Yiddish Literature in the 20th Century

Yiddish writers emigrated from Europe, and though Yiddish writing all but ceased after the Holocaust, it is seeing a small rebirth today.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Alternatives to America

As the turmoil leading up to World War II continued, Jews in Europe kept fleeing social upheaval and persecution. As entry into America became more difficult, many immigrated to places like South Africa, Australia, and Latin America. Here too, Yiddish readers eagerly await­ed new work from abroad. After the Russian Revolution (1917), the Soviet Union seemed to offer a greater freedom and hope for Jews. They had fought in the Revolution, hoping that its socialist ideals would end czarist oppression. Many Yiddish writers and poets flourished in the initial atmosphere of tolerance and experimentation.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Payson R. Stevens

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