Sholem Asch is often mentioned in the same breath as other modern Yiddish fiction-writers: Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, Mendele Mokher Seforim. But Asch was decidedly quirkier. Not content to write only about shtetl life or the Jewish immigrant experience–though he also covered these themes–Asch explored provocative topics like prostitution and lesbianism, and he even tested the limits of Jewish literature by writing in-depth about Judaism’s historical rival, Christianity.
Sholem Asch, 1940
Born in a small town outside Warsaw in 1880, Sholem Asch received both a traditional religious education and a more secular Yiddish education. He moved to the city of Warsaw in 1900, and that year he published his first short story, “Moishele.”
In 1904, Asch’s semi-autobiographical short story “The Little Town” gained immediate acclaim. In it, he described shtetl life with precise realism, carefully avoiding the kind of “insider” references that often characterized Yiddish literature about the shtetl. This style made Asch’s Jewish content accessible to both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.
God of Vengeance
Three years later, Asch published a play called God of Vengeance (1907). This officially marked his “coming out” from the shtetl. God of Vengeance broke barriers by becoming the first Yiddish play to debut at the prominent Deutsches Theater in Berlin. The play’s content also defied the norms of Jewish theater, depicting the lesbian relationship between a prostitute and the daughter of a brothel owner.
Popular audiences were attracted by the deftness and honesty with which Asch approached a scandalous subject. He brought Jewish themes into a decidedly secular realm, as evidenced by this conversation between a prostitute (Manke) and her client.
Manke: Because I don’t want to talk any more. Okay? No more talking.
Talking’s never a good idea. I wanna dance.
Orthodox Man: Dance?
(She goes to the Victrola, puts on a jaunty tin pan alley tune.)
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