During the four decades between his first ventures into short fiction and the publication of his novel Der Man fun Notseres(1943; The Nazarene, 1939), Sholem Asch established himself as the most important Yiddish writer of his time, as well as a spokesperson and a crusader for his people. Although The Nazarene was a best seller, it roused a storm of protest among Jews. Certainly, Asch’s timing was unfortunate. Asch’s story of the life of Christ appeared when Jews were facing the most widescale persecutions in their history. It is hardly surprising that many embattled Jews viewed the book as evidence that Asch had left the faith and was urging others to follow his example or, alternatively, that he was an unprincipled opportunist, aiming at high sales among Christian readers or, perhaps, a Nobel Prize.
Asch was stunned by such accusations. His dedication to Judaism was as strong as ever. Moreover, the subject of The Nazarene did not mark a new departure in Asch’s interests. As early as 1906, he had planned to write a book about Jesus, whom he regarded as one of the outstanding Jews in history. With this goal in mind, he had been collecting materials on primitive Christianity for some thirty years; during his numerous trips to the Holy Land, the subject had never been far from his mind. Asch’s purpose in writing The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary (1949), the story of Jesus’s mother, was not to glorify Christianity at the expense of Judaism, but to show his readers how deeply Christianity was rooted in Judaism and to remind them that adherents of the two faiths share the same ethical systems and worship the same God. In this way, he hoped, he could bring about a reconciliation between Christians and Jews.
Although most of his Jewish critics did not see it at the time, thematically, Asch’s Christological novels are no different from his earlier works. Asch had always emphasized spiritual values. His heroes had always been Jewish leaders, often rabbis, who devoted themselves to God. Asch often revealed his impatience with legalistic technicalities, especially when they served to separate human beings from their God, and he deplored factionalism, which so often sprang from an emphasis on the...
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