European Jewish Literature

The writings of Ashkenazic Jewry spans several languages and centuries.

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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."

The Canon 

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.

sholom aleichemThe 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.

Beyond Golems

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. The medieval Hebrew poems written in Europe can be found in the machzor (High Holiday prayerbook) and the siddur (everyday prayerbook); they are part of the daily lives of Jews around the world, and preserve a sense of belief despite the travails of Jewish history.

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Aviya Kushner

Aviya Kushner is a Lecturer of Creative Writing at Columbia College of Chicago. She is the author of And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning.