What is Jewish literature? Literature written by Jews? Literature written in a Jewish language? Literature with Jewish content? While none of these definitions is completely satisfactory, it is obvious that the People of the Book have created a sizable corpus of secular prose and poetry. In addition, Jewish characters have appeared in the works of the world’s greatest authors, and Jews have been active in the fields of publishing and literary criticism as well.
Sephardic literature is as hard to define as Jewish literature. Nonetheless, the Jews who lived in medieval Spain, and the descendants of those exiled from Spain in 1492, have a rich literary tradition. The most studied genre of Ladino (the Judeo-Spanish language) literature is the romancero, ballads modeled on the medieval Spanish ballads of the 14th and 15th centuries. The 17th-century poet Daniel Levi De Barrios is a good example of the cross-cultural nature of Jewish literature in general, and Sephardic literature in particular. De Barrios, who wrote in Spanish, was from a Marrano family. He lived as a Christian for many years, but for the last 25 years of his life in Amsterdam, he lived and wrote as a Jew.
With the exception of a few geographical and historical pockets, the history of secular Yiddish literature begins in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. At this time, writers such as Sholom Aleichem used their satirical eyes and nostalgic hearts to create the unique tragic-comic tone of Yiddish literature. Isaac Bashevis Singer, perhaps the last great Yiddish writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. In western Europe, Jews were generally more assimilated than their brethren in the east, and for the most part they wrote in non-Jewish languages. As a result, the “Jewish” nature of their writing is often ambiguous. For example, the Jewish themes, influences, and sensibilities of Franz Kafka are regularly lauded, although his fiction is by no means obviously Jewish.
Secular Hebrew literature emerged as a strong literary movement at the end of the 19th century. Because Hebrew was not a spoken language at the time, the first successful Hebrew writers encountered numerous technical problems. Pioneering Hebrew writers like Mendele Mokher Seforim needed to find ways to express the modern Jewish experience in an ancient language. In Israel, Hebrew literature flowered, evolving from its nationalistic, ideological beginnings to a literature that is oftentimes experimental and subversive.
Jewish-American literature has been an enormously successful genre. Fictional chronicles of the Jewish-American experience–from the immigrant adventures of Henry Roth to the suburban misadventures of Philip Roth–achieved notoriety among Jewish and mainstream American readership. Although many literary critics in the 1970s and 1980s predicted the decline of Jewish American fiction, recent achievements like Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay indicate that quality works of Jewish-American fiction are still being produced.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.