The earliest stage in the development of Jewish satire is exemplified by the Purim play, based typically on subjects related to the biblical Book of Esther. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these plays were presented in a festive atmosphere of thanksgiving for the miracle of Jewish survival. In this spirit, Jews permitted themselves to poke fun at their humiliated persecutors. A limited time frame of one or two days annually at the holiday of Purim moderated the meanest of the satires, as did rabbinical supervision. Over time, however, the objects of satire shifted from gentile oppressors to Jewish communal leadership.
“The Messiah Has Arrived.” Satirical postcard with a cartoon by Leyb Brodaty, depicting Yiddish writers as figures from Isaiah 11:6: “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them.” From right to left: Sholem Asch, David Frishman (snake), Alexander Mukdoyni, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Yitskhok Leybush Peretz (lion), Hillel Zeitlin, and Shmuel Yatskan, editor of the Yiddish newspaper Haynt. Number one in a series called “The Satirical Post.” (Warsaw: Ferlag Satira, ca. 1910). (YIVO)
Jewish satire since the late eighteenth century, composed in Hebrew or Yiddish, has become one of the most significant genres, if not the most significant one, in Jewish literature. The form constitutes a unique looking glass that reflects 200 years of “culture wars” within the Jewish people. Its creation and evolution has depended on social, spiritual, and religious processes within Jewish society as well as outside it. Jewish satire evolved in a hostile environment and has been involved in a never-ending confrontation between the world of traditional beliefs and views on the one hand and the dynamic milieu of European humanism, with all its trends and periods, on the other hand.
The themes of Jewish satire have been governed by a historic awareness that permeates the writings of Jewish authors, coupled with these writers’ aspirations to establish life on rationalist foundations and to avoid, to the maximum extent possible, superstitions that have struck roots in Jewish tradition. The contents of satirical works display a great deal of self-hatred and self-accusation, but through a moral platform, this hatred is shaped and presented in a pleasant and aesthetic form. One of the foundations of satirical creation is the nicety, the convention of finding pleasantness in the ugly and repulsive.
Jewish satire began to acquire its form by the end of the eighteenth century. It developed an ideological platform and aesthetic tools simultaneously, while aiming to change the reality of life within the Jewish community. As a primary element of Haskalah literature, the genre demanded to be recognized as the standard-bearer of the Enlightenment, in the spirit of the European humanism of that period. Moreover, the masterpieces of European satirical literature, those of Cervantes, Gogol, Flaubert, Swift, and Molière, were read by Jewish authors in their original languages or in translation, and influenced the evolution of the genre.
The origins of modern Jewish satire may be traced to late eighteenth-century Germany. Its prominent and most militant creators included Yitsḥak Euchel (1756–1804), Sha’ul Levin-Berlin (1740–1794), and Aharon Halle-Wolfssohn (1754–1835). They aimed their venom at superficial intellectuals whose enlightenment was mere lip service on the one hand, and the hypocrisy of Orthodox religious fanatics on the other.
Postcard with cartoon satirizing the rise of Jewish secularism, by B. M. Rozenfeld, Warsaw, ca. 1910. A derogatory portrait (left) of the world of maskilim: intellectuals wasting their time with bicycle riding and other sports, men playing pool and chess on Yom Kippur, a scale of morality tipped heavily in favor of sin, and a boisterous party involving drink and inappropriate intimacy between men and women: “What? Us wait for the messiah? Feh! Long live freedom!” A pious family (right) celebrating the Sabbath at a dinner table. Overhead is a scale of morality tipped heavily in the direction of “truth and justice” as well as various religious symbols, such as a shofar, a matzo, and an etrog. (YIVO)
Euchel, author of Igrot Meshulam ben Uriyah ha-Eshtem’i (Epistles of Meshulam son of Uriyah of Eshtemoa; 1789) written in the popular epistolary style, and Reb Henoch, oder, Woss tut me damit (Reb Henokh, or What Can Be Done with It?; 1792), provided a rose-colored description of the enlightened intellectuals’ world, exposing their moderate attitude toward non-Jews and their warm and equitable treatment of women. He set a precedent by condemning observant Jews who opposed emancipation. Levin-Berlin, author of Ketav yosher (Document of Honesty; 1794), defended the intellectuals of Berlin and pilloried a grotesque caricature of an Orthodox (teacher) who clings to superstition and radically distorts the teachings of Talmudic rabbis. Halle-Wolfssohn is known for his Hebrew satire Siḥah be-erets ha-ḥayim (A Talk in the World to Come; 1794–1797) and his Yiddish work Laykhtzin und fremelay (Frivolity and Hypocrisy; 1796). In the former work, he sets up a conversation in the next world among Maimonides, a fanatical Polish rabbi, and Moses Mendelssohn, blatantly criticizing the religious education that opposed Enlightenment, and launching focused attacks against Talmudic (which he regarded as idle, pointless argumentation) and the belief in reincarnation.
These satires (with the exception of Euchel’s Igrot Meshulam) established the format of the dramatic dialogue and set a pattern for subsequent examples in Hebrew and Yiddish in Eastern Europe. Characterization is achieved through manners of speech rather than external appearances. There is a definite distinction between black and white: negative characters are unequivocally negative; they have no positive traits at all. By contrast, positive characters are noble and exemplary, representing a wishful utopian reality. Furthermore, characters do not exist for any reason except to represent ideas—a rejected set of values as opposed to a desirable set of principles.
Galicia was the next stop for Hebrew satire, where, as in Germany, writers found material in the struggle between Enlightenment and Hasidism and between Enlightenment and the Orthodox rabbis. The most prominent creators of Jewish satire in Galicia were Tuviah Feder (1760–ca. 1817), Yehudah Leib Mieses (1798–1831), Yosef Perl (1773–1839), Yitsḥak Erter (1791–1851), and Yehoshu‘a Heshel Schorr (1814–1895).
Tuviah Feder’s Kol meḥatsetsim (Sound of Archers; 1814) aimed its satire at the language struggle between Hebrew and Yiddish. Hebrew literature and culture, in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth, was torn by competition between the languages; the roots of this battle lay in the struggle over the place of German in the life of the Jewish community. The debate continued in the form of a bitter controversy over the place of Yiddish in relation to German and Hebrew, a subject highlighted at the language conference in Czernowitz in 1908.
Yosef Perl, author of Megaleh temirin (Revealer of Secrets; 1819) and Boḥen (Examiner of a Tsadik; 1838), adapted Euchel’s epistolary style for his attacks. By far, Perl aimed his most poignant satirical work against Hasidism. Perl reversed an initial negative attitude toward Yiddish to affirm the place of the language in Jewish life. Nonetheless, his Yiddish-language satires on Hasidism were not published in his lifetime; the Yiddish version of Megaleh temirin appeared in 1937 and his Ma‘asiyot ve-igrot mi-tsadikim amitiyim ume-anshe shelomenu (Hasidic Tales and Letters) were not edited and published until 1969. Perl also translated Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (the manuscript remains in his archive (brought from Tarnopol to the National Library in Jerusalem).
Feder, Mieses, Erter, and Schorr chose to follow Halle-Wolfssohn’s model of the otherworld dialogue. Feder uses this format for the setting of a fictional confrontation between the enlightened intellectuals of Berlin, headed by Mendelssohn, and the grotesque and ridiculous character (in both essence and appearance) of an East European melamed who teaches the Bible in Yiddish. Mieses, in his Kin’at ha-emet (Fanaticism for Truth; 1828), questions the authority of Hasidism and forcefully attacks beliefs in reincarnation, creating a dialogue between Maimonides and Rabbi Shelomoh of Khelem (1717–1781), the author of Sefer mirkevet ha-mishneh (1751).
The writings of Yehoshu‘a Heshel Schorr ushered in another stage in the evolution of Jewish satire, as he combined narrative and essay. Schorr’s unique dialectic mocked references from Talmudic sources and the writings of religious authorities; with this method, he practically followed the pattern first introduced by Erter.
Russia was the third stop for satire in Hebrew and Yiddish in the late nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century. Modern Jewish literature generally, and satire in particular, evolved by changing from “literature about literature” to literature about current life. During the Enlightenment, Jewish authors had dealt with the reality of their lives through the looking glass of sacred texts. By the second half of the nineteenth century, however, writers began to treat sacred texts as components of a comprehensive cultural and aesthetic system. Yiddish, which Feder had regarded as an inferior language for use by the servant class, evolved to become a literary language in such satirical masterpieces as Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s play Di takse (The Tax; 1869); Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski’s Dos poylishe yingl (The Polish Youth; 1873); and Y. L. Peretz’s short stories. These examples also denote phases in the structural and formal evolution of Jewish satire. The epistolary style of Euchel and Perl provided the basis for the satirical romantic novels of Avraham Mapu and Mendele Moykher-Sforim.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly in Poland, Yiddish satire was an abundant characteristic of short stories, poetry, and drama. The most outstanding author of such works was I. J. Singer (1893–1944). A biting and pessimistic tendency dominates his work, particularly in his Yoshe Kalb (1932) and in the first novel he wrote after moving to the United States, Di brider Ashkenazi (The Brothers Ashkenazi; 1936).
The works of Shemu’el Yosef Agnon and Ḥayim Hazaz in the twentieth century combine the traditions of the previous century with the satirical spirit that characterized European culture in the newer era. In the nineteenth century, Hebrew satire struggled with representing the reality of life as reflected through the prism of canonical texts with whose authority it also had to wrestle, while in the works of Agnon and Hazaz the canonical texts serve merely as materials in the creation of an ironic and complex rhetoric of cultural and aesthetic expression.
Yehuda Friedlander, Perakim ba-satirah ha-‘ivrit, vol. 1, Be-Shilhe ha-me’ah ha-18 be-Germanyah (Tel Aviv, 1979); Yehuda Friedlander, Be-Mistere ha-satirah, vols. 1–3 (Ramat Gan, 1984–1994); Charles Madison, Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers (New York, 1968); Moshe Pelli, “Isaac Euchel: Tradition and Change,” in The Age of Haskalah: Studies in Hebrew Literature of the Enlightenment in Germany, pp. 190–230 (Leiden, 1979); Moshe Pelli, “The Epistolary Story in Haskalah Literature: Isaac Euchel’s Igrot Meshulam,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 93.3–4 (January–April 2003): 431–469; Joseph Perl, Ma‘asiyot ve-igrot mi-tsadikim amitiyim ume-anshe shelomenu, ed. Chone Shmeruk and Samuel Werses (Jerusalem, 1969); Chone Shmeruk, Sifrut Yidish: Perakim le-toldoteha (Tel Aviv, 1978).
Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann