Sholem Asch was one of the major writers of Yiddish literature. He was born in Kutno in 1880. Estimates of his date of birth vary between 1st January, 1st October, and 1st November. He died in London on 10th July, 1957.
He was the youngest child of a large Hasidic family. His father, Moyshe Asch, worked as a cattle trader, and his mother, Malka née Widowska, was a housewife. He received a traditional religious education, and continued further secular learning on his own initiative. He first moved to a nearby village, and later to Włocławek, in order to spare his parents from worry, as they didn't approve of his new interests. In Włocławek, he earned his living by writing letters for illiterate people. Years on, he recalled that period as a valuable life experience.
After moving to Warsaw in 1900, Asch began writing in Yiddish, following advice and encouragement from Yitskhok Leybush Peretz. In the same year, the magazine Der yid published his first short story Moyshele. In the subsequent years, he wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish. He lived in an apartment shared with two prominent poets: Avrom Reyzen and Hersh Dovid Nomberg. All three of them lived in extreme poverty.
In 1903, Asch married Mathilde (Madzhe) Shapiro, daughter of a relatively wealthy poet and Hebrew teacher. This allowed him to devote all of his time to writing. His next piece was the nostalgic A shtetl, an episodic story written for Der fraynd magazine, inspired by the atmosphere of the writer's home in Kutno, as well as Kazimierz Dolny, which he would occasionally visit.
Over the course of following years, Asch wrote four plays, of which the most popular is Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) from 1907, widely considered to be controversial – its plot was set in a brothel, with a lesbian romance in the background. It was first staged in German by Max Reinhardt in Berlin, just after it was written.
The next years of his life were filled not just with new works, but also travels. In 1908, Asch visited the Land of Israel, and in 1911 published essays from that journey. In the same year, he took part in a conference in Chernivtsi, devoted to promoting Yiddish as the Jewish national language. Accompanied by Reyzen and Nomberg, as well as Leybush Peretz, he travelled from one town to another, advocating turning Yiddish into the language of science and literature, and seeking approval for the idea.
Between 1909-1910, Asch lived in New York. After this time he entered an incredibly fruitful creative period, which marked the beginning of his endeavour to map out the panorama of Jewish life across Central-Eastern Europe. In 1913 alone he published three novels, including Meri (Mary) and Der veg tsu zikh (The Route to Oneself).
When World War One broke out, the writer decided to stay in the United States. There, he collaborated with the largest Yiddish newspaper Forverts and became one of the founders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) – an organization which still plays a significant role in supporting the Jewish community in all possible ways, especially materially.
The novel Motke ganef (Motke the Thief, 1916) episodically appeared in both Forverts and in the Warsaw-based newspaper Haynt. In the work, he painted a portrait of life in a shtetl, contrasting it with Warsaw. His next novel, Onkl Mozies (Uncle Moses; 1918), reflected the reality of the Jewish immigrant district of New York's Lower East Side.
Horrified by the atrocities of the First World War, and the cruelty of accompanying pogroms, Asch wrote Kidush ha-shem (Sanctification of [God’s] Name, 1919), which transported readers to the times of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the first Hetman of Zaporizhian Host. The theme of Jewish martyrdom was continued in Di kishef-makherin fun Kastilye (The Witch of Castile, 1921).
Asch's popularity grew on both the European and American continents. In 1920, on the occasion of his fortieth birthday, his works were published in twelve volumes, while in 1932 he was selected as the honorary head of the Jewish PEN Club. Marshal Piłsudski conferred upon him the Order of Polonia Restituta. His acceptance of the decoration raised controversy in the Jewish population – it was commonly believed that it was out of order in the times of heightened antisemitism in the Second Polish Republic.
The trilogy Farn mabl (Before the Flood) opened a new stage in Asch's work. The readers explored three capitals: Peterburg (Petersburg, 1929), Varshe (Warsaw, 1930), and Moskve (Moscow, 1931), through the eyes of Zachary Mirkin, the son of an immensely rich merchant. After this panorama of a rampant life in Central-Eastern Europe, Asch wrote a novel in an entirely different tone – Der tilim-yid (The Sayer of Psalms, 1934), which turned out to be possibly his most popular piece. It comforted Jews haunted by increasing antisemitism and uncertainty by depicting the beauty of Hasidic religiosity.
He was, on the other hand, slammed by nearly all Jewish groups when he started publishing his episodic novel Der man fun natseres (The Nazarene).
In this novel, he portrayed Jesus Christ as a pious Jew. Since the prosecutions of Jews in Nazi Germany were escalating at the time, many people assumed that Asch was encouraging conversion to Christianity. Forverts ended their cooperation with the writer and the novel first appeared in English (1939), and only later in Yiddish (1943). The case with his next novel The Apostle, on the early times of Christianity, more precisely devoted to the figure of St. Paul, was similar – the anti-Jewish statements Asch put into the main character's mouth were so shocking to the readers that he was accused of dissent. The Apostle never appeared in print in Yiddish.
In spite of that, Asch did not abandon his artistic and ideological beliefs, when publishing the novel Mary (1949), about the mother of Jesus.
In the last decade of his life, Asch, one of the most prolific Jewish authors, wrote a few more novels in which he returned both to the life of the already assimilating generation of Jewish immigrants to New York in Ist River (East River, 1946), as well as biblical motifs. In Moyshe (Moses, 1951), he pictured Moses as a prophet and revolutionary, while Der novi (The Prophet, 1955) was about Deutero-Isaiah. In the collection of short stories Der brenendiker dorn (The Burning Bush, 1946) he presented the dark times of the Shoah.
He spent the last years of his life in Israel, in Bat Yam. After his death his house was, according to his wishes, transformed into a museum devoted to him.
Author: Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, October 2014, transl. Ania Micińska, April 2015
Sources: Salomon Belis-Legis, introduction to the novel Der man fun natseres (Mąż z Nazaretu), transl. Michał Friedman, Wrocław, 1990; Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, introduction to Di kiszefmacherin fun Kastilie (Czarodziejka z Kastylii), transl. Michał Friedman, Wrocław, 1993; Magdalena Sitarz, Literature as a Medium for Memory. The Universe of Sholem Asch's Novels (Literatura jako medium pamięci. Świat powieści Szaloma Asza), Kraków 2010.
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