Yiddish, Ladino, & Other European Literature

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But European Jewish literature in Jewish languages is not all golems and goblins. The Russian-born Hebrew poets Chaim Nachman Bialik and Saul Tchernichovsky, both writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, laid the foundation for modern Israeli literature, and both wrote of the land, love, Zionism, and faith. Of course, the medieval Hebrew poems written in Europe can be found in the mahzor (High Holiday liturgy)and the siddur (prayerbook), and are part of the daily lives of Jews around the world, and preserve a sense of belief despite the travails of Jewish history.

When it comes to Ladino literature, scholar Ilan Stavans, writing in The Forward, observed that because the Jews of the Iberian peninsula were expelled, Sephardic writing was more overtly religious and philosophical than purely fictional for quite some time. The best-known example of rabbinic literature in Ladino is Me'am Loez, the 18th- and 19th-century commentary on the Bible. The period of Me'am Loez was the first major flowering of Ladino, and a second productive period occurred in the early 20th century, when journalism and pamphleteering gave many writers a chance to be published. Unfortunately, the Holocaust ended this flowering.

After the devastation of the Holocaust, Yiddish and Ladino were suddenly in the same spot, with the few surviving speakers clutching to a centuries-old literature and hoping that a younger generation might become interested in it.  

But in recent years, efforts to preserve Yiddish and Ladino have paid off, and attempts to translate their literatures into English and Hebrew have brought them new readers. The Yiddish stories have influenced the writing of American fiction writers like Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Nathan Englander. Meanwhile, Ladino's fantastical stories--sometimes called fables or folk tales--are finding their way into Spanish. These stories often have Jewish themes, with Biblical figures and legendary characters. They sometimes offer interpretations on traditional aspects of Jewish wisdom, like the need to be satisfied with what one has. Though they usually don't have a particular author, they do tend to share a sweet sense of humor, an interest in Jewish ideas, and a determination to look at a common situation in a new way.

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