The Early Stage
 The language of daily communication develops an
artificial “twin” – literary Yiddish (16th-18th centuries).
 Early literature: Biblical translations and
interpretations, legends, homiletic stories.
 1534 – a Biblical dictionary and concordance in
Yiddish, the first Yiddish printed book.
 Late 17th century: the Bible published in Yiddish in
Genres of the Early Literature
Epic: rhymed renderings of
Biblical stories and
midrashim,* 14th -16th centuries
(The Book of Esther, Book of
Kings, Isaiah, etc.). Formally kin
to German epic poetry of
respective epochs.
Functions: spreading Biblical
knowledge; providing
entertainment; diverting
attention from non-Jewish
*midrashim – rabbinical
commentaries on the Hebrew
Genres of the Early Literature
Homiletic Prose (late 16th-17th centuries):
Prose collections of midrashim, didactic tales, Biblical
interpretations, and homilies written in accessible
style, such as The Tsenerene (nicknamed “women’s
Bible”) by Rabbi Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi (still in
Made a lasting effect on literary Yiddish (archaic
vocabulary, idioms, syntax).
Genres of the Early Literature
Drama (17th-18th) centuries:
Biblical stories embellished
with midrashim. Contained
elements of comedy and
other aspects prompted by
non-Jewish drama of the
Participated in the tradition of
Purim spiel (comic plays
performed during Purim*).
*Purim – joyous holiday celebrating the
deliverance of Jewish people from
death in ancient Persia.
Genres of the Early Literature
 the tkhine (private prayers);
 translations of liturgical prayers (for
 religious poems and hymns for home
Ethical Writings:
 Accessible instructions on the code
of conduct on various religious,
social, and domestic occasions;
 Parables, exempla, hagiography, and
fables (ex., Ki Bukh, “Book of Cows,”
the first Yiddish collection of fables,
late 16th century, Northern Italy).
Genres of the Early Literature
“Historical” Songs, lider: long narrative poems set to music.
 Reflected contemporary events;
 Served as news releases;
 Contained topical satire;
 Expressed public opinions;
 Were influenced by German poetic conventions.
 Last manifestations of the genre occurred during the
World War II in ghettoes and death camps.
Intellectual Movements:
The Haskalah
 Jewish Enlightenment
(mid 18th – late 19th cent.)
 Based on European Enlightenment.
 Promoted rationalism, secularization, interaction with
other cultures and languages.
 Encouraged non-traditional arts and crafts, as well as
secular sciences.
 Supported integration in the life of the countries where
Jews lived, politically and socially.
Intellectual Movements: The Haskalah
 Developed a practice of transcribing German
literature into the Yiddish alphabet.
 Gave rise to secular Yiddish drama (late 18th-early
19th cent.), especially didactic comedies endorsing
Paradox 1: Yiddish drama denying and mocking Yiddish
language as “corrupt.”
Paradox 2: Anti-Yiddish in sentiment, secular drama
assisted modernization of Yiddish literature.
Intellectual Movements: Hasidism
 Religious “renaissance”:
fervent piety, exuberant
devotion, mysticism,
emotional forms of
 Started in early 18th century
as opposition to rationalist
 Founded by Rabbi Baal
Shem Tov (Besht). To this
day, have dynastic Rabbis
as spiritual leaders.
Intellectual Movements: Hasidism
In close connection with folklore, produced important
genres of Yiddish literature:
 Hagiographic stories about extraordinary deeds of
spiritual leaders (ex., The Praises of the Baal Shem Tov,
 Mystic stories with religious subtext exploring the
dichotomy between soul and reason, spirituality and
Affected symbolist and modernist fiction. Modern Yiddish
short stories developed as a continuation of Hassidic
Intellectual Movements:
The Labour Movement (The Bund)
 Secular, politicized, Marxist, socialist.
 Nationalistic, pro-Yiddish.
 Appeared in late 19th century.
 Used Yiddish literature, especially poetry, as a
propagandist tool.
 Gave Yiddish literature ideological support.
 Introduced purely secular themes (daily life hardships,
social inequality, etc.).
 Inadvertently promoted assimilation through secular
education and revolutionary ideas.
Mendele Moykher-Sforim
(Sholem Yankev Abramovich)
 Born in Belarus, lived in various
eastern parts of the Russian Empire.
 “Grandfather of Yiddish literature.”
 Proponent of the Haskalah.
 Drama, novels, and stories about
Jewish daily life and specific problems.
 Satire; a gallery of typical characters.
Sholem-Aleykhem (Shalom
Rabinowitz) 1859-1916
Born in Ukraine, lived in
Russia and the USA.
Genres: pamphlets, short
stories, the novel, drama.
Elaborate prose,
unforgettable characters,
“laughter through tears.”
Isaac Leib Perets
 Born and lived in Poland
 Wrote stories, plays, tales.
 Sympathized with Hasidism
and the Labour Movement.
 Wrote both in realistic and
visionary mode.
Yiddish Literature in the Soviet Union
 Supported from 1917 till the
 In the 1930s, labeled as
“nationalist” and by 1952
nearly liquidated, along with
writers themselves (ex.,
Perets Markish).
 Birobibidzan, a Soviet Jewish
utopia (1934).
 In the 1960s – 1990, a few
books and magazines were
published. At present,
almost non-existent.
Yiddish Literature in Poland
 Until 1939, Poland was the main centre of Yiddish
 Newspapers, magazines, writers’ clubs, theatres,
mass book-production.
 Rich variety of genres, both popular and highbrow.
Poetry flourished, religious and secular.
 Ceased to exist with the Holocaust and emigration.
Yiddish Literature in the “New World”
 New York as the main centre. Poetic groups (ex., Di
Yunge, Proletpen) and literary magazines appear
between the World Wars.
 One of the major themes: self-identity. Writings
about immigrant life and the new country; historical
novels; nostalgic poetry and stories.
 Big impact made by English literature.
 Decline of readership since late 1940s to now.
Yiddish Literature in the “New World”
 Israel: tensions between Yiddishist and Israeli
ideology; introduction of specific Israeli themes;
appearance of literary magazines and prizes
counteracted by decline of readership.
 South Africa, Argentina, Canada: reprints of classical
Yiddish literature; magazines and newspapers with
limited audience. Little new works produced.
The Internet has become a new tool for popularization
of Yiddish language and literature.
Yiddish Literature in the “New World”
Hassidic communities:
Growing number of Yiddish readers;
Children’s books;
Serial narratives and adventure stories (to
ward off “alien” influence);
Historical novels;
Ethical writings;
The pattern is reminiscent of general
development of Yiddish literature from its
early stages. Gives hope to its resurrection.

Yiddish Literature