SHOLEM ASH (ASCH) (November 1, 1880-July 10, 1957)
Born in Kutne (Kutno), Poland, according to his birth certificate—it was January 1; according to his mother’s reckoning—four days after Passover. His father, Rabbi Moyshe Gombiner, came from a family of ritual slaughterers and was something of a scholar as well as a philanthropist. He did business in sheep and also ran a hotel. His mother, Malka, née Vidovski, the second wife of his father and much younger, came from a scholarly family in Lentshits (Łęczyca). He was raised at home “between two worlds”: on one side his full brothers—tall, healthy youngsters who did business with butchers and Gentiles and loved life’s adventures (they later moved to the United States and made their way there). From the other side, several step-brothers who prayed in Hassidic conclaves and walked around dressed in their gabardines. Ten children were raised in his home. Asch’s parents had high hopes that he, the baby in the family, would become a rabbi, and they separated him from his brothers and sent him to the best tutors with whom he studied just like “the very wealthiest children of the city” (among them as well was the later portrayer of Asch’s youth: Dr. Avrom Gliksman). After elementary school, he moved on to the synagogue study house where he studied on his own. At age fifteen or sixteen, he began to read non-religious books. Gliksman relates that his home was the “only enlightened Jewish home in the town,” as they also were reading Hebrew writings of the Haskalah. Asch and his friends also discovered the German classics, and inasmuch as they learned a little German from Mendelssohn’s German translation of Psalms which was published in Hebrew letters, they went on to read the works of Schiller, Goethe, and Heine. At the time Asch knew entire pieces by Heine. Rumors spread in the town that Sholem was a heretic, and he thus ran away from home. He was seventeen years old at the time. “Until that time,” explained Asch of himself, “I was a strictly Orthodox, believing Jew. Later I became convinced that the simple Jew, the common man, stood on a higher ethical level compared to the well-educated Hassid.” Asch departed for relatives in a village, studied there with the children, and paid attention all the while to the lives of Polish peasants. As he recounted, “this was my elementary school in life.” He spent the next two years in Włocławek where he threw himself into various pursuits, until he “discovered a steady way to earn a living: writing letters for those who were unable to write themselves.” It just so happened that he found himself writing love letters, and that gave him the “capability to look into the most hidden corners of life.” That was his “high school”—as he expressed it himself. In those years, Asch was reading Tolstoy, Hauptmann, and in particular Bolesław Prus (“in the original”) whose story, “Kamizelka” (The waistcoat), “made an unforgettable impression” on Asch. He already knew of Y. L. Perets from the latter’s work, Ha-ugav (The organ), a small collection of Hebrew poems.
Asch began, himself, to write at this time—initially in Hebrew. By chance, however, two works by Perets, Shtrayml (The fur-trimmed hat) and Bontshe shvayg (Bontshe the silent), came into his hands. “I read them from one end to the next and was deeply impressed,” recounted Asch in his reminiscences of Perets (Tsukunft [Future], New York, May 1915). In the first months of 1900, Asch traveled by ship along the Vistula to Warsaw to meet Perets and to show him his own writings. Perets advised Asch to write in Yiddish. In passing, when he was in Perets’s home, he happened to meet H. D. Nomberg and Avrom Reyzen. Several months later, Asch returned again to Warsaw from Włocławek and read out loud for Perets his first two stories in Yiddish. At Perets’s recommendation, Dr. Yoysef Lurye, the editor of Der yud (The Jew), published in no. 48 (1900) Asch’s first story, “Moyshele” (Little Moses). Asch stayed on to live in Warsaw and published stories, images, and sketches in the periodic press: Der yud and Di yudishe folks tsaytung (The Jewish people’s newspaper), and in Hebrew translation in Hadoar (The mail) and Hatsfira (The siren). Early in 1903 there appeared in print Asch’s first collection of stories bearing the title In a shlekhter tsayt (In a terrible time) (Warsaw, 79 pp.). Prior to this, two small books of Asch’s stories in Hebrew were published. The Yiddish collection was very warmly received by Bal-Makhshoves. Sadness and gloom filled the stories of Asch’s first anthology. At this time Asch married Mathilde (or Madzhe) Shapiro, a daughter of an esteemed Hebrew teacher and Hebrew-Polish writer. She had a great influence on Asch, and to a great extent affected the subsequent evolution of his talent. In 1904 Asch published serially in Fraynd (Friend, St. Petersburg) his first major works, Dos shtetl (The town), which appeared in book form in 1905 (Minsk). With a modern, romantic perspective toward earlier Jewish life, Dos shtetl marked out and defined Asch’s place in Yiddish literature. In that same year of 1904, Asch began his career as a playwright. He composed his first “theatrical piece in two acts” with the title Tsurikgekumen (Returned). This was initially published in a Hebrew translation Yatsah ve-khazar (Left and returned) in Hashiloach (The shiloah), 1904, and then in the original Yiddish in Perets’s Di yudishe biblyotek (The Yiddish library), issues 3 and 4, also in 1904—in book form it appeared in Warsaw in 1909 bearing the title Mitn shtrom (With the current). In the summer of 1904, Asch made the acquaintance of Polish writers in Zakopane. One of them, Stanisław Witkiewicz, translated Asch’s drama into Polish, and in December 1904 it was staged at a Polish theater in Cracow. Asch’s next theatrical piece was Meshiekhs tsaytn (Messianic times), a tragedy in three acts (in a subsequent printing with the subtitle: “A kholem fun mayn folk” [A dream of my people]; in a further edition: “A tsaytshtik in dray aktn” [A timely piece in three acts], Vilna, 1906; second edition, Vilna, 1907). Meshiekhs tsaytn was almost simultaneously translated into Polish, Russian, and German, and on February 12, 1906—with the Russian title: “Na puty v Sion” (On the path to Zion)—it was performed in St. Petersburg with the actress Vera Fyodorovna Komissarzhevskaya in the role of Yustina, and on July 15, 1906 on the Polish stage in Warsaw. At the same time, Asch’s stories and sketches in the form of notebooks were brought out by the publisher “Kultur” (Culture) in Minsk and which in part were published in Der nayer veg (The new way), the organ of the Zionist socialists in Vilna where there was also published for the first time the one-act play, Um vinter (During winter), 1906. In 1905 Asch also took down notes concerning the 1905 Revolution in Warsaw—with the title “Momentn” (Moments), published in 1908 by “Progres” (Progress) in Warsaw, 38 pp. In 1907 the publisher “Tsukunft” in Vilna brought out Asch’s play Got fun nekome (God of vengeance). It was performed in various theaters around the world. A fierce dispute arose in the Yiddish press surrounding this work. In 1908 Asch read aloud before writers in Berlin his play, Shapse tsvi (Shabetai Zvi), published in the third number of Literarishe monatshrift (Monthly literary writings)—an effort to depict the conflict between earthly passion and heavenly purity on the field of the Shabetai Zvi movement. The images were too philosophical, and the drama was never performed on the stage. In the years 1907-1908 Asch also wrote two one-act plays entitled Amnon un tamar (Amnon and Tamar) and Der zindiker (The sinner). In 1908 the publishing house “Shimin” in Warsaw brought out Yugend (Youth), a collection of stories that he published over the years 1902-1907. Two of them—“Dos koyler gesl” (The butcher’s alley) and “Der yung mitn kind” (Youngster with child)—illuminated, contrary to the romantic tone of Dos shtetl, the second wave of Asch’s artistic works: his full-blooded realism. Here we find the two waves mixed together, the rough nature of primitive man is enveloped in a romantic longing for higher worlds. This would later be repeated more than once in Asch’s writings.
In 1908 Asch made his first trip to Palestine, and his impressions were written up in a series of travel accounts. Under the influence of this trip, he also wrote his biblical historical scenes (published in book form in 1911, Vilna, with the title Erets-yisroel [Land of Israel], and in Warsaw as In erets-yisroel [In the Land of Israel]). In 1908 he participated in the Yiddish Language Conference in Czernowitz, and in the paper he presented he proposed that the treasures of old Hebrew literature be translated into Yiddish. He himself translated the Book of Ruth into Yiddish (published in Dos naye lebn [The new life], New York, 1910). Early in 1909 Asch complete his play Yikhes (Pedigree) in which he portrayed the decline of an old Jewish aristocratic house deceived through a misalliance through the hands of some upstart nouveaux riches. At the end of 1909, Asch made his first trip to the United States, and there he wrote and produced for the stage (without particular success) his first comedy drawn from Jewish life in the New World, Der landsman (The compatriot) (Warsaw, 1911). When he returned to Poland, Asch published over the years 1910-1914 a string of longer and shorter writings, some of which became milestones both in Asch’s own works as well as in Yiddish literature generally. Among his stories from those years is Erd (Earth), a tale of Polish farm life (Warsaw, 1910). In 1911 the same publisher brought out the longer story entitled Amerika (in later editions, it was Keyn amerike [To America] or Yosele [Joey]), a sensitive portrayal of the sad fate of a Jewish immigrant child on the way to the United States and in the new, strange world. In 1912 he published in the St. Petersburg serial Di yidishe velt (The Jewish world) the two-act play Der bund fun di shvakhe (Ties of the weak) about Polish artistic life (staged in German at the Kammerspiel Theatre in Berlin). In 1913 Kletskin Publishers (Vilna) brought out Reb shloyme nogid (Reb Shloyme, the rich man), “a poem of Jewish life,” one of Asch’s fullest pieces of work through which he clearly traced the boundaries of his philosophy of life. In the same year, he published (in Vilna) Mayselekh fun khumesh (Stories from the Pentateuch), the dramas Di yorshim (The heirs) and Yiftekhs tokhter (Yiftach’s daughter), the poem Khurbm yerushlaim (The destruction of Jerusalem) (published in Di yudishe velt 1-2, Vilna, 1913), and his first novel Meri (Mary) which together with its second part, entitled Der veg tsu zikh (The route to oneself) (published in Di yudishe velt, Vilna, 1914), constituted an unsuccessful effort to create a diaspora novel—namely, to create a broad socio-cultural portrait of Jewish life in various cities and countries: in the cities of the former Pale, in the centers of semi-assimilated Jewishness, St. Petersburg and Berlin, as well as in the new settlement in Palestine.
During those years, Asch lived in a number of different countries in Europe, and thereafter settled as a resident in Paris, but with the outbreak of WWI he moved to New York where he wrote the play Undzer gloybn (Our beliefs) and a string of new novels (published serially in Forverts) and stories. In 1916 in book form he published (Forverts Publishers) Motke ganef (Motke, the thief), a social novel; the first two parts of it, in which Asch portrays Motke’s childhood, were high art, while the last part rings as if it was artificially added on and reminds one more of literary crime stories. In 1918 Onkl mozes (Uncle Moses) was published—Asch’s first novel of American Jewish life. In his first years in America, Asch also published: Bleter, der yidisher soldat (Letters, the Jewish soldier) and other war stories (1918); Khurbm poyln, amerikaner dertseylungen (The destruction of Poland, American stories)—among them, “Leybl in der heym, leybl in amerike” (Leybl at home, Leybl in America) and “Di kinder fun avrom” (Children of Abraham); as well as Di rayze keyn kalifornye (The trip to California); the tale Yunge yorn (Youth) which was published in book form with other stories (New York, 1918). Among his dramatic works: Dos heylike meydl oder a shnirl perl (The saintly girl or a string of pearls) (1916); Ver iz der foter (Where is Father?) (1918). And the historical novel: Kidesh hashem (Martyrdom) (1919) which was a new artistic accomplishment. Asch wrote the novel in the wake of the pogroms in Ukraine in 1918-1919 and with the historical background of the Khmelnytsky massacres. A story of a great national passion, written with deep insight into Jewish history, this was a classic work in Yiddish literature, a splendid and enthusiastic source for Jewish schools.
During the years of WWI, Asch took part in assistance to war victims and on assignment for the American Jewish Committee he traveled (spring 1919) through Western and Eastern Europe. In 1921 he visited Poland where he was entertained by the wider Jewish intelligentsia with great honor and respect. They staged hundreds of performances of the Yiddish theater in Warsaw and other cities. In 1924 Asch settled down for a lengthy period of time in Warsaw, where he frequently appeared on stage with his peculiar impromptu speeches concerned with various Jewish cultural arrangements and, demonstrating—on the one hand—his sympathies for Palestine and Hebrew, and—on the other—leading in the name of Yiddish culture and the Jewish school a struggle against extreme Zionist Hebraism. In 1926 in the wake of Pilsudski’s May Uprising, Asch became the center of an uproar after he published (in Haynt [Today], Warsaw, October 22, 1926) an “Open Letter to Marshal Pilsudski.” In his letter, he praised and extoled the “noble knight” whose sword had “liberated the Polish soul.” In the 1920s, Asch published the following dramas: Der toyter mentsh (The dead man) (1920); Maranen (Morons) (1922); Yoysef (Joseph) (1924); Reverend doktor silver (Rev. Dr. Silver) (1927); and Koyln (Coal) (1928). He also wrote three social novels of American Jewish life: Di muter (The mother) (1925, 407 pp.), rich in individual artistic depictions especially of Jewish bohemian life in New York, but unable to capture the totality; Toyt-urteyl (Death sentence) (Warsaw, 1926, 182 pp.), a longer story of general American life; and Khayim lederers tsurikkumen (The return of Chaim Lederer) (Warsaw, 1927, 180 pp.), a social-psychological novel concerned with a once radical laborer who became rich and, sensing a spiritual emptiness, returns to the circle of his comrades. In 1926 he published Di kishefmakherin fun kastilyen (The witch of Castile) (Warsaw, 144 pp.)—a second historical tale depicting Jewish martyrdom; and Mayn rayze iber shpanye (My trip through Spain) (Warsaw, 442 pp.). In 1929 he published in Warsaw Peterburg (St. Petersburg) (442 pp.), the first volume of the trilogy entitled Farn mabl (Before the flood); the second volume, Varshe (Warsaw, 442 pp.), was published by the same press in 1930; and the third volume, Moskve (Moscow, 516 pp.), came out in 1931. In the trilogy, Asch was attempting: (1) to portray the lives of wealthy Jews and Russified intellectuals in St. Petersburg from before 1914; (2) to give a well-rounded picture of all classes of Jewish society in Warsaw and Lodz during the violent first two decades of the twentieth century; and (3) to give a cross section of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917-1920) in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other cities in Russia. The internal linkage is weak in the three novels: the main figure—the young Zachary Mirkin—remains unclear and precarious. In the first volume and especially in the third, foreign influences are set out too strongly; and as a result, Varshe is magnificently full of many-sided depictions of ways of life and as well with the vitality of distinctive images. After this trilogy, Gots gefangene, der goyrl fun a froy (God’s prisoners, the destiny of a woman), a psychological novel, was published in Warsaw in 1933 (291 pp.). In 1934 he published Der tilim-yid (The sayer of Psalms) (Warsaw, 611 pp.), a kind of summing up of motifs that were spread out over Asch’s earlier writings. Belief is the essence of this novel, a higher belief, on a level above either form or ritual and embracing all manner of beliefs. In 1937 he published Baym opgrunt (At the abyss) in Warsaw (790 pp.), a novel written on the eve of Hitler’s era in Germany; in 1938, Dos gezang fun tol (Song of the valley) (Warsaw, 215 pp.), a poetic depiction of the lives of pioneers in Palestine. In 1930 there was a celebration for Asch’s double jubilee—his fiftieth birthday and thirtieth year as an author of literature. In 1933 there was another commotion surrounding Asch’s name, in connection to his acceptance of a medal from the Pilsudski government. In the 1930s Asch lived in France and Poland, and he traveled throughout many other countries in Europe. In 1935 he paid a visit to New York, after which he returned to Paris, and in 1938 he again left Europe and this time settled in the United States.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Asch wrote his Christ novels and theological-philosophical essays and articles. The Putnam publishing house in New York brought in 1939 his novel, The Nazarene, which was an English translation of Der man fun natseres (The man from Nazareth); the original Yiddish text first appeared in print in New York in 1943 (two volumes). This was a work of immense scope. Given the vast canvas depicting life in three cultural settings—pagan, Roman-Hellenic, and Jewish—there was nothing like it in Yiddish literature. It excelled also with its mastery in describing unusual figures, aside from the main figure who was too abstract and celestial to have flesh and blood. In too many places—and this is the principal artistic failing of the book—Asch followed the New Testament too faithfully. Yet (and perhaps therefore), the English version was enthusiastically received by the serious English press. A large part of the Yiddish press sharply attacked Asch and his book, primarily on religious and national grounds. Asch answered the complaints against him with a string of articles and press interviews in both the Yiddish and English press and indirectly with a pamphlet entitled What I Believe (New York, 1941). The controversy grew bigger, some even suspecting Asch of “renegacy” and national betrayal. The Forverts to which Asch had regularly contributed for decades would not publish the novel. The doors to other Yiddish dailies were similarly shut to him. Only a small number of Yiddish, Hebrew, and English-Yiddish newspapers did not make common cause with those boycotting the writer. Some representatives of the Yiddish critique appraised Der man fun natseres from a purely literary point of view as one of the highest—“if not the highest”—artistic accomplishment in Yiddish literature of recent times. G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1943 brought out in an English translation of the second volume of Asch’s Christ novels: The Apostle, at a time when the Yiddish original had yet to appear. This novel depicts the personality and surrounding life of the apostle Paul (Saul of Tarshish). As with respect to background descriptions, so too with the characterizations in The Apostle, they were less complicated and therefore more thorough and more compact than in Der man fun natseres, but also here the artistic qualities suffered from the author’s insufficient critical follow-up in the interpretation of evangelism. This interfered with the freedom of the artist’s fantasy in forming the main figure of the novel. Published in 1949 in English translation (again with Putnam) was the third volume in the series, Meri (Mary), artistically much weaker and, from the point of view of Christian symbols, very sharp like the previous two volumes. The struggle against Asch, which had died down a bit, was then renewed and with greater vehemence.
In the interim, Asch (in 1943) became a regular contributor to Morgn-frayhayt (Morning freedom), an act for which both sides [pro and con vis-à-vis Asch] declared that they were not responsible. Thus, Asch’s tie to this extreme leftwing political organ did not last long. For the two or three years of this “friendship out of exigency,” this leftwing publisher brought Asch’s stories, “Hitlers geburt” (Hitler’s birth) (64 pp.) and “A yidish kind in shnas 5695” (A Jewish child in the year 1944/1945) which appeared later in Asch’s anthology of ghetto stories under the title Der brenendiker dorn (The burning bush) (New York, 1946, 285 pp.), a collection which included Yisgadal veyisgadash (Magnified and sanctified [opening words of Kaddish prayer]), Kristus in geto (Christ in the ghetto), A kind firt dem veg (A child leads the way), and other works. In 1948 IKUF (Jewish Cultural Association) published two volumes of Asch’s “collected writings”: 1. Dos shtetl, Reb shloyme nogid, and Der farborgener bokher (The borrowed boy); and 2. Dos gezang fun tol and other works. In 1946 he published his novel Ist river (East River) (New York: Laub Pub. Co., 514 pp.), in which—like a great deal of masterly social descriptions of early Jewish life in New York’s East Side—he sought to bring to life his realist, living idea that two belief systems (Jewish and Christian) could live peacefully under one roof, not only under one heaven—an idea that Asch had been looking to improve upon since Dos shtetl in which prayers from the synagogue and from the church become unified in the air and ascend to one God, as well as in an entire series of stories for youth (Mentshn un geter [Men and gods], A karnaval-nakht [A carnival night]), through Der tilim-yid, all the way till the Christ trilogy. In his last years, Asch published three new works: Moyshe (Moses) (New York, 1951, 491 pp.), a biblical novel; Grosman un zun (Grossman and son) (New York, 1954, 386 pp.), translated into English as Passage in the Night; and The Prophet (New York: Putnam, 1955, 343 pp.), initially in English and in Yiddish as Der novi (Tel Aviv: Letste nayes, 1956), 294 pp. Posthumous publications include: Fun shtetl tsu der velt (From the town to the world) (Buenos Aires: Y. Lifshits fund, 1972), 307 pp.; and Onkl mozes (Uncle Moses) (Buenos Aires: Y. Lifshits fund, 1973), 261 pp.
A restless man, at no time in his life did Asch reside in one place for long. In his last years he continually travelled—through the United States, Europe, and the state of Israel where in 1954 there was a huge public reception for him in Tel Aviv. According to the articles, for and against Asch, which were frequently published in the Israeli press, the impression was created that there as well was a part of the Jewish intelligentsia which had made their peace with him. [He died in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv.]
Sholem Asch, 1906
Sholem Asch, 1940
Sources: All editions of Asch’s works in Yiddish through 1925 have been enumerated by Zalmen Reyzen in Leksikon, vol. 1, pp. 183-85. One may also find there a listing of translations of Asch’s works into Hebrew, Russian, Polish, and German—also through 1925. In Z. Zilbertsvayg’s Leksikon fun yidishn teater (Handbook of Yiddish theater), vol. 1, pp. 105-10, one will find a detailed list of Asch’s dramas and comedies, and their translations into foreign languages, as well as their performances on the Yiddish and foreign-language stages through 1930. From that time forward, virtually all of Asch’s works were translated into English, and new editions of earlier translations into Hebrew, Russian, Polish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Hungarian, Romanian, and other languages.
The literature on Asch is rich, and the majority of it is spread over many periodicals in a variety of languages. A partial bibliography covering what people have written about Asch can be found in Zalmen Reyzen’s Leksikon, vol. 1, pp. 173-86, and in Z. Zilbertsvayg, Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 1, pp. 110-11; for Sholem Asch on himself, see Der veker (New York) (October 4, 1930), reprinted from Naye folkstsaytung (Warsaw), no. 206 (1930); an Asch jubilee issue of Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) (December 19, 1930); M. Zilberfarb, “Sholem ash, der politisher, gezelshaftlekher tuer” (Sholem Asch, the political, communal leader), Tsukunft (New York) (June 1931); Yidishe kultur (New York) (January 1955), on Asch’s seventy-fifth birthday; Kh. Liberman, Sholem ash un kristntum (Sholem Asch and Christianity) (New York, 1950); Dr. A. Mukdoni, “Sholem ash iz avek fun yidish” (Sholem Asch has left Yiddish), Tsukunft (New York) (March 1950), about Asch’s Grosman un zun in English translation; N. Mayzil, “Sholem ashs ershte kritiker” (Sholem Asch’s first critic), Yidishe kultur (New York) (March-April 1948); Shmuel Niger, Dertseylers un romanistn (Story-tellers and novelists), part 2 (New York, 1946), pp. 320-531; Moshe Oved, Vizyonen un eydelshteyner (Visions and gems) (London, 1931), pp. 75-80, 203-15; Leo Finkelshteyn, Loshn yidish un yidisher kiem (The Yiddish language and Jewish survival) (Mexico, 1954), pp. 172-201; Av. Kahan, Sholem ashs nayer veg (Sholem Asch’s new pathway) (New York, 1941); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, “Ashs verk in der yidish-veltlekher shul” (Asch’s work in the secular Jewish school), Fraye arbeter shtime (New York) (August 12, 1950); Hilel Rogof, Der gayst fun forverts (The spirit of the Forverts) (New York, 1954), pp. 73-75; M. Ravitsh, in Fraye arbeter shtime, no. 35 (1941), no. 10-14 (1944), no. 46 (1945), no. 33 (1947), no. 8-10 (1950); Y. Rapoport, in Tsukunft (New York) (April 1954); Yitshak Elhanan Rontsh, Amerike in der yidisher literatur (America in Yiddish literature) (New York, 1945); Avrom Reyzen, Epizodn fun mayn lebn (Episodes from my life), part 1 (Vilna, 1929), part 2 (Vilna, 1929), part 3 (Vilna, 1935); Dr. Y. Shatsky, in Der veker (New York) (August 1952), concerning the novel Moyshe; I. Talush, in Yidishe shrayber (Miami Beach) (1953); Maks Erik, Sholem ash (Minsk, 1931), 125 pp.; Y. Paner, Sholem ash in zayn letste heym (Sholem Asch in his last home) (Tel Aviv, 1958), 169 pp.; A. H. Byalik, Sholem ash (Mexico City, 1959), 158 pp.; Shmuel Niger, Geklibene verk (Collected writings), vol. 3 (New York, 1960); Y. Turkov-Grudberg, Sholem ashs derekh in der yidisher eybikeyt (Sholem Asch’s path in Jewish eternity) (Tel Aviv, 1967); A. N. Ostrovski, Kritisher analiz af “man fun natseres” fun sholem ash (A critical analysis of The Man from Nazareth by Sholem Asch) (Tel Aviv, 1968).