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Jewish literature in Europe can be divided into two broad categories: literature written in traditional Jewish languages, such as Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino, and literature written in the language of the country the writer happened to live in. Because many Jewish writers wrote in German, Russian, French, and other European languages, what we call “European Jewish literature” overlaps with European literature as a whole. Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, and Isaac Babel can be counted as “Jewish writers” and also, of course, “major European writers.”
Since Jewish writers write in so many languages, any attempts to construct a “modern Jewish canon”–such as the landmark effort in 2001 by leading scholars including Harvard’s Ruth Wisse and Hebrew University’s Gershon Shaked to draw up a list of 100 Great Jewish Books–tend to be incredibly multilingual lists. The Great Books list, released by the National Yiddish Book Center, and Wisse’s book The Modern Jewish Canon discuss works in languages ranging from Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, to Russian, French, Dutch, Polish, and Czech.
The number of translations available into English is increasing. For an understanding of shtetl (small village) life, the Yiddish short-story writers are an excellent place to begin. Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Mendele Mocher Seforim preserved a world of mostly poverty-stricken Jews struggling to survive and believe in whatever they could. These stories include hapless characters like the beggars of Kasrilivke and the fools of Chelm. The humor and the fantastical touches of these writers can be seen in Poland-born Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize and whose work has been widely translated into English. Singer writes of golems (human-created beings who become animate), imaginary spirits, and old-world characters.
Those Yiddish stories–with their magical touch–found their way into the American Jewish writer Bernard Malamud’s work. More recently, younger American Jewish writers like Nathan Englander, author of the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, have absorbed the Yiddish tradition.
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