Sholem Asch

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Sholem Asch
Sholem Asch.jpg
Sholem Asch, 1940
Born
Szalom Asz

1 November 1880
Died10 July 1957(1957-07-10) (aged 76)
London, England
NationalityPolish-Jewish
Other namesSzalom Asz, Shalom Asch, Shalom Ash
OccupationNovelist, dramatist, and essayist

Sholem Asch (Yiddish: שלום אַש‎, Polish: Szalom Asz; 1 November 1880 – 10 July 1957), also written Shalom Ash, was a Polish-Jewish novelist, dramatist, and essayist in the Yiddish language who settled in the United States.

Life and work[edit]

Asch was born Szalom Asz Kutno, Congress Poland to Moszek Asz (1825, Gąbin – 1905, Kutno), a cattle-dealer and innkeeper, and Frajda Malka, née Widawska (born 1850, Łęczyca). Frajda was Moszek's second wife, after Rude Shmit died in 1873, leaving him with either six or seven children (the exact number is unknown). Sholem was the fourth of the ten children that Moszek Asz and Frajda Malka had together[1]. Moszek would spend all week on the road, and return home every Friday in time for the Sabbath. He was known to be a very charitable man, who would dispense money to the poor[2][3].

His family was Hasidic, so Sholem Asch received a traditional Jewish education. Considered the designated scholar of his siblings, his parents had dreams of him becoming a rabbi, and he was sent to the town's best religious school (or chedel), where the wealthy families sent their children. There, he spent most of his childhood studying the Talmud, and would study the Bible and the Haggadah on his own time. Asch grew up in a majority Jewish town, so he grew up believing Jews were the majority in the rest of the world as well. In Kutno, Jews and gentiles mostly got along–though there was tension around religious holidays–but just outside, Jews could be subjected to violence by anti-Semitic gentiles who held the power in Poland, which is something Sholem experienced as a child. He had to sneak through a majority gentile area to get to a lake where he loved to swim, where he was once cornered by boys yielding sticks and dogs, who demanded he admit to killing "Christ"–which Asch did not, at the time, know to be a name for Jesus–or they would rip his coat. He admitted to killing Christ out of fear, but they beat him and tore his coat anyway. Asch never lost his fear of dogs from that incident[4].

In his adolescence, after moving from the chedel to the House of Study, Sholem became aware of major social changes to popular Jewish thinking. New ideas and the Enlightenment were asserting themselves in the Jewish world. At his friend's house, Sholem would explore these new ideas by secretly reading many secular books, which led him to believe himself too worldly to become a rabbi. At seventeen, when his parents found out about his reading of this "profane" literature, they sent him to live with relatives in a nearby village, where he became a Hebrew teacher.[5] After a few months there, he received a more liberal education at Włocławek, where he supported himself as a letter writer for the illiterate townspeople.[6] It is in Wloclawek, where he became enamored with the work of prominent Yiddish writer, I.L. Peretz. It is also where he began writing. He attempted to master the short story, and wrote in Hebrew. What he wrote there would later be revised, be mostly translated into Yiddish, and would launch his career [7].

In 1899, he moved to Warsaw, where, he met I.L. Peretz, and other young writers under Peretz's mentorship, such as David Pinski, Abraham Reisen, Hersh David Nomberg, and more. Influenced by the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), initially Asch wrote in Hebrew, but I. L. Peretz convinced him to switch to Yiddish. Asch's reputation was established in 1902, with his first book of stories, In a shlekhter tsayt (In a Bad Time)[8]. In 1903, he married Mathilde Shapiro, the daughter of the Polish-Jewish teacher and poet Menahem Mendel Shapiro.[6]

In 1904, Asch released one of his most well-known works, A shtetl, an idyllic portrait of traditional Polish-Jewish life. In January, 1905, he released the first play of his incredibly successful play-writing career, Tsurikgekumen (Coming Back).[9]

He wrote his drama, Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance) in 1906. It is about a Jewish brothel owner who attempts to become respectable by commissioning a Torah scroll and marrying off his daughter to a yeshiva student. Set in a brothel, the play includes Jewish prostitutes, a lesbian scene, and the hurling of a Torah across the stage. I.L. Peretz famously said of the play after reading it: "Burn it, Asch, burn it!" Instead, asch went to Berlin to pitch it to director Max Reinhardt and actor Rudolf Schildkraut, who put it on at the Deutsches Theater. It opened on March 19, 1907, where it ran for six months, and soon was translated and performed in a dozen European languages. It was first brought to New York by David Kessler in 1907. The audience mostly came for Kessler, and they boo'd the rest of the cast. This production sparked a major press war between Yiddish papers, led by the Orthodox Tageplatt and the radical Forverts. Orthodox papers referred to it as "filthy", "immoral", and "indecent". Radical papers, on the other hand, believed it to be "moral", "artistic", and "beautiful". Due to pressure, some of the more provocative scenes in the 1907 New York production were changed, but it wasn't enough for the Orthodox papers. Even Yiddish intellectuals and the play's supporters, though, had problems with the inauthentic nature of the play's portrayal of Jewish tradition, especially in Yankl's use of the Torah, which they said Asch seemed to be using mostly for cheap effects; and due to concerns over how it might stigmatize Jewish people, who already faced much anti-Semitism. The association with Jews and sex work, was a popular stereotype at the time. Other intellectuals merely criticized the writing, claiming that, though the second act was beautifully written, the first and third acts simply failed to support it.[1]

In 1923, God of Vengeance was translated into English, and staged on Broadway at the Apollo Theatre on West 42nd Street with a cast that included the acclaimed Jewish immigrant actor Rudolph Schildkraut. Its run was cut short after six weeks when the entire cast, along with producer Harry Weinberger, and one of the owners of the theater, were indicted – and eventually convicted – on charges of obscenity;[10] Weinberger, who was also a prominent attorney, represented the group at the trial. The chief witness against the play was Rabbi Joseph Silberman, who said in an interview with the Jewish Daily Forward: "This play libels the Jewish religion. Even the greatest anti-Semite could not have written such a thing".[11] After a protracted battle by Weinberger, the conviction was successfully appealed.[12] In Europe, the play was popular enough to be translated into German, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Italian, Czech, Romanian and Norwegian. Indecent, a play written by Paula Vogel, tells of those events and the impact of God of Vengeance. It opened at the Cort Theater on Broadway in April, 2017, directed by Rebecca Taichman.[13]

He attended the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference of 1908, which declared Yiddish to be "a national language of the Jewish people". He traveled to Palestine in 1908 and the United States in 1910, which he felt deeply ambivalent about. In the pursuit of a safe haven from the violence in Europe, he and his family moved to the United States in 1914—where he lived in New York, moving around the city for a while, before settling in Staten Island—and became a naturalized citizen in 1920. In New York, he wrote for the Forverts (The Forward), a mass-circulation Yiddish daily, which provided both income and an intellectual circle. Asch became increasingly active in public life and played a prominent role in the American Jewry's relief efforts in Europe for Jewish war victims. He was a founding member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (or, simply "Joint"). In 1919, after a series of Pogroms, Asch went to Lithuania to learn more for Joint, and he suffered a nervous breakdown due to the shock of the horrors he saw. [1]

His Kiddush ha-Shem (1919) is one of the earliest historical novels in modern Yiddish literature, about the anti-Jewish and anti-Polish Chmielnicki Uprising in mid-17th century Ukraine and Poland.

Asch returned to Poland in 1923, visiting Germany frequently. The Yiddish literary circle hoped he would stay in Poland, because I.L. Peretz's death in 1915 had left them devoid of a head figure, but Asch had no desire to take Peretz's place. He moved to Bellevue, France after two years in Poland, where he still wrote regularly for Yiddish papers in the US and Poland. In Bellevue, he wrote his 1929–31 trilogy Farn Mabul (Before the Flood, translated as Three Cities) describes early 20th century Jewish life in Saint Petersburg, Warsaw, and Moscow. Ever the traveller, Asch took many trips to the Soviet Union, Palestine and the United States. He always held painters in hgih regard, and formed close friendships with the like of Isaac Lichtenstein, Marc Chagall, Emil Orlik, and Jules Pascin. He spoke to the hundreds of mourners as Pascin's funeral, after the painter committed suicide.[1]

Sholem Asch

Asch was a celebrated writer in his own lifetime. In 1920, in honor of his 40th birthday, a committee headed by Judah L. Magnes published a 12-volume set of his collected works.[6] In 1932 he was awarded the Polish Republic's Polonia Restituta decoration and was elected honorary president of the Yiddish PEN Club.

In 1930, when Asch was at the height of his fame and popularity, he moved to Nice, then almost immediately moved back to Poland and spent months touring the countryside to do research for his next novel: Der tehilim-yid (Salvation). He then moved into a house outside of Nice, and rebuilt it into the Villa Shalom, with luxuries such as a study facing the sea, a swimming pool, a bowling green, and an orchard. In 1935, he visited America at Joint's request, to raise funds for Jewish relief in Europe. [1]

His Bayrn Opgrunt (1937, translated as The Precipice), is set in Germany during the hyperinflation of the 1920s. Dos Gezang fun Tol (The Song of the Valley) is about the halutzim (Jewish-Zionist pioneers in Palestine), and reflects his 1936 visit to that region.

He visited Palestine again in 1936. Then, in 1939, he returned to the Villa shalom for the last time, avoiding leaving Europe until the last possible moment, when he reluctantly returned to settle in the United States. He first lived in Stamford, Connecticut, then moved to Miami Beach, where he stayed until the early 1950s. However, he later offended Jewish sensibilities with his 1939–1949 trilogy, The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary, which dealt with New Testament subjects. Despite accusations of his Christianity, Asch always was proudly Jewish, and had written the trilogy not as a promotion of Christianity, but as an attempt to bridge the gap between Jews and Christians. Much of his readership and the Jewish literary community, though, did not see it that way. The Forward, New York's leading Yiddish-language newspaper, not only dropped him as a writer, but also openly attacked him for promoting Christianity. Because of this, he started writing for a communist paper, Morgen frayhayt. This led to him being questioned many times by Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1953, Chaim Lieberman released his book, The Christianity of Sholem Asch, a scathing criticism of Asch and his Christological trilogy, which disgusted even some of Asch's strongest critics. This book, and the Mccarthy Hearings caused Asch to leave the US in 1953, where he and his wife split their time between London (where their daughter lived), continental Europe, and Israel.

Death and legacy[edit]

Asch spent most of his last two years in Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, Israel, in a house that the mayor had invited him to build, but died in London at his desk writing. Had he died two or three decades earlier, his funeral would have drawn massive crowds, but, due to his controversies, it was instead a small funeral in London. His house in Bat Yam is now the Sholem Asch Museum and part of the MoBY-Museums of Bat Yam complex of three museums.[14] The bulk of his library, containing rare Yiddish books and manuscripts, as well as the manuscripts of some of his own works, is held at Yale University. Though many of his works are no longer read today, his best works have proven to be standards of Jewish and Yiddish literature. His sons were Moszek Asz Moses "Moe" Asch (12 February 1905, Warsaw – 19 October 1986, United States), the founder and head of Folkways Records, and Natan Asz/Nathan Asch (1902, Warsaw – 1964, United States), also a writer. His great-grandson, David Mazower, is a writer and a BBC Journalist.[15][16]

Inspirations and Major Themes[edit]

Many of Asch's father figures are inspired by his own father. Sholem believed to have adopted much of his own philosophies from his father, such as his love for humanity and his concern for Jewish-Christian reconciliation. He summed up his father's faith as "love of God and love of neighbor". [1] Asch often wrote two kinds of characters: the pious Jew and the burly worker. This was inspired by his family, as his brothers dealt with peasants and butchers and fit in with the hardy outdoor Jews of Kutno, which Asch had much pride in. His older half-brothers, on the other hand, were pious Hasidim.[3]

One of Asch's major goals in his writing was to articulate Jewish life, past and present. He placed the jew at the center of his every work, along with an awareness of the Jewish relationship with the outside world. Some of his most frequent referring themes were: man's faith, goodness, and generosity. He was repelled and intrigued by christian violence, and inspired by Jewish martyrdom and survival.[3]

Asch reflected on cosmopolitan interests and concern for the people and conditions he encountered. His fiction could mostly be put into three categories: tales, novels and plays of Eastern European Jewish life (Polish mostly); tales and novels of Jewish life in america; five biblical novels: two on Old testament figures, and three on New Testament figures. Smaller groupings included works on the Holocaust and modern Israel. His work was not easily categorized, and straddled the lines between romanticism and realism, naturalism and idealism.[3]

Bibliography[edit]

Discography[edit]

  • In the Beginning: Bible Stories for Children by Sholem Asch (Performed by Arna Bontemps) (Folkways Records, 1955)
  • Joseph and His Brothers: From In the Beginning by Sholem Asch (Performed by Arna Bontemps) (Folkways Records, 1955)
  • Jewish Classical Literature: Read by Chaim Ostrowsky (Folkways Records, 1960)
  • Nativity: Sholem Asch's Story of the Birth of Jesus (Performed by Pete Seeger) (Folkways Records, 1963)
  • Readings from the Bible - Old Testament: Compiled by Sholem Asch (Performed by Harry Fleetwood) (Folkways Records, 1972)
  • Sholem Asch: A Statement and Lecture at Columbia University, N.Y. October, 1952 (Folkways Records, 1977)

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Nanette., Stahl, (2004). Sholem Asch reconsidered. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. ISBN 0845731521. OCLC 54279902.
  2. ^ Nanette., Stahl, (2004). Sholem Asch reconsidered. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. ISBN 0845731521. OCLC 54279902.
  3. ^ a b c d 1925-, Siegel, Ben, (1976). The controversial Sholem Asch : an introduction to his fiction. Bowling Green University Popular Press. ISBN 087972076X. OCLC 2594407.
  4. ^ 1925-, Siegel, Ben, (1976). The controversial Sholem Asch : an introduction to his fiction. Bowling Green University Popular Press. ISBN 087972076X. OCLC 2594407.
  5. ^ 1925-, Siegel, Ben, (1976). The controversial Sholem Asch : an introduction to his fiction. Bowling Green University Popular Press. ISBN 087972076X. OCLC 2594407.
  6. ^ a b c Sherman, Joseph (July 13, 2010). "Asch, Sholem". YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. yivoencyclopedia.org. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  7. ^ 1925-, Siegel, Ben, (1976). The controversial Sholem Asch : an introduction to his fiction. Bowling Green University Popular Press. ISBN 087972076X. OCLC 2594407.
  8. ^ Nanette., Stahl, (2004). Sholem Asch reconsidered. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. ISBN 0845731521. OCLC 54279902.
  9. ^ Nanette., Stahl, (2004). Sholem Asch reconsidered. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. ISBN 0845731521. OCLC 54279902.
  10. ^ "Broadway Cast of ‘God Of Vengeance’ Arrested on Obscenity Charges". English translation, by Chana Pollack, of the article that appeared in the Yiddish Forward (Forverts) on March 7, 1923. Forward. January 14, 2017. forward.com. Retrieved 2017-04-09.
  11. ^ Nanette., Stahl, (2004). Sholem Asch reconsidered. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. ISBN 0845731521. OCLC 54279902.
  12. ^ Cummings, Mike (October 15, 2015). "Defending an ‘Indecent’ play: ‘The God of Vengeance’ in the Yale University Library archives. Yale News. Retrieved 2017-04-09.
  13. ^ League, The Broadway. "Indecent – Broadway Play – Original - IBDB". Ibdb.com. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  14. ^ "MoBY: Museums of Art - Visit". moby.org.il. Retrieved 2017-10-17.
  15. ^ Mazower, David. "A Jewish festival in a town without Jews - BBC News". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-12-15.
  16. ^ "David Mazower". Yiddish Book Center. 2011-02-28. Retrieved 2016-12-15.
  17. ^ "Sholem Asch, One Destiny: an Epistle to the Christians | Issue 22". Kesher Journal. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
  18. ^ "One Destiny Part 1". Petahtikvah.com. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
  19. ^ "One Destiny Part 2". Petahtikvah.com. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
  20. ^ Sholem Asch. East River: A Novel of New York. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
  21. ^ John Bear, The #1 New York Times Best Seller: intriguing facts about the 484 books that have been #1 New York Times bestsellers since the first list, 50 years ago, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1992. pp. 21–27

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]