Maybe it’s the fallacy that rewarding literature must be difficult that explains why no scholar has lingered in the literary universe of Polish-born American Yiddish novelist and playwright Sholem Asch (1880-1957). Asch, who published alongside Isaac Bashevis Singer and other luminaries in the Yiddish Forward, was considered a master of Yiddish fiction until a literary scandal permanently divided him from his primary audience . His blocky tomes sit on the shelves of libraries and secondhand bookstores, awaiting a new generation of the curious — much as Helena Stepanovna awaits Zachary Mirkin in Asch’s “Three Cities” — “with no trace of tragic despair” but with a “sincere smile” that conveyed “frank pleasure.” Asch’s work is the spurned lover of 20th-century Jewish fiction.
Which might explain the tone of reproach assumed by doyen of Yiddish letters Dan Miron in the very first line of his contribution to “Sholem Asch Reconsidered,” a collection of essays on Asch edited by Nanette Stahl, the Judaica curator at the Yale University Library. “‘East River,’ Sholem Asch’s mature, comprehensive, meticulously conceived and tightly-structured novel of immigrant Jewish New York around World War I, never received the attention it deserved,” he writes. With its own Aschian sweep, Miron’s essay is the centerpiece of a chain of scholarly pieces that lend a more robust appreciation to Asch’s life and work. With the benefit of this volume and some distance, more than just frank pleasure awaits discovery by scholars and readers alike.
‘Comfortable in the world” –– as Yiddishist and Asch descendant David Mazower describes his great-grandfather in an eloquent biographical sketch –– Asch was born to a Hasidic businessman, Moyshe Gombiner Asch, a livestock trader in 1880 in Kutno, Poland. Counting offspring from both his wives, Moyshe’s children numbered 17 (Sholem was his fourth). Moyshe expected Sholem’s observable gifts as a student to translate into a career as a rabbi, while Sholem recalled feeling choked by his religious studies and by his sole language, Yiddish. He left Kutno, but religion and Yiddish, in their own way, would become the sustaining fires of his work.
After scratching out a few short stories, at 19 Asch left for Warsaw and showed up at the door of I.L. Peretz, the gatekeeper of Yiddish literary excellence. No two Yiddish writers could have been more different. Peretz’s is a tight and pearly literary realm, his storytelling voice modulated with precision. Asch chose the epic; his characters reflect the pogroms, revolutions, immigration patterns, the class and religious divisions –– all of which formed the lives of contemporary Eastern European Jews. And like the author himself, Asch’s heroes transcend humble beginnings, mingle with artists, linger in St. Petersburg and take long journeys that speak volumes about their spiritual quests — he was not above the well-placed cliché. Peretz coined a Jewish literary idiom; Asch was interested in novels about Jews, not Jewish novels. With broad strokes, he translated the world into Yiddish and translated it back for the sake of his ever-growing non-Yiddish readership.
Peretz gave his nod to the young writer, ensuring him publication in the Yiddish journals of his day, and Asch’s dramas pulled him into collaborations with such celebrities as actor Jacob Adler and director Max Reinhardt, thereby giving him entrée to the international stage. Written while he was still a novice, “God of Vengeance,” first staged in Berlin in the famous Deutsches Theater in 1907, is one of his only works to maintain its high profile until today. Recently retranslated into English by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, the play tells the story of Yankl, a Jewish brothel owner, and his doomed attempt at raising and marrying off a chaste daughter in order to gain social respectability.
In her essay in this collection, Naomi Seidman, associate professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., makes sense of a number of the play’s more puzzling elements, including a seemingly gratuitous lesbian scene between Yankl’s daughter and a prostitute named Manke. In Seidman’s reading, as the characters surrender physically to one another, they pretend to be a sexually innocent bride and groom exchanging shy glances at the Sabbath table, a fantasy that points up the falseness of Yankl’s bourgeois aspirations. “By self-consciously dramatizing the effects (failed or otherwise) of modern, fallen Jews to restage tradition, Asch’s play touches on the crucial questions of Jewish continuity,” Seidman writes. “For what is Jewish modernity in the face of migrations, urbanization, and desecrations, if not such a necessary staging and restaging, by turns flimsy and magical, shoddy and persuasive, corrupt and holy?”
On his first visit to America in 1909, Asch was repulsed by its “brashness and materialism.” Still, plagued by a bad feeling about Russia, he settled his family into a house on Staten Island until the end of World War I. Perhaps such institutions as the American Joint Distribution Committee, of which Asch was a founding member, made him consider the country differently. In 1919, the committee sent him to Lithuania on a fact-finding mission after a series of bloody pogroms. He suffered a nervous breakdown on his return.
Still, Asch did not give up on his love for Europe. After stints in Poland and Germany, in 1930 he settled in Nice, France, where he eventually would build “Villa Shalom,” a private compound designed to resemble a beis midrash or Jewish study house (Mazower includes pictures). The 1930s belonged to Asch. He basked in the international acclaim won by “Three Cities” and crisscrossed the globe to attend celebrations in honor of his jubilee.
Then, in 1939, Asch’s world crumbled when he published “The Nazarene.” The book had a gripping conceit — the existence of a fifth gospel written by a misunderstood Judas Iscariot — a conceit whose outlandishness might be trumped only by Asch’s naive hope that the book would vanquish antisemitism. For years, Asch’s head had been swimming with ideas about Judaism and Christianity, so no one motive can be assigned to his work. But, to a large extent, the author seemed bent on convincing the Christian world that Jews were a lot more like them than they ever knew; and for that reason alone, did not deserve to die.
While the book pleased English critics — the novel was on The New York Times Bestsellers list and would reach more than 2 million American readers by 1941 — Yiddish critics felt betrayed by what they considered a piece of thinly veiled proselytizing literature that was distastefully timed. Yiddish Forward editor Abraham Cahan, friend and patron, refused to publish Asch — cutting him off from his Yiddish readership — and then spearheaded an attack on his work and person.
On this subject, Anita Norich’s treatment of the stream of articles, books and disquisitions — not to mention Asch’s theological concoctions that were at the center of the storm, novels and responses alike — is deft and illuminating, even if it leaves the reader wanting more. She persuasively argues that the fury of his critics was really their coming to grips with the Holocaust and their frustration with the breakdown of Yiddish. His American Yiddish readers had lost their loved ones to Christians and their language to English — and they needed to blame someone to whom their opinion mattered.
Still, even as one recognizes that Asch’s critics acted deplorably, it’s hard to avoid the fact that some of his views were confused. In the Christian Herald in 1944, for instance, Asch explained that he believed Jesus to be the Son of God and the son of man, and in another newspaper he insisted that he remained a Jew. There were also apologetic fiction stories about Christians in Nazi Europe who turned the other cheek, and a Nazi who saves a Jewish prisoner. Uplifting as they might have seemed to Asch, his wishful thinking cheated his Jewish readers of the catharsis that accompanies the blunter depiction of reality.
By this time, Asch had left France — “having delayed his departure from Europe until the last possible moment,” Mazower notes — and reluctantly moved to the United States. He suffered a great deal from the exile imposed on him by the Yiddish community at a time when he most needed the consolation of his people. Still, Asch brought his religious ruminations with him to America and in 1946 published “East River,” a melodrama about the lives of Moshe Wolf Davidowsky, saintly and religiously zealous, and his sons, Irving and Nathan, and their life on East 48th Street in the 1940s, amid their Christian neighbors. Stricken by infantile paralysis, Nathan passes through extreme despair before coming to the epiphany that he is “the instrument of a divine mission.” Under his guardianship, all the novel’s conflicts dissolve, including one centered on Irving’s marriage to a Catholic. The religion of love that is allowed to thrive in America trumps Judaism.
Yiddish journalists advised their audiences that “East River” was an antisemitic defense of intermarriage. But according to Miron, it is one of Asch’s masterpieces, one in which he rewrites the narrative and characters he grappled with earlier in his career with greater force and clarity. Moreover, unlike the work of his peers, “East River” feels gloriously unburdened by the Holocaust. In it, the Jewish American experiment is triumphant and the Jewish-Christian reconciliation — tragically unachievable elsewhere in the world — is achieved. As Miron explains, this is why Asch eschewed the homogeneously Jewish Lower East Side as the novel’s backdrop for a neighborhood on the banks of the East River, populated by poor immigrants of a multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds. However divided he was about his own life in America — he left, never to return, in 1953 — Asch never doubted the promise it offered the Jewish people.
Sholem Asch awaits those who will give his story the epic scope of biography. Still, “Sholem Asch Reconsidered” brushes some dust off one of the giants of Yiddish American letters. As Asch once put it (in “The Nazarene”), “The first rays of the morning sun have pierced the barriers of darkness and cobwebs.”