Jewish literature

Jewish literature:

see Hebrew literatureHebrew literature,
literary works, from ancient to modern, written in the Hebrew language. Early Literature

The great monuments of the earliest period of Hebrew literature are the Old Testament and the Apocrypha.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Jewish Literature


literature in Hebrew and Yiddish. Literature in ancient Hebrew was written in a number of countries. Modern Yiddish literature is written in the USSR, Rumania, the USA, Israel, France, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries, and modern Hebrew literature is developing mainly in Israel.

The basic monument! of ancient Hebrew literature is the Bible. Some parts of it, such as the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings, were written from the 12th century B.C. through the second century A.D., when the text of the Old Testament was canonized. Biblical mythology has been a source of inspiration of many works of world literature, theater, music, painting, and sculpture.

The Talmud, which was completed in the fifth century A.D., is one of the earliest monuments of medieval Jewish literature. It contains biblical commentary, lists of legal and religious norms, and information from various sciences; it also contains legends, tales, and parables (the so-called aggadah). The first outstanding monument of Jewish gnosticism, The Book of Creation, is believed to have been created in the eighth century. Medieval Jewish literature flourished especially in Arab Spain, where the vizier Hisdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915 to 999) promoted its development in the caliphate of Cordova. In the tenth, llth, and 12th centuries the poets Samuel ha-Nagid (993–1056), Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol (Avicebron; 1021–55), Moses ben Jacob ibn Ezra (1055–1139), and Judah Halevi (1075–1141) lived and worked in Granada. The poet Immanuel of Rome (about 1268–1330) was well known in Italy. The works of these poets expressed the motifs of the early Renaissance. Theological and philosophical works in Hebrew began to appear in the 13th century: the Milhamot Adonai of Levi ben Gershom (1288–1344) and the Articles of Faith of Joseph Albo (15th century) are major examples of the period. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries was followed by a long period of decline of Jewish literature.

Yiddish literature appeared in Germany in the 13th century. In the 14th and 15th centuries it reflected the life of the Jewish masses under German feudalism and during the early Renaissance. Folk singers composed satirical works denouncing the leaders of the Jewish communities. The narrative poems The Book of Samuel The Scroll of Esther, and The Book of Kings were written during this period. In Italy, Elye Bokher (Elijah Levita, 1467–1549) wrote the Bove-Bukh (1507)and Paris and Vienna (c. 1509–13), literary interpretations of Italian originals. Yiddish literature appeared in Poland in the late 16th century; in Russia it appeared at the turn of the 19th century.

The Haskalah, an enlightenment movement started in Germany by the deist philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), was an important factor in the development of modern Jewish literature in Hebrew and Yiddish. Subsequently the Haskalah influenced the development of Jewish literature in other countries (chiefly in the Slavic countries, such as Poland and Russia). The basic positions of the Haskalah called for renewal of Jewish life, adaptation to the local language and European culture, and standardization of customs and education. The men of letters in Hebrew were grouped around the collection Ha-Me’assef, which was published between 1784 and 1811.

In Galicia, Haskalah literature produced (in the first quarter of the 19th century) the writer Joseph Perl, the author of The Revealer of Secrets, an acutely satirical parody directed against Hasidism, a mystical movement in Judaism. Haskalah literature in Russia was at first influenced by German senti-mental literature (the lyric poetry of A. Lebensohn, 1794–1878) and then by romanticism (the historical novels of A. Mapu, 1807–67). Later it became more popular and democratic. I. B. Levinsohn (1788–1860) was an important ideologist of the movement in Russia during the 19th century. The Haskalah left its mark on the work of many Yiddish writers, including I. Aksenfeld (1787–1866), whose novel The Headdress, published in 1861, reflected events of the Patriotic War of 1812 and their repercussions in the Jewish community. Solomon Ettinger (1801–56) wrote the enlightenment drama Serkele and a book of fables that influenced the development of Jewish literature. I. M. Dick (1814–93) and A. B. Gottlober (1811–99) began writing in the middle of the 19th century. The works of the poets and songwriters B. (Wolf) Ehrenkrants (1823–83) and Berl Broder (1815–68) were protests against social injustice. In the 1850’s and 1860’s, under the impact of progressive Russian literature, Jewish literature in Russia became imbued with the ideas of democracy and of struggle against religious obscurantism and authoritarian, dogmatic “medieval” thought. This period marked the appearance of the novels and articles of Perets Smolenskin (1840–85), the journalism of M. L. Lilienblium (1843–1910), and the narrative historical poems of J. L. Gordon (1830–92). The greatest Hebrew-language poet in Russia in the 20th century, Kh. N. Bialik (1873–1934), wrote in Yid-dish as well. Writers of the late 19th and early 20th century included S. Chernikhovskii (1873–1943), Z. Shneur (1887–1959), D. Frishman (1865–1922), and I. Ravnitskii (1859–1944).

The literature of the 1860’s and 1870’s developed under the influence of Russian revolutionary democracy. Mendele Mokher-Seforim (Sh. la. Abramovich, 1836–1917) was the founder of classical Yiddish literature and one of the founders of the Yiddish literary language; his novellas and novels presented a satirical picture of the ugly aspects of social life and national oppression. The satirist I. I. Linetzsky (1839–1915), the author of the novella The Polish Boy (1867–68), protested against Hasidism and clericalism. A. Gol’dfaden (1840–1908) was the founder of a Jewish national theater and the author of plays and poems imbued with ideas of democracy and humanism.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s and in the early 20th century, as the class struggle intensified, some writers reflected the socialist and democratic ideology of the working masses; others reflected the nationalist and Zionist ideology of the bourgeoisie. The work of Sholem Aleichem (Sh. N. Rabinovich, 1859–1916) holds a central place in Jewish literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. His works, written in a style of classical realism, present a thorough, accu-rate picture of the life of the Jewish popular masses. The work of another master of Jewish literature, I. L. Peretz (1851–1915), is distinguished by its profound intellectual and philosophical content, its diversity of genre, and its innovative style. Sholem Asch (1880–1957), who began writing at the beginning of the 20th century, was the author of novellas, novels, and plays that reveal the psychology of the downtrodden but also express bourgeois and nationalist ideas. Criticism of the period was represented by BaalMakhshoves (I. El’iashev; 1873–1942) and by Sh. Niger (Sh. Charney; 1883–1954).

The writers I. Vaisenberg (1881–1934) and B. Shafir (1876–1922), who attained prominence during the Russian Revolution of 1905–07, celebrated the heroism and struggle of the working class. Lipman-Levin (1877–1946) and lu. loffe (1882–1942) portrayed the daily life of the workers. During the period of reaction, decadent and nationalist tendencies became apparent in the poetry of D. Eingorn (born 1886), Z. Segalovich (1884–1948), and L. Naidus (1890–1918) and in the symbolist dramas of A. Vaiter (1878–1919). The work of D. Bergel’son (1884–1952), Der Nister (1884–1950), and 0. Shvartsman (1889–1919) reflected a new upsurge in the social movement.

The pioneers of Soviet Jewish poetry were O. Shvartsman, D. Gofshtein (1889–1952), L. Kvitko (1890–1952), and P. Markish (1895–1952), who welcomed the Great October Socialist Revolution. The first years of Soviet power saw the emergence of the poets A. Kushnirov (1892–1949), S. Galkin (1897–1960), E. Fininberg (1899–1946), I. Fefer (1900–1952), I. Kharik (1898–1937), M. Kul’bak (1896–1940), Z. Aksel’rod (1904_41), M. Khashchevatskii (1897–1941), S. Rosin (1890–1943), and Kh. Levina (1900–69), all of whom celebrated the struggle of the people for a new world.

D. Bergel’son’s novellas and his novel The Measure of Severity, published in 1929, are devoted to the Civil War of 1918–20. His novel On the Dnieper is a historical epic about the events leading to the Revolution of 1905–07 and the life of the Jewish people in Russia. Writers of prose who emerged in the 1920’s included N. G. Lur’e (1885–1960), M. Daniel’ (1900–40), Sh. Godiner (1892–1941), I. Kipnis (born 1894), A. Kagan (1900–65), I. Rabin (born 1900), G. Orland (1898–1946), M. Al’berton (1900–47), and F. Sito (1909–45). The 1920’s and 1930’s saw the rise of the poets M. Teif (1904–66), la. Zel’din (1902–41), Kh. Vainerman (born 1902), E. Kazakevich (1913–62), B. Olevskii (1909–41), I. Kotliar (1908–62), M. Gartsman (1908–43), A. Gontar’ (born 1908), G. Diamant (1911–41), A. Guberman (born 1906), I. Bukhbinder (born 1908), M. Talalaevskii (born 1908), and M. Shturman (born 1908). The works of these writers created a picture of the life of the Soviet people, the successes and the difficulties of Soviet society of those years, the industrialization of the country, the collectivization of agriculture, and the cultural revolution.

Writers of the 1930’s include G. Polianker (born 1908), N. Zabara (born 1908), S. Gordon (born 1909), Sh. Roitman (born 1913), A. Vergelis (born 1918), M. Grubian (born 1909), O. Driz (1908–71), Kh. Mal’tinskii, (born 1910), G. Dobin (born 1905), I. Falikman (born 1911), E. Kagan (born 1908), T. Gen (born 1912) and B. Miller (born 1913). The heroic poem became the leading genre of Soviet Jewish poetry. The works of I. Gordon (born 1907), Note Lur’e (born 1906), and Vainerman reflected the theme of the countryside, a theme that was almost nonexistent in prerevolutionary Jewish literature. Children’s literature was represented by the poetry of Kvitko, Driz, and others. Bergel’son, Markish, and Galkin proved themselves as playwrights. Soviet Jewish literature overcame the national narrow-mindedness of prerevolutionary times and became inspired with the ideas of revolution, socialism, internationalism, and the struggle for a new world.

After the liberation of the western territories of the Ukraine and Byelorussia and establishment of Soviet power in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bessarabia, Soviet Jewish literature was reinforced with new names, such as la. Shternberg (born 1890), M. Al’tman (born 1890), and M. Saktsier (born 1907). The 1940’s saw the emergence of I. Borukhovich (I. Borisov, born 1923), Sh. Gorshman (born 1906), A. Gubnitskii (born 1912), and M. Lev (born 1915). During the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45, Soviet Jewish literature reflected the Soviet people’s upsurge of patriotism in their struggle against German fascism. About 40 Jewish writers died at the front.

The important works of Jewish literature of the 1960’s include Al’tman’s novellas, short stories, and plays; I. Shekhtman’s (born 1908) novel On the Eve (books 1–4, 1962–71), about the life of the Jewish people at the beginning of the century; Dobin’s The Power of Life (1969); Note Lur’e’s The Earth and the Sky (1962–63); Falikman’s The Black Wind (1966–68), about the Great Patriotic War; Rabin’s On the Neman (1969), about the revolutionary movement on the eve of the October Revolution; I. Gordon’s Three Brothers (1939–70), on class struggle in a Jewish village before the revolution and during the Civil War; Gen’s In Our Time (1967–70); and the novels, novellas, and short stories of Polianker, Zabara, Gorshman, and Lev. Other works of the period include The March of Generations by Markish (published posthumously in 1966), 1905 by Der Nister (published in 1964), and Lur’e’s novella Forest Calm 1957, in Russian).

M. Litvakov (1880–1939), I. Dobrushin (1883–1953), A. Gurshtein (1895–1941), I. Nusinov (1889–1951), G. Remenik (born 1905), R. Rubina (born 1906), and I. Serebrianyi (born 1900) were prominent literary critics and scholars of the early years of Soviet Jewish literature.

The works of Jewish writers are published in Yiddish and issued in other languages of the peoples of the USSR. The Yiddish-language journal Sovetish heimland (Soviet Home-land) has been published since 1961.


The growth of the Jewish population in the USA in the late 19th century, mainly the result of emigration from Eastern Europe, led to the development of Jewish literature in America. Vigorous protest against exploitation and poverty was expressed in the work of the proletarian poets M. Vinchevsky (1856–1932), D. Edelstadt (1866–92), and M. Rosenfeld (1862–1923). The prose writers L. Kobrin (1872–1925) and Z. Libin (1872–1955), the Russian immigrants D. Pinski (1872–1959), Sholem Asch, and the playwright who reformed the Jewish theater in the USA, J. Gordin( 1853–1909), and the poets A. Liessin (pseudonym of A. Walt, 1872–1938) and Yehoash (pseudonym of Y. S. Bloomgarten, 1870–1927) described the life of the popular masses under the realities of capitalism.

Along with revolutionary and democratic tendencies, ideas of bourgeois nationalism and Zionism also developed in American Jewish literature. The Di Yunge group, founded in 1912, published the Shriftn anthologies; eight volumes appeared between 1912 and 1926. Following the European symbolists and futurists, the “young upstarts” rejected the traditions of classical Jewish literature. Under the impact of the October Revolution in Russia the most prominent members of the group, such as the poets H. Leivick and M. L. Halperin and the prose writers J. Opatoshu, M. Nadir, and I. Raboy, wrote about the events of the Russian Revolution and later about the struggle of peoples against fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism. P. Hirschbein, the author of the trilogy Babylon, about the life of the Jews in New York, played an outstanding role in the development of Jewish literature.

In the 1920’s the Communist newspaper Freiheit (now Morgen Freiheit), which was founded by Vinchevsky and the critic M. Olgin (1878–1939), became the rallying center of progressive writers, critics, and publicists. Proletpen, a Jewish proletarian writers’ organization that included S. Ber Green, S. Deiksel, and Chaver Paver, was organized in 1929 under the influence of the Communist Party, and the Marxist journal Der Hammer appeared along with a number of others in the late 1920’s. The new literature called for a struggle against exploitation, unemployment, and poverty and for social justice. Progressive Jewish literature in the USA is united around the international Yiddish Culture League (YKUF); its organs are the journal Yidishe Kultur and the anthology Sammlungen. Progressive Jewish writers in the USA show great interest in the life of the Jewish working masses in the USSR, as well as in Soviet Jewish literature. Bourgeois Jewish writers in the USA formed the Inzichists, an introspectivist group whose members, including A. Glanz-Leyeles and J. Glatstein, advocated avoidance of social questions. Reactionary Zionist writers, such as Bashevis Singer and Auerbach, are hostile to the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.

Jewish literature in Poland flourished between the two world wars. In the 1920’s a group of poets and prose writers rejected capitalism and the old world. Anarchist rebellion prevailed in poetry; naturalism dominated in prose. The major representative of the latter trend was O. Varshavsky (1890–1944), whose novel The Smugglers exposed Poland’s social ills in the 1920s; I. Singer (1893–1944), author of the novels The Brothers Ashkenazi and Yoshe Kalb, and other realist writers painted accurate pictures of the life of the Jewish working masses. The work of E. Kaganowski (1893–1958), a master of the novella, has been of great importance. Under the influence of the Communist Party of Poland a group of revolutionary writers, united around the journal Literarishe Tribune, developed realist traditions in art. During the German fascist occupation, writers participated in the Resistance. I. Katznelson, author of the narrative poem Song of the Murdered Jewish People, died in Oswiecim (Auschwitz); the folk poet and worker M. Gebirtig (1877–1942), whose poetry is imbued with a deep hatred of fascism, died in the Krakow ghetto.

In France progressive Jewish literature is represented by the poet D. Teitelboim.

In Palestine a literature arose at the end of the 19th century as a result of the migration of many writers to the then English colony. These writers, who created a new literature in Hebrew, included Kh. N. Bialik, M. Smilansky (1874–1953), S. Chernikhovskii, U. N. Gnessin (1879–1913), Kh. Hazaz (born 1897), J. Fichmann (1881–1948), J. Kh. Brenner (1881–1921), Y. Burla (1886–1965), D. Shimoni (1886–1956), J. Cohen (1881–1960), A. Chameiri (born 1886), A. Barash (1889–1957), and Rachel (1890–1931). Although they wrote in Hebrew, their work was influenced by the national literatures of their countries of origin (primarily Central and Eastern Europe). They depicted the everyday life of the Jewish communities in the countries of Europe and the difficulties of adjusting to the new conditions of life. All of these writers were inspired by Zionism. The work of the outstanding writer Sh. Agnon (188–1970; Nobel Prize, 1966) holds a special place in the Jewish literature of Palestine. Agnon created works in a variety of genres, from fairy tales and semimystical short stories, such as the collection Days of Awe, to realistic novellas and novels, such as The Bridal Canopy. In the second half of the 20th century the theme of class differentiation has taken an increasingly prominent place in the Jewish literature of Palestine. The reactionary literature inspired by the conceptions of Zionist extremists (such as the literary group Hananiah) was opposed by a progressive literature represented by the work of the poet A. Penn (1906–72), who was greatly influenced by V. V. Mayakovsky, M. AviShaul (born 1898), and other writers who developed the democratic traditions of Jewish and world literature. The poetry of A. Shlonsky (born 1900),N. Alterman(1910–1970), and Lea Goldberg (1911–70) is concerned with social problems. Since the beginning of World War II, the theme of the Nazi brutalities has held an important place in the Jewish literature of Palestine. Many prose writers and poets have written about the heroic feats of the Soviet people, who saved the world from fascist barbarism.


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