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
Amsterdam.
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
literature.
*midrashim – rabbinical
commentaries on the Hebrew
Scriptures.
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
print).
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
time.
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
Liturgy:
 the tkhine (private prayers);
 translations of liturgical prayers (for
women);
 religious poems and hymns for home
celebrations.
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
assimilation.
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
worship
 Started in early 18th century
as opposition to rationalist
trends.
 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,
1815).
 Mystic stories with religious subtext exploring the
dichotomy between soul and reason, spirituality and
earthliness.
Affected symbolist and modernist fiction. Modern Yiddish
short stories developed as a continuation of Hassidic
stories.
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.
THE RISE OF SECULAR YIDDISH CLASSICS
Mendele Moykher-Sforim
(Sholem Yankev Abramovich)
1835-1917
 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.
THE RISE OF SECULAR YIDDISH CLASSICS
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.”
THE RISE OF SECULAR YIDDISH CLASSICS
Isaac Leib Perets
(1852-1915)
 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
1930s.
 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
culture.
 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;

Translations;

Ethical writings;

Periodicals.
The pattern is reminiscent of general
development of Yiddish literature from its
early stages. Gives hope to its resurrection.
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Yiddish Literature