Page 52 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 21

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They were nostalgic narratives of the beauty and inwardness of
Jewish life in the small communities far from the mainstream
of European culture. Asch placed a romantic halo about the
despised townlets, searching for fragments of beauty in filth-
infested streets. He concentrated on moments of charm and of
poetic elevation amidst the grayness of existence. His was the
Sabbath-tone, the holiday-tone. In
Kiddush Hashem
(For the
Sanctification of the Name, 1920), a glorification of Jewish mar-
tyrdom in 1648, he retold historic events with an eye to the
present. In seeking a meaning for the suffering of earlier an-
cestors, he was at the same time interpreting the Jewish tragedy
of his own generation.
Der T i l im Yid
(Salvation) was completed
in 1932 on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power. It contrasted Jewish
deeds of brotherly love and silent heroism with non-Jewish
reliance on brute force and superstitious arrogance. Asch was
hailed as the ablest literary defender of the Jewish way of life
in the years when it was subjected to fierce attacks.
All the greater was the shock to Jewish readers when Asch,
at the height of Hitler’s savage triumphs, published the Chris-
tological novels
The Nazarene
(1939) and
The Apos t le
(1943).
The angry rejection of these novels by Jews wounded and em-
bittered the novelist. Yet, whatever his weaknesses, by pouring
the Yiddish word into the mainstream of European and Amer-
ican culture, he achieved for Yiddish literature what even the
Classical Triumvirate had failed to achieve. He made the Oc-
cident aware that a Yiddish literature had arisen as the expres-
sion of a unique historic group and that it harbored works of
aesthetic beauty and moral grandeur. He was the first Yiddish
writer of truly international vogue.
Yiddish fiction, like other forms of Yiddish literature, reached
its efflorescence on the eve of the first World War. Thereafter
the decline set in. I t was hastened by many factors such as the
death of the Classical Triumvirate during that War, the Com-
munist upheaval in Russia which forced all literary expres-
sion into an ideological straitjacket, and the shifting of the
center of Jewish dynamism from Eastern Europe to America
where English became increasingly the Jewish linguistic medium
and to Palestine where Hebrew became ever more dominant.
Neverthless, the post-Classical generation still produced novelists
of great stature.
In the Soviet realm David Bergelson (1884-1952) who sang
the swan song of Ukrainian Jewry in gentle, melancholy, im-
pressionistic tales, chief among them
Nokh Alemen
(The Finale,
1913), and Der Nistor (1884-1950) in his
Mishpokhe Mashber
(The Mashber Family, 1939), created the best work of Soviet