Email Email   


The history of Yiddish literature may conveniently be divided into five periods: from the beginning to approximately 1500; the flourishing years of the 16th and early 17th centuries; the period of stagnation from 1650 to 1750; the era of Hasidism and Haskalah (1750 to 1864); modern Yiddish literature since 1864.

Before 1500, Yiddish literature was based on Jewish folklore, religious Hebrew literature, and the secular literary output of the European peoples among whom Jews lived. There were three types of professionals making this literature popular: copyists, who prepared anthologies and who were themselves frequently anonymous authors; minstrels, who sang or recited ballads and poems at public gatherings; and jesters, who gave brief performances. The best known work of this first period is the Shmuel-Bukh (Samuel Book), which describes the life of King David in poetic form. In this early period, Yiddish literature already served as a medium of entertainment and education for all segments of Jewish people, particularly for women and the uneducated. The 16th century saw a dramatic upsurge in Yiddish literature, similar to that which took place in a number of European literatures. Printing became widespread, and since Jews were the most literate people in Europe, Yiddish books could be mass-produced. At the beginning of the 16th century the Bova Bukh, a romantic adventure novel, became tremendously popular. However, the most widely read book appeared at the close of the 16th century: Tsena Urena, a retelling of the Pentateuch, was interwoven with various legends, stories, and parables. For 300 years Jewish women read from this book every Sabbath.

In this period, Yiddish literature made use of all the narrative and a large part of the poetic materials of the earlier centuries in the history of the Jewish people. The popular Maase Bukh in 1602 contained a number of interesting stories from various periods of Jewish history. At this time there was close contact between readers of Yiddish in Eastern Europe and the Germanic countries. Yiddish books and authors circulated from east to west and from west to east. Yiddish literature made possible close contact among all Ashkenazic Jews. Prague and other Eastern European communities became centers of Yiddish literature.

The Thirty Years War in Western Europe, and the bloody persecutions of Jews in the Ukraine and Poland in 1648 and 1649 ushered in a period of intellectual stagnation. No new important works appeared. Many books were published in Amsterdam and there was a great demand for Yiddish books, but the spirit of the times was not conducive to the appearance of talented new writers.

The advent of Hasidism in the middle of the 18th century brought with it a spiritual revival among the masses of Jewish people in Eastern Europe. At the same time the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, movement developed in Germany, and a generation or two later, in Galicia, Ukraine, and Lithuania. These two opposing movements were represented in the renewed literary activity of this period. The Enlighteners utilized Yiddish literature to write satiric works criticizing the negative aspects of rigid Judaism; the Hasidim created legends and stories dealing with the great achievements of the rabbis. Many of the Hasidim were talented narrators, poets, and writers of parables. The most interesting of these was Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav. In Eastern Europe the Enlighteners included a number of able writers, the most important of whom were Shlomo Ettinger, a poet and dramatist, and the popular writer of the mid-19th century, and Isaac Meyer Dick, whose hundreds of stories were published in thousands of copies.

Modern Yiddish Literature. Modern Yiddish Literature is about 150 years old, dating back to 1864, the year when Mendele Mocher Sefarim published his first book. His works reflect the whole Jewish way of life in his time. Mendele was a realist and created a literary framework for narrative Yiddish prose. He had a number of followers and imitators, his greatest disciple the famous humorist Sholom Aleichem. The latter, with Mendele and J.L. Peretz, are known as the three classic writers of modern Yiddish literature. Peretz, in turn, influenced a group of younger writers; some of them later became outstanding: for example, the novelist Sholom Asch and the poet and short story writer Abraham Reisen. The classic period in Yiddish literature lasted from 1864 to 1914. The 1880’s saw the beginnings of the Yiddish theater, pioneered by Abraham Goldfaden. This was the period of large-scale immigration to the U.S., and Yiddish literature developed there as well. Of the American Yiddish writers of that time, Morris Rosenfeld, the poet who described and protested against the life of the sweatshop worker, is outstanding. In the twenty years between the two World Wars there were distinct centers of Yiddish literary activity: Warsaw, Moscow, and New York. The Russian center was, of course, out of contact with the others; its greatest writers were the novelist David Bergelson and the poet Peretz Markish. In Poland, the classic tradition was followed; there was also a good deal of experimentation with various literary forms and trends. A number of the Yiddish writers from Poland emigrated to the U.S. Almost all of those who remained in Eastern Europe perished in the Holocaust. In 1948, Yiddish literature was liquidated in the Soviet Union; the most prominent writers were arrested and later executed.

Since 1914, New York has been the most important Yiddish literary center. There, Abraham Liesin, the editor of the magazine Zukunft, wrote his nationalistic poetry; and Yehoash produced an excellent Yiddish translation of the Bible. There were many fine poets, such as M.L. Halperin, Mani Leib, and I.J. Schwartz. The best Yiddish novelists (Zalman Shneur, Isaac B. Singer) were published in the New York Yiddish dailies. Here, the novelist J. Opatoshu spent all of his creative years. The greatest living Yiddish poet, H. Leivick, has written many poems and dramas in both symbolic and realistic styles. After World War II, the Rumanian-Polish master of the ballad, Itzik Manger, and the Lithuanian poet Chaim Grade migrated to New York with other poets and writers. Yiddish literary criticism, which had peaked in Eastern Europe in the writings of Baal Makhshovess, became significant in New York, largely because of the influence of Shmuel Niger. There is now a lively literary center in Buenos Aires and in Montreal. There is an active group of Yiddish writers in Israel, of whom the most important is A. Sutzkever, the editor of Di Goldene Keyt.

During the last ninety years there has been a considerable development in essay writing, scientific prose, children’s literature, and other branches of creative writing. Modern Yiddish literature reflects all aspects of Jewish life and all facets of the Jewish personality. Most recently, Yiddish literature has concentrated on the description and commemoration of the destruction of Eastern European Jewry. In all, there are approximately 2,000 Yiddish poets and prose writers.

Although there is a renewed interest in Yiddish in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, the era of Yiddish as a major language of culture and literature has come to an end.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email