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.