Author Archives: Payson R. Stevens

Payson R. Stevens

About Payson R. Stevens

Payson R. Stevens was President and Creative Director of InterNetwork Inc. and well as InterNetwork Media Inc.

Yiddish Literature in the 20th Century

Reprinted with permission from Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish (Simon & Schuster).

Mendele Mokher Seforim, Sholom Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz [three of the most influential Yiddish writers] laid the foundation for modern Yiddish literature–and by their deaths, during World War I, Yiddish writers had found a wide, receptive audience.In Poland, stimulated by writers like Peretz, Warsaw became the Yiddish literary center for younger writers such as David Pinski (1872-1959), noted for his novel Dos Hoyz fun Noyakh Edon (The House of Noah Edon, 1931); Sholem Asch (1880-1 957), author of such popular historical novels as Kiddush Hashem (Martyrdom, 1919) and the trilogy Farn Mabul (Before the Flood, 1921-31); the poet and short-story writer Abraham Reisen (1876-1953), author of the beautiful and moving poem “May Kemashmalon” (What Does It Tell Us); and the novelist Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944), master of such family sagas as Di BriderAshkenazi (Brothers Ashkenazi, 1936), and Yoshe Kalb,1932.

brothers ashkenaziThe period between 1900 and World War I saw a continuing immi­gration of East European authors to America. New York City became almost as important as Warsaw as a center for Yiddish writers. Numer­ous Yiddish newspapers, such as the Jewish Daily Forward, published their sto­ries and serialized their novels. The immigrant experience became fer­tile ground for Yiddish storytellers.Some looked back with nostalgia to the Old World; others drew on the present, creating serious or humor­ous sketches of immigrant characters trying to adapt to a strange, new world. Important writers from this period include: Joseph Opatoshu (1886-1954), for example, In Poylishe Velder (In Polish Woods), 1921, and Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), for example, The Rise of David Levinksy, 1917, who was editor of the Jewish Daily Forward.Israel Joshua Singer’s younger brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer, also came to New York City. He was one of the few to find an English-speaking and then worldwide audience for his work. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s success exceeded that of any contemporary Jewish writer, and he was given the Nobel Prize in 1978 for his unique expressionist and even surreal Yid­dish vision.

I.L. Peretz

Reprinted with permission from Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish (Simon & Schuster).

I.L. Peretz (1851-1915) is the third of the great classical Yiddish writers [along with Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholom Aleichem] and the one considered the more literary and probing realist of the trio. Whereas Mendele and Sholom Aleichem wrote about shtetl life and were loved by the masses as folk heroes, Peretz appealed to the intel­lectuals who lived in the thriving cities. His writing was a call for self-determination and resistance against Jewish humiliation. Peretz was ultimately an optimist who believed that progress was the path to greater Jewish freedom and enlightenment. He understood that shtetl Jews had to examine and alter their beliefs in order for them to be emancipated. Peretz believed in his roots as a Jew, but saw his religion as needing to evolve beyond its traditional strictures to advance the progress of the Jewish people

 Peretz was born into a respected family in the Polish small town of Zamosc. Though raised as an Orthodox Jew, he was eager for secular knowledge even at an early age. He learned Polish, Russian, German, and French so he could read in those languages and be exposed to larg­er worlds. His family married him off at 18 in the hope of his settling into a traditional Jewish life. But Peretz was not suited for these constraints and rebelled against his family’s wishes, eventually divorcing his wife and marrying his sweetheart.

He published poems and lyrics in Hebrew and Polish through the 1870s. At 25, Peretz became a lawyer and spent 10 years building a successful practice in Zamosc, during which time he wrote little. Peretz was initially a propo­nent of the Haskalah [Enlightenment], and was intensely involved in Russian and Pol­ish issues. He initially felt Yiddish was only a temporary vehicle to reach the masses and not a permanent language for Jews. The murderous Russian pogroms of 1881 altered his views about Yiddish, as he found himself identifying more deeply with his underprivileged brethren. He began to write in Yiddish, and in 1888 submitted his poem, Monish, to Sholom Aleichem’s Folksbibliotek journal. It is considered the first major Yiddish poem, with themes of the earthly and spiritual forces pulling at Monish (a pious youth facing a religious crisis), who symbolizes the Jewish artist struggling against the attractions of secular culture.

Mendele Mokher Seforim

Shalom Yakov Abramowitz is better known by the name of his most famous character, Mendele Mokher Seforim, which means “Mendele the Bookseller.” Abramowitz–along with the authors Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Leib Peretz–defined the classical age of Yiddish literature. Reprinted with permission from Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish (Simon & Schuster).

Mendele Mokher Seforim (1835-1917) is revered as the “grandfather of Yiddish literature” for his innovations in laying a new literary framework for Yiddish. His work realistically portrayed Jewish life with honesty and without judgment and depicted the world of the shtetl [village] with all its poverty and decay; all its joy and poetry. Mendele was born in Belorussia (Belarus) and came from a comfortable family of Lithuanian rabbis. He initially wrote in Hebrew and was a proponent of the Haskalah [Enlightenment].

But as he wrote in his Complete Works: “I tried to compose a story in simple Hebrew, ground in the spirit and life of our people at the time. At that time, then, my thinking went along these lines: Observing how my people live, I want to write stories for them in our sacred tongue, yet most do not understand the language. They speak Yiddish. What good does the writer’s work and thought serve him, if they are of no use to his people? For whom was I working? The question gave me no peace but placed me in a dilemma.” (Quoted in The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories, edited by Ilan Stavans, New York: 1998.)

After spending 10 years writing in Hebrew, in the 1860s he began writing in Yiddish continuing for two decades. Mendele’s novels and stories from this period were for the Jewish masses and include: Dos Vintshfingerl (The Magic Ring), Dos Kleyne Mentshele (The Little Man), and Fishke der Krumer (Fishke the Lame). Mendele’s work ultimately challenged the Haskalah position that Jews needed to give up aspects of their identity in order to be accepted by Christian society. In Di Kliatshe (The Mare, 1873), a powerful satire, Mendele allegorically depicts the Jew as a despised beast of burden, suffering as the world’s scape goat. Yet this abused animal has dignity and a moral superiority that demands justice rather than mercy from its tormentors. The story is narrated by “Crazy Yisrulik” (Yisrulik dem meshugenem), who also tell the story “Di Byabak” (The Marmot), also written in 1873. In this tale Yisrulik is granted his wish and is transformed into a marmot, who the encounters and converses with the angel Gabriel. Yisrulik was the second narrative figure used by the writer after Mendele the Bookseller.

Mendele’s work could be critical of Jewish patrician society and often placed him in conflict with community leaders. Two contrasting themes in his writing reflect his own ambivalence: satiric and/or critical treatment of the ghetto Jew afflicted by stagnation, ignorance, and isolation, contrasted by a sympathetic love and defense of his people. Mendel boldly opposed Russian anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution and often used symbolism and allegory to depict these conditions. Their works had a profound stylistic and thematic influence on Yiddish literature, examining Jewish life with criticism, satire, pathos, and humor.

Mendele’s work and life exemplify the broad spectrum of the historical and linguistic development of Jewish culture in the 19th century. His writing developed a new realism in fiction and nonfiction. He wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, often emphasizing one language over the other for specific genres. He depicted the major cultural forces the Jew faced in entering the modern world: Haskalah and assimilation; the shtetl with its anti-Semitism and social oppression; Zionism with its call for Jewish nationalism.

Mendele’s legacy invited both praise and criticism. His depiction of East European Jews was acclaimed as a sober rendering of their often harsh lives, yet others felt he reinforced negative Jewish stereotypes. Mendele forged a new literary path, and created a modern portrait of an ancient people faced with ambivalence and contradictions on the threshold of a radically changing world.