Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962
Sholem Asch (ahsh) was the most important novelist writing in Yiddish in the early twentieth century. He was born in 1880 in Kutno, Poland, to Moishe Asch, a businessman, and his wife, Malka Asch. The eleventh of fifteen children, he was educated in the local Hebrew school and later taught Hebrew. In 1896 his first literary sketches, written in Hebrew, were rejected by a publisher to whom he had submitted them.
In 1899 Asch moved to Warsaw, where he became the protégé of the famous writer I. L. Peretz. Following Peretz’s advice, Asch began to write in Yiddish and was soon publishing in Yiddish newspapers. In 1901 Asch was married to Matilda Spiro, and in 1902 their first child was born. In 1905 Asch brought out his first novel, The Little Town, which established his reputation as a major Yiddish writer. That year also saw the successful production of his first play. Three years later, the play The God of Vengeance brought him international fame as a dramatist. The powerful story of a Jewish procurer who cannot protect his young daughter from the evil inherent in his own occupation, The God of Vengeance was presented in Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and New York.
Concerned about the safety of his four young children in troubled Poland, Asch moved in 1914 with his family to New York, where he continued to write and to publish plays and novels, still in Yiddish. It was to be some years before the translations of his works into English would be successfully promoted. Fortunately, Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, had a policy of publishing what he considered the best in Yiddish literature. Beginning with America, the tragic story of an immigrant boy who cannot adjust to life in the United States, for years Cahan serialized every Asch novel before it was circulated in book form worldwide in Yiddish and in German.
Although he had become an American citizen in 1920, Asch decided to make his permanent home in Nice, where he settled in 1925. In 1933 Three Cities became the first of his novels to become a best-seller in English translation. By 1938, however, it was becoming clear that even literary merit could not protect a Jew living in Europe, and Asch and his wife Matilda decided to live in the United States.
For three decades Asch had been working on a life of Jesus Christ, a work which he hoped would contribute to greater understanding between Christians and Jews. Cahan urged him to give up the project; however, Asch insisted on publishing the novel. When The Nazarene appeared it was read and praised by millions of Christians, but the Jewish community, led by Cahan, attacked its author as an apostate. That opposition strengthened when The Apostle, the story of Saint Paul, appeared; Mary brought an outcry from Roman Catholics as well. After Asch and his wife moved to Miami in 1951, he was attacked in the street by Yiddish extremists. Finally, because he had submitted his works to a Marxist paper—the only Yiddish publication which would accept his works—the aging author was called to explain his actions before the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1953 he and his wife left the United States to live in England and France. After suffering a stroke during a stay in Israel, Asch died in London on July 10, 1957.
Since his death, Jewish writers and critics have come to new understandings of Asch’s intentions. In all his works, he explored the relationships of Jewish characters to the worlds they inhabit and to the traditions in which they were reared. Many of the early novels and stories take place in the little Jewish villages which preserve past customs and in the Jewish sections of European cities. Typical of these works is Mottke the Thief, the picaresque tale of a spoiled, willful boy who runs away from home, becomes a vagabond entertainer, kills a pimp for his identity papers, sinks into the Warsaw underworld, and finally, after becoming idealistic, is betrayed by a foolish young girl and sent to prison.
A second group of novels, set in the United States, describes the conflict between the traditional values of the Eastern European Jewish immigrant and the diverse, unconventional environment of New York. East River, for example, is the story of a Jewish boy who has fallen in love with a Roman Catholic girl, to the horror of both families. Although critics suggest that Asch’s happy ending is implausible, they praise his realistic handling of the psychological problems involved in such a relationship.
The third group of works, published late in Asch’s life, consists of those novels in which he placed Jesus and Mary within their Jewish environment, the stories of Paul and Moses, and the study of Second Isaiah, The Prophet. Ironically, these books, which brought him the greatest criticism, particularly from his own people, are those which are probably his most spiritual, written in the tradition of Jewish mysticism.
The two themes which pervade Asch’s works are the essence of Judaism: the universal rule of God and the moral obligation of the individual. No one who commits evil deeds can escape God’s judgment. Those who try, such as the protagonists in The God of Vengeance and in Mottke the Thief, will eventually be trapped. Although the innocent and the pious cannot be assured of protection from the violence of this world, they can save their souls from pollution. By clinging to God, human beings, whether Christian or Jewish, can attain a spiritual freedom. The fact that Asch’s convictions are dramatized in works which are psychologically convincing and intellectually challenging has earned for him a lasting place among the greatest of Yiddish writers as well as an important ranking among American novelists.
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