Sholem Asch

A writer who bridged both Old World and New, but fit into neither.

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Though his work achieved popular success in Europe, Asch emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1916, settling in New York City. He became an American citizen in 1920. Soon the Yiddish Forward newspaper began publishing his work. In 1923, God of Vengeance was performed Stateside--which resulted in the entire cast being arrested on obscenity charges.

During the inter-war period, Asch returned briefly to Poland in order to tap into that country's newly-vibrant literary scene. Among Asch's works of this period, his novel The Mother (1937) stands out as a compelling picture of an immigrant family's adjustment to the Lower East Side of New York City.

The Christian Trilogy

After returning to America in 1938, Asch took began writing in English, producing a trilogy which novelized the rise of early Christianity. In the The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949), Asch explored the lives of Jesus, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary. He attempted to portray the tenuous beginnings of Christianity as parallel to Judaism, both religions having been persecuted by the Romans. 

After the trilogy's publication, the American press touted Asch as a great literary mind. However, not everyone appreciated the trilogy. The Forward derided him as a Christian sympathizer and stopped publishing his work. Asch had written these novels with a vision of Jewish-Christian reconciliation, particularly after the Holocaust, and his goal had been to expose the common themes behind religious differences. But the Jewish press at the time did not appreciate this message.
A young Sholem Asch

But Asch did not revert to a Jewish-centered outlook. Instead, he continued to address a wide range of topics, people, and ideologies in his writing. For example, in East River (1946)--which he published after the second volume of his Christianity trilogy--Asch set the action of his novel in Manhattan, where Poles, Jews, Irish Catholics, and Italians are brought together under the same sweatshop roof with one common goal: freedom from the unfair labor practices.

Rather than showing Jews in isolation, in the shtetl or in a Lower East Side tenement, East River was groundbreaking for placing Jews and Judaism within the context of other New York ethnic groups.  

Asch spent the last years of his life living in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, where he continued to work on novels. In 1957, he died in England. Shortly after his death, Asch's home in Bat Yam was converted to a museum of his life and work.

At every turn, Asch defied conventions of Jewish writing. He showed that literature could be Jewish without being overtly Jewish, and that many concerns of Jewish culture mirrored universal, controversial, and even outright Christian themes. His openness earned him both criticism and respect from secular and religious audiences alike.

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