Yiddish Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Yiddish Novel

Ken Frieden

A latecomer to the genre, the Yiddish novel was heavily influenced by Russian and English models. Satiric realism and parody characterize nineteenth-century Yiddish fiction, while twentieth-century authors explored a wide range of styles. With a few notable exceptions, Yiddish novels were directed to a popular audience.

Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, who is sometimes known as Mendele Moykher Sforim (the central character in his fiction), greatly influenced the Yiddish novel. Five works form the core of his literary achievement: Dos kleyne mentshele (1864, The Little Man), Dos vintshfingerl (1865, The Wishing-Ring), Fishke der Krumer (1869, Fishke the Lame; 1888, expanded ed.), Di klyatshe (1873, The Nag), and Kitser masoes Binyumin hashlishi (1878, The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third). In later years he revised and expanded these novels. Closely associated with the Jewish intelligentsia of Odessa after 1881, Abramovitsh developed a compelling satiric realism. Some characters appear typical, while others are comically distorted. His hebrew adaptations of Yiddish works played a major role in the creation of modern Hebrew fiction (see ADAPTATION/APPROPRIATION).

Sholem Aleichem (the pen-name used by Sholem Rabinovitsh) was also a founder of modern Yiddish fiction. His best-known work is Tevye der milkhiker (1894—1914, Tevye the Dairyman), which could be considered a novel but is a collection of stories narrated by Tevye. Sholem Aleichem experimented with the novelistic form in the late 1880s, producing Stempeniu (1888, Stempeniu: A Jewish Romance) and Yosele Solovey (1889, The Nightingale; or, The Saga of Yosele Solovey the Cantor). He also employed a first-person, oral-style narrator, as in Motl Peyse dem khazns (1907—16, Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son). Other works include the epistolary novel Menakhem Mendel (1892—1909, Letters of Menakhem-Mendl, Sheyne-Sheyndl and Mot, the Cantor's Son) and third-person narratives such as Blondzhende shtern (1912, Wandering Stars).

In the early twentieth century, the Warsaw center of Yiddish literature formed around I. L. Peretz, who excelled as an author of short fiction but never published a novel. Nevertheless, he inspired a generation of novelists, including David Pinski, Sholem Asch, Isaac Meir Weissenberg, I. J. Singer, and the poet and fiction writer Kadya Molodowsky.

David Bergelson became the master of the modernist novel in Yiddish (see MODERNIS). His work extends the form beyond the realm of his predecessors by employing innovative narrative techniques to create more ambiguous fictional worlds. His novel Opgang (1920, Descent or Departing) portrays the collapse of traditional values and the decline of the small town shtetl.

Following the Holocaust (ca. 1933—45), Yiddish fiction continued to be written in the Soviet Union, Israel, and the U.S. I. J. Singer's brother, I. B. Singer, became the only Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1978. Their sister Esther Kreitman also published Yiddish novels, including Der sheydim tants (1936, The Dance of Demons).

Several successful authors wrote first in Yiddish before publishing in another language. One example is Mary Antin's first draft of From Plotzsk to Boston (1899). Elie Wiesel first published his autobiographical novel La nuit (1958, Night) in Yiddish under the title Un di velt hot geshvign (1956, And the World Remained Silent).

Active Yiddish novelists in the later twentieth century include Chaim Grade, Chava Rosenfarb, and Boris Sandler. Because of the decline in the Yiddish-speaking population, through genocide and assimilation, few Yiddish novels are likely to be written in the twenty-first century.

SEE ALSO: National Literature, Religion.


1. Frieden, K. (1995), Classic Yiddish Fiction.

2. Harshav, B. (1990), Meaning of Yiddish.

3. Miron, D. (1996), Traveler Disguised.

4. Roskies, D. (1995), Bridge of Longing.

5. Seidman, N. (1997), Marriage Made in Heaven.

6. Wisse, R. (1991), I. L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture.