Title page of Di vunderlekhe lebns-bashraybung fun Shmuel-Abe Abervo (Dos bukh fun gan-eydn) (The Amazing Life Story of Shmuel-Abe Abervo [The Book of the Garden of Eden]), by Itsik Manger. (Warsaw: Farlag H. Bzhoza, 1939). (YIVO)

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Yiddish Prose

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A new genre of fiction in the Yiddish language (the term modern Yiddish literature can mislead) emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century, lagging somewhat behind innovations in drama and other literary genres. The new fiction, moreover, developed during the first half of the century at a very slow pace, first in Galicia and western Ukraine, and eventually (from the 1840s on) also in the Lithuanian north, with Vilna as its epicenter of production and dissemination. The emergence of the new fiction was closely related to the gradual spreading of the Haskalah throughout Eastern Europe. As Yiddish literature of the Haskalah came of age in the 1860s, its fiction quickly reached a high level of productivity.

There is a scholarly debate regarding the roots of the new Yiddish literature. Certain scholars, most prominently Shmuel Niger, attempted to detect within it, and particularly within its prose fiction, the imprints of older literary traditions that preceded the Haskalah (such as the Yiddish folktale and the traditionalist Yiddish didactic chapbook). These scholars argued for the “continuity” and rootedness in the culture of the “folk,” and ascribed much significance to the work of such writers as Ayzik Meyer Dik (1807/14?–1893), the author of novellas that resembled the traditionalist chapbook in form and content. Conversely, other literary historians, most notably Meir Wiener (1893–1941) and Maks Erik (1898–1937), rejected this continuity-oriented hypothesis, insisting on the essentially revolutionary nature of new Yiddish literature. These scholars emphasized the contributions of early fiction writers such as Yisroel Aksenfeld (1787–1866), whose work reflected developments they regarded as historically significant.

Current scholarly consensus tends toward the “anticontinuity” view. Historically speaking, the new Yiddish fiction emerged at a time and in areas where the Hasidic movement was rapidly gaining social and religious dominance over the Jewish population. While the Hasidic movement developed a hagiographic and didactic literature of legend in Yiddish, Haskalah writers resorted to Yiddish with the intention of undermining Hasidic discourse through satirical parodies. The writing of parodic fiction in Yiddish was a tactical move, not an intentionally aesthetic one, which explains the writers’ employment of a language most exponents of the Haskalah rejected.

Thus, the first new Yiddish fictions were anti-Hasidic parodies, such as Menakhem Mendel Lefin’s (1749–1826) Der ershter khosed (The First Hasid) and Yosef Perl’s (1773–1839) bilingual Megale temirin (The Revealer of Secrets; Hebrew version, 1819). While Yiddish versions of Perl’s work were eventually published, none were published in the author’s lifetime. Similarly other Yiddish works of fiction or semifiction written by the exponents of the early East European Haskalah were not printed in the authors’ lifetimes. For example, Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon’s (1788–1860) works Di hefker velt (The Lawless World) and Vos s’tut zikh af yener velt (What Takes Place in the World of the Dead), were both printed only after the author’s death. The authors’ initial rejection of Yiddish as a literary language, and fear of persecution by the satire’s butts, deterred the immediate publication of these works. In contrast, such “neutral” (i.e., not anti-Hasidic) didactic Yiddish stories as the anonymous “Geshikhte fun Alter Leyb” (The Story of Alter Leyb) and Khayim Khaykl Hurwitz’s (1749–1828) “Tsofnas paneakh” (Revealer of Secrets; 1817, on the discovery of America by Columbus) were published and enjoyed certain popularity.

Baym shvel (At the Threshold), by Shimen Horontshik. (Warsaw: Kinder-fraynd, 1936). (YIVO)

Under the tsarist regime of Nicholas I (1825–1856), the authorities regarded the authors of anti-Hasidic works as possible fomenters of revolutionary unrest, and their writing was unremittingly censored. This doomed to oblivion essentially everything written in this field before the emergence of Dik, Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (1836–1917), and Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski (1839–1915). The literature produced prior to these authors must be regarded as a hushed-up overture—replayed in part by twentieth-century scholars rather than heard by the contemporaries for whose benefit it was composed. Of such writers, Aksenfeld, the first novelist who consistently devoted himself to writing Yiddish fiction, is an outstanding example.

Still, the question of the late development of Yiddish fiction, as opposed to drama, requires further elaboration. Credible dialogue and reference to the details of the current social scene were at the Yiddish writer’s fingertips. What was felt to be unattainable in Yiddish were the creation of a convincing omniscient narrator who could organize and explain an extended novelistic plot—thus endowing it with an epic unity—and a high ideational discourse, without which the narrator could not function as a raisonneur and a conveyer of the concepts of the Haskalah. For both functions, a kind of “high” and conceptual Yiddish—one that could transcend mere dialogue and dialect—was necessary. Yet Yiddish in this form was incongruous with the aesthetics of parody. Thus, the task of spelling out the concepts of the Haskalah was often relegated to the narrator—materializing as an omniscient, mealymouthed representative of the maskilic norm, and speaking a Germanized Yiddish.

The other option for an aspiring Yiddish novelist was to reduce the role of the narrator to a minimum. In this case, a situational comedy based primarily on dialogue would prevail. These two narrative modes basically defined Yiddish fiction created before the appearance of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh’s Yiddish works in the 1860s. Novelists hailing from the Lithuanian north, such as Yankev Dinezon (1856?–1919) and Nakhum Meyer Shaykevitch (better known as Shomer; 1849?–1905), opted for a semi-Germanized, omniscient narrator. The other kind of narration, which evolved mainly in the Ukrainian south, is best represented by Aksenfeld’s work, Dos shterntikhl (The Headband; 1861), a dialogic text structured as a narrated drama.

Both narrative options had their merits yet also presented limitations. A story with an omniscient narrator could encompass complex plots with extensive chronological and spatial dimensions. Yet the “Lithuanian” omniscient narrator exuded a patronizing attitude toward the reader, leaving little to the imagination. This mode of narration was therefore quickly outgrown by the more self-conscious members of the reading public. It was targeted at consumers of titillating romances such as those produced by the far from untalented Shaykevitch and his legion of imitators. Conversely, the “Ukrainian” narrative option was based on “showing” rather than on “telling.” While this mode was more critical than the bland didactic tales of the northern writers, it was devoid of epic scope and circumscribed in its spatial and chronological span.

The Impact of Abramovitsh

Against this dualistic backdrop of two flawed narrative methods, the significance of the invention of the character Mendele the Book Peddler by Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh in the 1860s is most apparent. Mendele was invented as an intermediary persona. He was a book peddler and a publisher (who purportedly published authentic documents composed by others), and he lived a life dictated by his trade, which took him from distant hamlets to the fields of Ukraine. Although imbued with Jewish lore, Mendele’s perception of the world was never occluded by his immersion in Jewish ritual; he remained a staid realist from his inception. While not personally aligned with the Haskalah (although he secretly carried books and periodicals published by its exponents in his wagon), Mendele was the ideal vehicle for the maskilic writer looking to indirectly disseminate the tenets of the Enlightenment.

Thus Abramovitsh gradually entrusted his Mendele with ever-heavier narrative duties. He would pay lip service to the allegedly authentic authors of the texts but at the same time openly present himself as retelling the stories they contained, because, for whatever reasons, these stories in their original forms did not suit the “taste” and reading habits of Jews. In short, Mendele became a dramatized omniscient narrator (as in Masoes Binyomin hashlishi; 1878, and the expanded version of Dos vintshfingerl; 1888). Furthermore, as a professional man of letters, Mendele could employ a complex and civilized Yiddish—one fit for both meticulous description and for cogitation, while still retaining its idiomatic earthy roots. The Mendele phenomenon was a way out of the quandary that had plagued Yiddish fiction. Uniting a dramatic quality with epic scope, he became the most important character in nineteenth-century Yiddish literature.

After the birth of Mendele, many Yiddish writers, including Linetski, Shimon Bernshteyn (dates unknown), and M. A. Shatskes (1825–1898) followed Abramovitsh’s example and invented their own personae to negotiate the divide between the traditional communities they described and the intellectual modernism they espoused. Some of their works achieved great renown, although nobody, with the possible exception of Sholem Aleichem, neared Abramovitch in the ability to develop the persona and broaden its narrative scope or in elevating the idiomatic Yiddish it spoke to a normative, supradialectological level.

Thus, it was the “Ukrainian school,” led by Abramovitsh, that enabled the New Yiddish fiction to flourish in the 1870s and 1880s. Its growth resulted in the concurrent emergence of antimaskilic fiction. With the works of anti-Hasidic writers achieving popularity even in Hasidic circles, Orthodox Jews had to acknowledge the potency of their rivals. There arose the Warsaw neo-Orthodox school of writers such as Yankev Morgenstern (1820–1890), Avigdor B. Ruf (dates unknown), and Gustav Makman (dates unknown), who used the maskilic version of the didactic chapbook to combat the influence of radical Haskalah fiction. Ruf, for example, openly declared in his Beyn hazmanim oder beyn regel leregel (In the Interval between the Holidays; 1866) his intention of undoing the damage inflicted by Aksenfeld’s Shterntikhl. These works of antimodern Yiddish literature employed the very narrative tools developed and used against them by the modern writers. This kind of literature flourished in Poland also throughout the first decades of the twentieth century until World War II.

Sholem Aleichem joined the field of Yiddish literature in the 1880s, when various factors, including the expansion of the reading public in that language, encouraged Yiddish authors to conceive of their writing in terms of a national literature in the making. Emboldened with this mentality, he tried quickly to “gentrify” Yiddish literature and establish a Yiddish tradition presided over by “grandfather” Abramovitsh. Although he ridiculed the popular romance novels churned out by Shomer and his followers, his ambition was to create Yidishe romanen (Jewish novels), which he defined as love stories played against a contemporary Jewish social backdrop. The novels strove for an equilibrium between the erotic motif and the Jewishness of the characters. This act of counterbalancing produced truncated melodramatic plots enlivened by comic “causerie.”

Other Yiddish novelists of the time, such as Mordkhe Spektor (1858–1925) and Yankev Dinezon, struck their own compromises between realism and melodrama. Dinezon focused on people in extremis, particularly on impoverished children. Spektor explored the social chaos created by the pogroms, the pauperization of the Jewish middle class, and mass emigration. Alternating between comic shtetl plots and melodramatic tragedy (as in his Aniyim ve’evyoynim; 1886), he produced novels that competed successfully with the popular romance novels of the period.

Peretz and New Narrative Forms

Within a few years of appearing on the Yiddish literary scene, Y. L. Peretz (1852–1915) managed to dominate it completely. His stories—he never attempted the extended and more complex form of the novel—presented an innovation (one may even call it a revolution) that amounted to the most significant step forward Yiddish fiction took after the invention of the Mendele-like persona 30 years earlier. Peretz discarded the folksy persona stratagem and devised a manner of telling that directly reflected his subjectivity—a vibrant, nervous, suggestive, and often choppy style that articulated with seismographic sensitivity and precision the agitated, quick-witted, intelligent, and alternately ironic and pathetic consciousness of a modern urban man. This style, and the particular narrative tonality it gave rise to, permeated everything Peretz wrote. The unifying principle of the subjectivity of the author, always in a state of flux, informed, whether directly or indirectly, all his stories, many of which were simplistically comprehended, taken at face value by their readers. Peretz’s fiction did not emanate from the “people” but rather from an idiosyncratic, modern individual. Peretz, in short, brought to Yiddish fiction the modernity of the turn of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Dovid Pinski (right) with his cousins Hirshe Zhorov from Orenburg (seated, left) and Yoysef Tsaytlin (standing) from Mohilev, Russia (now in Belarus), 1894. Photograph by L. Perelmann. (YIVO)

Peretz’s presence ushered in almost two decades throughout which the genre of the short story dominated Yiddish literature. Young prose writers, such as Dovid Pinski (1872–1959), Sholem Asch (1880–1957), Hersh Dovid Nomberg (1876–1927), Avrom Reyzen (1876–1953), Yona Rozenfeld (1880–1944), Itshe Meyer Vaysenberg (1881–1938), and Lamed Shapiro (1878–1948) wrote short stories and novellas influenced by the modalities of Peretz’s short fictions. Older writers, too, turned to short fiction in their writing. For example, Sholem Aleichem, in the role of the creative listener, elicited a flow of convoluted, disorderly monologues from a wide array of fictional characters. These stories, beginning in 1895 with the first monologue of Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman), proved to be the venue through which the author’s genius found true expression. As the props of the novelistic plot and the commentary of the omniscient narrator were removed, Yiddish art now exposed the human condition at its most fundamental levels. Thus, in spite of being thematically and linguistically steeped in Jewish ambience and the felicities of idiomatic Yiddish, Sholem Aleichem created Yiddish fiction that, touching on emotions and psychic mechanisms that were everywhere at work, had the widest universal appeal. Sholem Aleichem became the first world-class modern Yiddish writer.

The decade before World War I was one of crisis and disruption. Jewish life in the tsarist empire was struck by seismic tremors, and this inevitably set the stage for changes in Yiddish writing, which manifested themselves in three major trends. The first was naturalism, a radicalized extension of earlier realism. Naturalism conveyed the themes of class struggle and of psychologically primitive behavior with a raw and brutal vitality. For example, Vaysenberg’s novella A shtetl (A Small Town; 1906) presented the historical shtetl as an economic battlefield, replete with physical violence. In accordance with the story’s ideological underpinnings, Vaysenberg flattened the description of the shtetl, replacing metaphor with metonymy, so as to strip shtetl life of spirituality. Rozenfeld, in turn, carried psychological naturalism to the domain of individual life. In North America, writers such as S. Libin (1872–1955), Ya‘akov Gordin (1853–1909), Z. Levin (1877–1935), and Leon Kobrin (1872–1946) related the toil of immigrant sweatshop workers. Around 1910, a group of new writers, all exposed to current European fiction, coalesced as Di Yunge (The Young Ones). One member, Yoysef Opatoshu (1886–1954) produced the extraordinary naturalist short novel, Fun nyu yorker geto (From the New York Ghetto; 1914).

The second trend that emerged in the antebellum decade was impressionism. Pioneered by Nomberg, the impressionist writers projected reality through evocative imagery, focusing on disconnected metonymies and synechdoches. The master of early Yiddish impressionism was Lamed Shapiro, whose manner of narration in his descriptions of pogroms activated the reader’s imagination with its many gaps and lacunas. Dovid Bergelson’s (1884–1952) first novella, Arum vokzal (At the Depot; 1909), and his shorter fictions were steeped in impressionistic renderings of mood and atmosphere. In his first novel, Nokh alemen (When All Is Said and Done; 1913), one of the greatest achievements of Yiddish fiction, a more traditional realist narration was adopted with the impressionist element added as an ancillary component and exquisitely integrated within a seamless fabric of controlled narration. The impressionistic aspect increased in Bergelson’s second novel, Opgang (Decline; 1920), enhancing the effects of his realism.

A third trend emanating from Peretz’s neoromantic vision led toward symbolism. Important stations along this trajectory were Sholem Asch’s neoromantic “poems in prose,” A shtetl (A Small Town; 1904) and Reb Shloyme noged (Reb Shloyme the Rich Man; 1913). Asch, a volatile writer, practiced many narrative styles, such as Yiddish naturalism (as in his novella Dos koyler gesl [The Butchers’ Ally]) and impressionism. Asch, however, never really crossed the threshold of authentic symbolism, where the dominance of musicality went hand in hand with mystification, a far-reaching elimination of mimetic description, defamiliarization, abstraction, and a certain opacity. The artist who best exemplified this trend was Der Nister (1884–1950), whose mystical prose poems were followed by legendary novellas. These novellas employed pseudo-kabalistic motifs interwoven with idiosyncratic parables. In America, Dovid Ignatov (1885–1954) of Di Yunge believed in the application of the group’s symbolist poetics to prose fiction and poetry. His novel In kesl grub (In the Crucible; 1918) told of a group of immigrants and their quest for an ideal life of love and harmony.

Reemergence of the Novel

In 1905, the novel reemerged as the dominant form in Yiddish prose fiction. This trend asserted itself in the years preceding the war and gained dominance during the interbellum period. Characteristically, writers began their careers by producing short stories and novellas, and then turned their energies toward the novel, as the dynamics of Yiddish literature now favored this more extensive and synthetic form. Some remained loyal to the shorter genres, such as Lamed Shapiro, Yona Rozenfeld, and the younger Froyim Kaganovski (1893–1958) and A. M. Fuchs (1890–1974). However, the dynamics of Yiddish literature clearly now favored a shift toward the epic mode. Even the ascetic Der Nister finally succumbed, investing much of the balance of his tragically truncated career to the writing of the vast family saga Di mishpokhe Mashber (The Mashber Family; 1939, 1948) of which only the two first volumes were completed and published.

Di mishpokhe Mashber (The Mashber Family), by Der Nister. (Moscow: Emes, 1939) (YIVO)

This generic shift can be traced along two lines. One is socioeconomic. The Yiddish reading public, receiving its literary sustenance through dailies in that language, became addicted to the serialized novel. Fostered by perceptive editors who used this trend as a means of ensuring a reader’s loyalty to their newspaper, it resulted in the daily serialization of fervaylung (entertainment) novels, as well as the weekly serialization of more literary novels as reading material for the Sabbath. Of course, even the more serious works were constrained within the mold of traditional nineteenth-century realism. As material was targeted at a wide reading public, the Yiddish press did not want to discourage potential readers by publishing experimental works, and handsome salaries were paid to those writers who satisfied its demands.

Consequently, some of the best Yiddish writers of the twentieth century—Asch, Zalman Shneour (1886–1959), Israel Joshua Singer (1893–1944), and Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904–1991)—harnessed themselves to the chariots of the daily press and produced dozens of novels of uneven merit. Some of these writers, such as Yoshue Perle (1888–1943), the author of the bildungsroman Yidn fun a gants yor (Everyday Jews; 1937) and the talented Yisroel Rabon (1900–1941), author of Di Gas (The Street; 1928) also anonymously published off-color, semipornographic novels. At the very least, there was a concurrent interest in serious literary works. Initially, this public demand resulted in established writers like Sholem Aleichem returning with a vengeance to novel writing, beginning in 1907 with the publication of Der mabl (The Deluge), later retitled as In shturm (In the Storm). Soon, however, editors of the daily papers began courting young writers as well. Some, like Asch, would find this semicommercialized matrix quite seductive; others, like Bergelson, would distance themselves from this niche. In sum, the daily press exerted a tremendous influence on the development of Yiddish fiction in the twentieth century.

Another factor resulting in the dominance of the novel was the historical upheaval of Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century. Readers of Yiddish literature yearned for a coherent narrative that could make sense of the fractured life of East European Jewry. In response, Sholem Aleichem sought to illuminate the continuity of Jewish life in his novel Blonzhende shtern (Wandering Stars; 1909, 1910) and pseudo-novel Motl Peyse dem khazns (Motl, the Son of Cantor Peyse). Here he pointed to the Jewish immigration to the “new world” as incorporating a revolutionary new beginning and continuity in modern Jewish life. In 1909, Leon Kobrin published a comprehensive novel about the American immigrant experience. Many novels on the subject followed.

At the same time the search for a more comprehensive presentation of the upheaval in Jewish life led to the development of new novelistic themes and strategies. Among such works were Sholem Asch’s Meri and its sequel Der veg tsu zikh (The Path to Oneself; 1913–1914), and Bergelson’s Nokh alemen. In this novel, Bergelson crystalized his innovative narrative manner, which can be regarded as the third decisive step Yiddish fiction took after Abramovitsh in the 1860s and Peretz in the 1890s. Bergelson tore the narrating voice from the medium of idiomatic speech and crafted a narration that was unabashedly literary, writing sentences complex enough in their vocabulary and syntactical arrangement as to be beyond the limits of a dramatized narration. His impressionism allowed for the projection of the moods of the protagonists without direct references to their interior monologues. Modern Yiddish fiction could thus distill epic essence without becoming dull, crude, or folkstimlekh. With this contribution the author secured a historic achievement of the first order. Also noteworthy is Asch’s Meri, an epic that spanned in a single novelistic plot the multitiered Jewish society of Saint Petersburg before World War I. Asch later reattempted such tours de force with great success, as in the trilogy entitled Farn mabl (Before the Deluge; 1929–1931), better known as Dray shtet (Three Cities). This was perhaps the best-known example in Yiddish of the subgenre of the epoch novel.

Modernism in the Interwar Period

The interwar period was the heyday of experimental modernism. The arts were undergoing changes with revolutionary innovations and experimentation being the order of the day. Yet, little of this fervor reached Yiddish prose fiction. In the Soviet Union, modernism was denounced as bourgeois and reactionary. In Poland and the United States, the only outlets for Yiddish prose fiction were the popular daily newspapers, and neither the editors nor the readers of these newspapers would allow for the serialization of an experimental novel. Thus, Yiddish writers of prose fiction could not invest in modernist experimentation even if they wished to. Nevertheless, some modernist works were written in Yiddish, among them, two novels by Moyshe Kulbak (1896–1937): Meshiekh ben Efrayim (The Penultimate Messiah; 1924) and Montog (Monday; 1926). These novels explored the theme of revolution, and in both pieces the poetics of expressionism were fully realized. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first novel, Der sotn in Goray (Satan in Goray; 1935) used the theme of the spread of Sabbatianism in seventeenth-century Poland to explore and debunk the concept of revolution. Yisroel Rabon informed his essentially naturalistic prose fiction with bold expressionist features such as the grotesque. Der Nister created novellas in which dream, reality, faith, and apostasy were fantastically interwoven. In these stories (collected in 1929 in Fun mayne giter [From My Estates]) Yiddish symbolism reached its pinnacle of artistic depth. Modernistic trends prevalent in the West (such as the use of the interior monologue, the collage, and “Freudian” dream-language) were brilliantly conflated in the two autobiographical “Yash” novels by Yankev Glatshteyn (1896–1971), Ven Yash iz geforn (When Yash Traveled; 1938) and Ven Yash iz gekumen (When Yash Arrived; 1940), undoubtedly the highest achievement of Yiddish modernistic prose fiction in North America.

Title page of Di vunderlekhe lebns-bashraybung fun Shmuel-Abe Abervo (Dos bukh fun gan-eydn) (The Amazing Life Story of Shmuel-Abe Abervo [The Book of the Garden of Eden]), by Itsik Manger. (Warsaw: Farlag H. Bzhoza, 1939). (YIVO)

During the period between the two world wars, Yiddish literature was written in “three centers” (Bergelson’s term): Poland, the Soviet Union, and North America. In each center different issues occupied the minds of most writers, and different pressures delimited the scope of their imagination. In the Soviet Union, Yiddish literature adapted itself to the official aesthetics of socialist realism. In Poland, writers examined the vicissitudes of Jewish existence under economic blockade and the shadow of pogroms. In America, Yiddish literature focused on the various phases of the acculturation of the Jewish immigrants. There was also a literary market for stories written about the “old country.” For example, the stories written by Zalman Shneour about his hometown Shklov (Shklover yidn [Jews of Shklov] in 1929; Feter Zhome [Uncle Zhome] in 1930; and Noyekh Pandre [translated as The Song of the Dnieper] in 1938–1939) were serialized in the Forverts with unprecedented success. I. J. Singer’s novel of illicit love in the Galician Hasidic courts, Yoshe kalb (Dumb Yoshe; 1932) was similarly popular, and Sholem Asch’s neoromantic novel about the life of a Polish Jewish saint, Der tilim-yid (The Psalms Reciter; in English: Salvation; 1934) scored international acclaim.

In spite of the differences marking the prose fiction written in the three centers, the Yiddish novel assumed a relatively stable form. Cast in the mold of nineteenth-century realistic fiction, it fell into subgeneric categories that dealt with epochs, individual lives, and entire communities. For instance, Yiddish writers turned to the autobiographical bildungsroman of bygone days as the stylistic influence for their novels. This subgenre is perhaps best represented by Perle’s Yidn fun a gants yor and its sequel; Shimen Horontshik’s (1889–1939) autobiographical Baym shvel (At the Threshold; 1935/36); and Bergelson’s Bam Dnyeper (By the Dnieper; 1932–1940). Equally popular was the genre of the family saga. Writers—among them Dovid Pinski, Yoysef Opatoshu, Borukh Glazman (1893–1945), the brothers Singer, and Der Nister—detailed the decline of the Jewish bourgeoisie in stories spanning multiple generations. After World War II, this subgenre was popular in the West and in the Soviet Union.

Illustration by Y. Zeydenbaytl for Shmuglars (Smugglers), by Oyzer Varshavski (Warsaw: Vaysenberg Ferlag, 1920). “Bertshe pumps and hands out beer.” (YIVO)

The historical novel was another popular subgenre, with writers such as Opatoshu, Meir Wiener, and Nosn Zabara adopting this form. “Epoch” novels (including Horontshik’s Farplonterte vegn oder tsvishn di khurves fun yidishn lebns [Winding Roads, or Among the Ruins of Jewish Life]; 1924 and Perets Markish’s [1895–1952] Dor oys dor ayn [Generation Goes, Generation Comes]; 1929), were produced in all three geographical centers, as were fictions about Jewish communities, such as Itsik Kipnis’s (1896–1974) Khadoshim un teg (Months and Days; 1926). Other authors described the communities’ experiences during World War I, such as Oyzer Varshavski’s (1898–1944) Shmuglars (Smugglers; 1920) and Shnit-tsayt (Harvest Time; 1926), Leyb Rashkin’s (1903–1939) Di mentshn fun Godlbozshits (The People of Godlbozshits; 1936), Mikhl Burshtin’s (1897–1945) Iber di khurves fun Ployne (Over the Ruins of Ployne; 1931) and Bay di taykhn fun Mazovye (On the Rivers of Mazovia; 1937). These various works nourished a vast reading public, as they were written at a time when Yiddish novels formed a burgeoning literary estate.

In their response to the Holocaust, writers of Yiddish fiction lagged behind Jewish writers who wrote in non-Jewish languages, such as Primo Levi, Jean Améry, Imre Kertesz, or Ida Fink. The Holocaust demanded the resort to a new narrative language, and Yiddish fiction lacked both the necessary conceptual tools and the tradition of experimentation needed to form this language. Authors such as “Ka-Tzetnik” (Yeḥi’el Dinur; 1917–2001) and Yeshayahu Shpigl (1906–1990) attempted to write Holocaust narratives in Yiddish. While the former created crude, sensational tales, the latter produced refined and restrained depictions of the unspeakable events; yet neither writer was sufficiently aware of the need for new artistic tools for gauging the dimensions of the topic they faced. Leyb Rokhman (1918–1978) was perhaps the only Yiddish writer of fiction who understood the need for innovative tonality in writing on the Holocaust. His works, Un in dayn blut zolstu lebn (And in Your Blood You Will Live; 1949), and Mit blinde trit iber der erd (With Blind Steps on the Ground; 1966) are the most rewarding texts of Yiddish prose fiction written on the unspeakable topic.

Suggested Reading

Bal Makhshoves (Isidore Elyasiv), Geklibene shriftn (New York, 1953); Jeremy Dauber, “Looking Again: Representation in Nineteenth-Century Yiddish Literature,” Prooftexts 25.3 (2005): 276–318; Maks Erik, Etyudn tsu der geshikhte fun der haskole, 1789–1881, vol. 1 (Minsk, 1934); Maks Erik and A. Rozentsvayg, Di yidishe literatur in 19tn yorhundert, vol. 1 (Kiev-Kharkov, 1935); Janet Hadda, Passionate Women, Passive Men: Suicide in Yiddish Literature (Albany, N.Y., 1988); Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (Stanford, Calif., 1999); Mikhail Krutikov, Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905–1914 (Stanford, Calif., 2001); Jacob Lestschinsky, Dos yidishe ekonomishe lebn in der yidisher literatur (Warsaw, 1921); Nachman Mayzel, Doyres un tkufes in der yidisher literatur (New York, 1942); Dan Miron, Ben ḥazon le-emet (Jerusalem, 1979); Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Syracuse, N.Y., 1996); Dan Miron, The Image of the Shtetl and Other Studies of Modern Jewish Literary Imagination (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000); Shmuel Niger, Dertseylers un romanistn (New York, 1946); Shmuel Niger, Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (New York, 1959); Nokhem Oyslender, Gruntshtrikhn fun yidishn realizm (Kiev, 1920); Nokhem Oyslender, “Varshever mekhabrim in di 50-er–60-er yorn,” Bibliologisher zamlbukh, ed. Yoysef Liberberg, vol. 1, pp. 164–197 (Moscow, Kharkov, and Minsk, 1930); Nokhem Oyslender, “Mendeles mitgeyers in di 60-er–70-er yorn,” in Mendele un zayn tsayt, pp. 90–171 (Moscow, 1940); Zalman Rejzen, Fun Mendelson biz Mendele (Warsaw, 1923); Zalman Rejzen, Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye, 4 vols. (Vilna, 1928–1930); David Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass., 1995); Jan Schwarz, Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers (Madison, Wisc., 2005); Chone Shmeruk, Sifrut yidish: Perakim le-toldoteha (Tel Aviv, 1978); Nokhem Shtif, Di eltere yidishe literatur (Kiev, 1929); Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk, Idealizm un naturalizm in der yidisher literatur (Warsaw, 1927); Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk, Di yidishe proze in Poyln in der tkufe tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes (Buenos Aires, 1949); Meyer Viner, Tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in nayntsern yorhundert, 2 vols. (New York, 1945–1946); Max Weinreich, Bilder fun der yidisher literatur-geshikhte (Vilna, 1928); Ruth R. Wisse, The Modern Jewish Canon (New York, 2000).