who had not yet shed their slitted gaberdines and little caps, and who were still up to their necks in the legacy of generations, suddenly decided that waiting for the Messiah was not for them; that the shops in which...
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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 breast until old age, From circumcision until the grave— He will be a sworn friend to the Hebrew tongue, And a fierce foe of all foreign ones.
Itamar—became a man, Tall as a palm and handsome, And he spoke the Hebrew tongue. Itamar Ben-Avi, His father's prophecy, The sort of man who suits me.
—“Eliezer Ben-Yehuda,” lyrics by Yaron London
I want our son Eri to know Hebrew well. All other decisions I leave to you.
—Zev Jabotinsky, 1918 letter/will to his wife
In the past few decades, critics and historians have begun to contest and reevaluate the centrality of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's role...
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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 world of words”. Nevertheless, in a paper with a title such as this, there is no choice but to begin with a definition of terms.
Judaism has been defined by Mordecai M. Kaplan (1964: 10) as “the ongoing life of a people intent upon keeping alive for the highest conceivable purpose, despite changes in the general climate of opinion”. This definition takes into account both the existential dimension (the ongoing life of a people) and the essential dimension (the highest conceivable purpose) of the Jewish phenomenon. It takes into account both peoplehood or nationalism and civilization or culture. Religion is subsumed under the rubric “highest conceivable purpose” since religion is that aspect of human culture or...
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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 Yiddish Literature in Pre-State Palestine.” Jewish Social Studies 7, no. 2 (winter 2001): 39-66.
Brief chronology of Yiddish literature in Palestine during the early 1900s, commenting on the fact that the language survived despite attempts to replace it with the dominant Hebrew culture.
Clifford, Dafna. “Defining the Yiddish Canon: Meditations on the Teaching of Yiddish Literature.” In Yiddish in the Contemporary World: Papers of the First Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish, edited by Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, pp. 31-42. Oxford: Europena Humanities Research Centre, University of Oxford, 1999.
Outlines the difficulty of teaching...
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