This Day in Jewish History / A Yiddish Writer Who Ruffled Jews' Feathers Is Born

Sholem Asch, the Polish-born Yiddish novelist, ran afoul of Jewish sensibilities with his writings on Christianity.

November 1, 1880, is the birthdate of Sholem Asch, the Polish-born Yiddish novelist whose books were best-sellers in their day, but who ran afoul of Jewish sensibilities when he began writing about early Christianity.

Szolem Asz (the original spelling) was born in Kutno, in the very center of contemporary Poland, then part of Russia. He was one of 10 children of Moszek Asz, a livestock merchant and innkeeper, and the former Frajda Malka Widawska. He received a traditional Jewish education, but when he began to pursue secular studies, including the study of German, he had to move in with relatives in a nearby town, as his parents did not approve. He supported himself, first as a Torah teacher, and later as a letter-writer for illiterate neighbors.

In 1900, Asch moved to Warsaw, where he began writing stories. Although he initially wrote in Hebrew, at the encouragement of the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, he began to write exclusively in that language. In 1902 and 1903, respectively, he published collections of stories in Hebrew and Yiddish. Also, in 1903, he married Mathilde Shapiro, the daughter of a successful teacher and poet, Menahem Mendel Shapiro.

Promoting Yiddish – and provoking audiences

Although Asch’s first novel, “A Shtetl,” published in installments in the Yiddish paper Der Fraynd, was a cheery portrayal of Hasidic life, with a central character modeled in part on his own father, he soon began to write plays with more edgy themes. In particular, his 1907 play “God of Vengeance” dealt with a brothel owner whose daughter embarks on a sexual relationship with one of his prostitutes.

Asch’s mentor, Peretz, advised him to burn the play. He didn’t, and it was peformed in Berlin in a German version directed by Max Reinhardt. That was followed by stagings in other European cities, after the play had been translated into more than a half-dozen languages. In 1923, “God of Vengeance” was staged on Broadway, and its producer and lead actor were arrested on obscenity charges. Thereafter, Asch withdrew the play from additional performances.

A 1908 play dealing with the false messiah Shabtai Zevi and his promotion of sexual profligacy never made it to the stage, and also about this time, he attacked the practice of ritual circumcision in print. Clearly, Sholem Asch had a need to provoke, if not shock.

Asch participated in the 1908 Czernowitz Yiddish Conference, and he made good on his proposal there to have more Hebrew classics translated into Yiddish by rendering the Book of Ruth into that tongue. Later, he and several colleagues traveled around Eastern Europe trying to promote the cause of Yiddish as the Jewish national language.

Asch moved to New York in 1914, at the start of World War I. There, he began publishing stories regularly in the popular Yiddish daily The Forward, a professional relationship that went on for a quarter of a century. He began writing dark and ironic stories about shtetl life, and then about Jewish immigrant life in New York. His 1919 novel “Kiddush Hashem” (Sanctification of God’s Name), dealt with the 17th-century Khmelnitsky massacres in the Ukraine, although it was clearly inspired by the pogroms that followed the end of World War I. 

Although Asch returned to Europe after the war, he returned to New York on the eve of World War II. By the 1920s, he had become a very popular writer. In 1920, a 12-volume collection of his stories was published in New York, and in 1932, he was elected honorary president of the Yiddish section of PEN, the international professional organization of “poets, essayists and novelists.” Between 1929 and '31, he published his great trilogy “Three Cities” (called “After the Flood” in the Yiddish original), about early 20th-century life in Warsaw, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Writing about the series in The New York Times, critic Louis Kronenberger described it as “One of the most absorbing, one of the most vital, one of the most richly creative works of fiction that have appeared in our day.”

'Reclaiming Jesus' at a price

Asch’s career -- or at least his reputation among his fellow Jews -- hit a brick wall, however, with his publication, in 1939, of “The Nazarene.” Framing his tale around a modern-day German scholar who claims to be the reincarnation of a Roman commander in Second Temple-era Jerusalem, the book and its two successors, “The Apostle” and “Mary,” gave Asch an opportunity to look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth as a Jew, to “reclaim Jesus,” as the novelist Ellen Umansky wrote several years ago in Nextbook (now called Tablet).

When Asch sent the first chapter of “The Nazarene” to Abraham Cahan, his longtime editor at The Forward, Cahan told him to destroy it. Again, this was advice that Asch disregarded, and Cahan not only refused to publish it, he also ended his paper’s relationship with the author, and embarked on a campaign to blacken his name. Other Yiddish periodicals followed suit, so that, writes Umansky, only the Communist paper Freiheit would run his fiction. Asch insisted on accompanying his stories there with a note clarifying that he himself was not a Communist.

In English translation, however, in the United States, “The Nazarene” was a big hit. Writing in the New Republic, Alfred Kazin suggested that, “Nothing, as it happens, could be more characteristically Yiddish or more imperative in its way than this Gospel according to Chaver Sholem.”

The book brought Asch financial security, but alienated him from his people. And successive installments in the trilogy were less popular among critics and the public; by the time he wrote “Mary,” his American translator, Maurice Samuel, refused to take on the project. There were rumors that he was planning to convert to Catholicism.

In 1953, after having moved several times, and after he was nearly attacked physically by a group of opponents, Sholem and Mathilde Asch left the United States. Their first stop was London, but in 1956, they resettled in Israel, in the coastal city of Bat Yam.

At the time of his move to England, Asch commented: “I am returning to England with a broken heart. Intolerance among my own race has been too much of a handicap for me to work.”

Sholem Asch died on July 10, 1957, while on a visit to London, where his daughter lived. His house in Bat Yam is now a museum, although most of his library, including many of his original manuscripts, is held by Yale University. He was survived by Mathilda and his children, three sons and a daughter. One of those sons, Moses “Moe” Asch (1905-1986), was the founder and head of Folkway Records.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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