Sholem Asch (left) with literary critic Shmuel Niger and Niger’s brother, labor leader Borekh Vladek-Tsharni, place unknown, 1930s. (YIVO)

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Asch, Sholem

(1880–1957), Yiddish novelist and playwright. Born in Kutno, Russian Poland, Sholem Asch was the youngest of his Hasidic parents’ 10 children. Traditionally educated and a talented student, he began teaching himself German with the aid of Moses Mendelssohn’s translation of the Bible. Since his parents disapproved of these secular studies, he moved in with relatives in a nearby village, where he became a Torah instructor and for the first time encountered the lives of Polish peasants. Relocating to the town of Włocławek, Asch earned his living writing letters for illiterate people, an experience he appreciated for the insights it offered into human needs and longings.

Stimulated by his wide reading in European literature, Asch began writing himself, and in 1900 traveled to Warsaw where he received encouragement from Y. L. Peretz and his advice to work only in Yiddish. Having settled in Warsaw, Asch wrote his first Yiddish story, “Moyshele,” which appeared in the journal Der yud at the end of 1900; he followed this with a volume of Hebrew stories in 1902 and one of Yiddish stories in 1903. These early works reflected the poverty and deprivation the young Asch suffered in company with his Warsaw roommates, fellow writers Avrom Reyzen (1876–1953) and Hersh Dovid Nomberg (1876–1927). Peretz assisted these young men where he could, and was able to gain exemption from military service for Asch.

Yiddish writers at the Czernowitz Conference, 1908: (left to right) Avrom Reyzen, Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, Sholem Asch, Khayim Zhitlovski, Hersh Dovid Nomberg. Postcard (Warsaw: Verlag Jehudia). (YIVO)

Asch’s marriage in 1903 to Mathilde (Madzhe) Shapiro, the daughter of the well-to-do Hebrew teacher and poet Menaḥem Mendel Shapiro, brought Asch a measure of financial security, enabling him to devote himself wholly to writing. In 1904, he serialized in Der fraynd the first of his major works, A shtetl; its idyllic tone of sensuous vitality immediately placed him in the vanguard of new Yiddish writers. Though written on the eve of the 1905 Revolution, this prose poem gave no indication of the upheaval to come; its dominant mood is of harmony and peace in the pious Hasidic home of Reb Yekhezkel Gombiner, a rich timber merchant (a figure closely modeled on Asch’s own father) whose close connection with nature is the source of his wealth. In a time of violent change, Asch preferred to recreate what he saw as the certainties of a traditional Jewish way of life.

In 1904, his first play, Mitn shtrom (With the Current), dramatizing loss of faith among contemporary youth, was staged in Polish in Kraków, and was followed by two additional plays with similar themes—Meshiekhs tsaytn (The Age of the Messiah; 1906) and Di yorshim (The Heirs; 1913)—which, although dramatically limited, were performed in both Polish and Russian as well as in Yiddish. In 1907, Asch completed his most sensational play, Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance), first produced in a German version by Max Reinhardt in Berlin, with Rudolph Schildkraut in the leading role. Depicting a brothel keeper’s attempt to strike a bargain with God to keep his daughter pure, this play created scandal wherever it was performed, particularly in New York, and Asch later withdrew it from public performance. In 1908, he depicted the conflict between lust and spirituality in his never-staged poetic drama about the life of the seventeenth-century false messiah Shabetai Tsevi. He also embroiled himself in the first of many public controversies when he condemned in print the Jewish practice of ritual circumcision.

Asch made his first visit to Palestine in 1908. Awed by the Jewish collective memory of the Holy Land, he wrote a series of sketches under the general title Erets Yisroel (Land of Israel; 1911) and followed up this visit by participating in the famous Yiddish language conference that was organized in Czernowitz by Nathan Birnbaum (Birnboym; 1864–1937), speaking in support of Peretz and the central place in Jewish life of the Yiddish language. Asch’s personal contribution was a paper in which he argued for more Yiddish translations of Hebrew literary treasures, and he himself translated the Book of Ruth as an example. After the conference, Peretz, Asch, Reyzen, and Nomberg toured a number of East European Jewish settlements, seeking support for a program to develop Yiddish into a literary, scientific, and national Jewish language.

From Hersh Dovid Nomberg in Berlin to Sholem Asch, 14 November, ca. 1911. He's not happy to be "stuck" in Berlin but "it's better, in all respects, than being in a Russian prison. . . . What do you have to say about the great revolutionary Nomberg?" He finds the role of political emigre "amusing but uncomfortable." A certain Goldberg has passed on regards from Asch, but Nomberg complains that this man also insisted that he read his "compositions" and notes that "rich nudniks are worse than poor ones because you have to listen to them." He says that he came back from his recent trip to New York, "rich in impressions and poor in money." While he was there, he saw the beginning of a factional fight at the Yiddish newspaper Forverts that resulted in several writers leaving to establish a rival newspaper. Yiddish. RG 602, Shalom Asch Papers, F53. (YIVO)

In 1909 and 1910, Asch made his first visit to the United States, gathering impressions that he later incorporated into his fiction. By 1913, the eve of World War I, he emerged into productive maturity, publishing five major works in one year. In his story “Reb Shloyme Noged” (Reb Shloyme the Rich Man; 1913), he added to lyrical description a strongly pro-Polish political orientation, making the role of trade dominant to reinforce his view that the ideal social order was founded on the economic self-sufficiency of the shtetl. In his long novel Meri (Mary; 1913) and its sequel Der veg tsu zikh (The Route to Oneself; 1913), he directly confronted contemporary sociopolitical issues, in this case the 1905 Russian Revolution. For the first time in Yiddish literature, Asch portrayed the wealthy Jewish elite of Saint Petersburg side by side with the poverty-stricken workers of Ukraine. These two novels, while sympathetic to workers, nevertheless showed that Asch was estranged from their struggle. Basically conservative, he depicted the revolution as a movement fundamentally hostile to Jews, who were, in his view, forever sundered from gentiles, even at the most cataclysmic moments of history. The two novels were the first of a series in which Asch began representing the whole panorama of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, past and present.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Asch settled in New York, became an American citizen, and started building a collection of Jewish art. In autumn of that year, he became a salaried, regular contributor to the Forverts, at the time the most widely read Yiddish newspaper in America, and thus began a fruitful and lucrative association that was to last for nearly 25 years. Apart from his prolific literary output, Asch also began to involve himself in public life, becoming one of the founders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The first major work he completed in America—serialized both in Forverts and in the Warsaw newspaper Haynt, to which Asch was also a regular contributor—was the social novel Motke ganef (Motke the Thief; 1916). Here Asch, expanding his taste for naturalism, contrasted the lives of poor shtetl Jews with those in a Warsaw slum by tracing the career of its amoral chief character. Moved by his encounter with America, Asch later depicted the teeming, impoverished life of New York’s Jewish Lower East Side in his next novel, Onkl Mozes (Uncle Moses; 1918), which appraised the ways in which Jewish immigrants struggled to adapt to American norms by discarding the traditions and faith of their forebears. Irony and distaste rather than lyricism characterized Asch’s depiction of the American scene.

Pogroms during and after World War I inspired Asch’s next major work, Kidush ha-shem (Sanctification of [God’s] Name; 1919), a historical novel set during Khmel’nyts’kyi’s mid-seventeenth-century massacres in Ukraine and Poland. Here Asch upheld the moral obligation of all Jews to save their own lives unless motivated to martyrdom by profound faith.

After the war, Asch returned to Europe, primarily on a fact-finding tour of Lithuania for the JDC, and was profoundly shocked and emotionally disturbed by what he found. In 1923, he returned to live in Warsaw, but made frequent trips to Weimar Germany. In Poland, he completed Di kishef-makherin fun Kastilye (The Witch of Castile; 1921), a melodramatic extension of the theme of Kidush ha-shem, contrasting outer physical servitude with inner spiritual freedom in an account of a beautiful girl’s resolute death for her faith. This was followed by Di muter (The Mother; 1925), a novel rich in descriptions of landscape and individuals and in which, by depicting the tribulations of immigrant adjustment to life in America, Asch reiterated a call, first issued in Keyn Amerike (To America; 1911), for the restoration of Jewish continuity between the Old World and the New. Toyt urteyl (Death Sentence; 1924) and Khaym Lederers tsurikumen (The Return of Chaim Lederer; 1927) were more tightly constructed works, taking as their central characters men who reject successful worldly lives to search for some lost ideal that might invest their futile lives with meaning.

By this time, Asch’s work had made him famous. In 1920, on the occasion of his fortieth birthday, a New York committee headed by Judah Leib Magnes published his collected works in 12 volumes with an introduction by the Yiddish critic Shmuel Niger. In 1932 Asch was elected honorary president of the Yiddish PEN club. At that time Polish Jewry faced increased persecution, a situation in which the Polish government played a role. Asch’s acceptance of the Polish Republic’s Polonia Restituta decoration from Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s regime triggered a controversy in the Jewish world.

From Yankev Dinezon in Warsaw (?) to Mathilde (Madzhe) Asch, the wife of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch in Berlin, 7 January 1912. Dinezon expresses great affection toward her, her husband, and children, and refers to a recent bereavement she has suffered. He asks her to write to him about life in Berlin, marveling that she is in a city where everyone speaks a pure, authentic German, even rabbis and mikveh attendants. He is not so fond of Germans themselves but loves their language: "Learn German . . . but don't become German. Live like a Jewish daughter." Dinezon recounts an anecdote about a certain Berl from his shtetl, who was called Berl Frantsoys (French) not because he could speak French but because it was rumored that his grandmother had had an affair with a French soldier who had stayed behind after Napoleon's campaign in Russia. This same Berl was also known as a speaker of German because of a few garbled words he learned from an old German chimney sweep. Dinezon is heartsick because his two palm trees are withering and dying. Yiddish. RG 1139, Abraham Cahan Papers, F65. (YIVO)

Asch’s monumental trilogy Farn mabl (Before the Flood), to which he now turned, was in scope and treatment a work of major importance that, translated into several languages, consolidated his international reputation. Written and published in stages between 1921 and 1931, Farn mabl was translated into English in 1933 by Edwin and Willa Muir under the title Three Cities. This panoramic tale is told over three volumes, each bearing the name of a city central to events immediately prior to, and during, the Russian Revolution of 1917: Peterburg (Petersburg; 1929), Varshe (Warsaw; 1930), and Moskve (Moscow; 1931). To enable his readers more easily to grasp the complicated religious, philosophical, and sociopolitical problems of that period, Asch deployed the genre of the bildungsroman, depicting everything through the eyes of his hero Zachary Mirkin, the only son of an enormously rich merchant. Petersburg examines the way entrepreneurial Jews contrived to share in the great commercial and industrial expansion of the turn of the century, rising to positions of power and prestige in the dying days of tsarism. Warsaw, by contrast, sympathetically depicts the poverty and sociopolitical turmoil that made the Russian revolution inevitable, while Moscow attempts to analyze the destructive social forces unleashed by the revolution and the subsequent conflict between individual freedom and the dictates of the Bolshevik party. In bridging the action between all three parts, Zachary becomes the supreme example of Asch’s favorite character, an existentially troubled being in search of faith and conviction, able neither to accept nor to fight the drastic social transformations taking place all around him.

His conservative ideology notwithstanding, Asch’s novels created a new trend in Yiddish literature: they used European literary models to satisfy an increasing demand among both Jewish and non-Jewish readers for representations of undisturbed rural idylls in reaction to the anxieties of radical change. His most successful work of this kind also became his most famous: his novel, Der tilim-yid (The Sayer of Psalms; 1934), first translated as Salvation in an abridged English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir in 1934, with an unabridged version following in 1951. Seeking to comfort fellow Jews in the face of mounting antisemitism in Europe, Asch evoked the moral beauty of Jewish piety in a sensitive depiction of the rise and growth of Hasidism. Der tilim-yid gathers together many of the abiding motifs in Asch’s earlier works by taking as its theme the effects of all-inclusive and unquestioning faith, in an account of the life of a simple Jewish boy whose learning is confined solely to an ability to recite the Psalms, but is nevertheless able to attract and influence others through his piety, his confidence in the ultimate triumph of good, and his personal holiness. At the same time, the novel provides a panoramic overview of the history of Polish Jews through the whole of the nineteenth century. Regarded by many as Asch’s finest achievement, Der tilim-yid was undoubtedly a model later followed by other Yiddish writers, not least among them Isaac Bashevis Singer.

By complete contrast, in the same year Asch also published a short, strange novel of thwarted love, titled Gots gefangene (God’s Prisoners; 1933), set on the French Riviera where Asch himself lived. In 1938, he visited Palestine once more and produced a romantic narrative titled Dos gezang fun tol (Song of the Valley; 1938) in praise of young pioneers working to reclaim the Land of Israel. In reaction to the rise of Hitler, Asch idealized Zionist dedication in this novel by holding out to world Jewry the promise of a restored Jewish homeland. An equally short novel, Baym opgrunt (At the Abyss; 1937), was effectively a sequel to his earlier account of revolutionary upheaval, moving from the Russian border in 1918 to the economic and spiritual collapse of Weimar Germany five years later, and depicting with disturbing clarity the despair that facilitated the rise of Nazism. In 1938, as war threatened once more, Asch returned to the United States.

Troubled all his life by what he regarded as the senseless dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity, Asch persuaded himself that by retelling the story of Jesus and portraying him as an observant Jew, he would repudiate the calumnies heaped on Jews for centuries. He articulated these beliefs in Der man fun natseres (The Nazarene), in psychological content a novelistic development of Dertilim-yid. While there had been Christological subject matter in some of Asch’s earliest stories, this new novel’s uncritical depiction of Jesus as a Jew, which started its serialized appearance in Yiddish just as Hitler was institutionalizing Jew-hatred in Germany, shocked Asch’s Yiddish readers. The Forverts, to which he had hitherto contributed regularly for decades, not only refused to continue publishing the work but also attacked Asch for encouraging conversion, a condemnation repeated by virtually the whole of the world’s Jewish press. In 1939, Asch arranged for the novel, translated by Maurice Samuel under the title The Nazarene, to be published in English both in the United States and in Britain. The result was an estrangement between Asch, Yiddish literature, and the Jewish community. The Yiddish text of Der man fun natseres appeared in full only in 1943.

Undeterred, though deeply hurt by this torrent of negative criticism, Asch went on exploring the origins of Christianity, reading deeply and widely before writing The Apostle, a novel about the life of the apostle Paul which, never published in Yiddish, appeared in English in 1943. The fanatical tirades against Jews that Asch put into Paul’s mouth further alienated Asch’s detractors and brought even stronger accusations of apostasy against him, which he attempted to counter in an essay entitled “One Destiny: An Epistle to the Christians” (1945), before turning to portray Jesus’ mother in his novel Mary (1949).

In the last 10 years of his life, Asch returned to Jewish themes and settings. Ist River (East River; 1946), another realistic social novel about the assimilated metropolitan Jews of New York, attempted to harmonize the realities of American life with idealized memories of the lost shtetl. Der brenendiker dorn (The Burning Bush; 1946), a collection of short stories dealing with Nazi atrocities, was followed by Moyshe (Moses; 1951), a novel drawing extensively on traditional sources to present a psychologically sympathetic portrait of Moses as prophet and revolutionary. Asch’s last completed novel was Der novi (The Prophet; 1955) about Deutero-Isaiah, a humble man forced by an importunate voice within him to preach God’s word. Like all of Asch’s works, these last books continued to display his gifts as a superlative storyteller who clothed romantic idealism in a realistic style.

Prolific and continually expanding the range of his themes, Asch brought Yiddish literature into the mainstream of European and American culture, while he himself remained deeply attached to the legacy of the Jewish past. At the end of his life, Asch lived in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv. In accordance with his wishes, his house there was converted into a museum. Part of his lifelong collection of Jewish objets d’art is housed in Los Angeles, while the bulk of his library—including rare Yiddish books and manuscripts, including the originals of some of his own works—is at Yale University.

Suggested Reading

Mikhail Krutikov, Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905–1914 (Stanford, Calif., 2001); Charles Madison, Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers (New York, 1968); Nanette Stahl, ed., Sholem Asch Reconsidered (New Haven, 2004).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,1, YIVO (Vilna): Administration, Records, 1925-1941; RG 107, Letters, Collection, 1800-1970s; RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 1232, David Seltzer, Papers, 1930-ca. 1980; RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 208, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Papers, 1882-1953; RG 209, David Herman, Papers, Ca. 1932-1946; RG 232, Abraham Reisen, Papers, 1924-1948; RG 234, Solomon Simon, Papers, 1932-1969; RG 248, National Refugee Service, Records, 1938-1946; RG 258, Yiddish Culture Society, Records, 1928-1943; RG 277, David Einhorn, Papers, 1914-1940s; RG 3, Yiddish Literature and Language, Collection, 1870s-1941; RG 344, Ezekiel A.M. Brownstone, Papers, ca. 1928-1965; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 376, Leon Kobrin, Papers, 1898-1950; RG 435, Herman (Chaim) Lieberman, Papers, 1920s-1950s; RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu, Papers, 1901-1960; RG 453, Mendl Elkin, Papers, 1913-1961; RG 456, Isidor (Isser) Ginsburg, Papers, 1894-1947; RG 473, Jacob Adler, Papers, 1890s-1970; RG 526, Louis Lamed Foundation for the Advancement of Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, Records, 1940-1960; RG 602, Shalom Asch, Papers, ; RG 672, Chaim Shloyme Kazdan, Papers, 1942-1975; RG 703, Kadia Molodowsky, Papers, 1950s-1960s; RG 725, Mendel Osherowitch, Papers, 1920s-1967; RG 80, Mizrakh Yidisher Historisher Arkhiv (Berlin), Records, 1802-1924; RG 833, Peretz Hirschbein, Papers, 1900-1957.