Page 128 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
masses may be traced to Hasidism, it is from the Haskalah or
Jewish Enlightenment movement and the writings of men like
Moses Mendelssohn, Isaac Baer Levinsohn and Nahman Kroch­
mal that Asch derived his urge to criticize the excesses of Jewish
isolationism, open the ghetto gates and build bridges of under­
standing to the larger world. Similarly, it was from the Jewish
Socialism of the Jewish Labor Bund and the Socialist-Zionist
parties that Asch came to view Jewish life in terms of larger social
and economic forces. And it is to Zionism that we can trace Asch’s
view of the Jew’s major problem in the modern world as the
struggle for freedom, dignity and identity.
Whatever Asch’s faults as a writer and as a person may have
been, he was an assiduous and prolific artist whose works are
completely suffused with the visions and images of the Bible and
the passion for faith in God and man of the rabbinic and hasidic
traditions. Asch’s familiarity with Western culture and European
literature was always tangential to his Jewish core, even when he
was engaged in developing a non-Jewish or universal theme.
Moreover, it was in his depiction of scenes from Jewish history
and the traditional Jewish life-style, and in his portraits of deeply
Jewish characters, that Asch achieved his greatest successes. I f a
major achievement of modern Jewish writing has been to capture
the image of the Jew as a living embodiment of Judiasm, then
Asch’s works must be considered in the fo re fron t of that
achievement.
On the centenary of his birth, it is clear that what Asch’s works
lack in psychological depth, insight into character motivation, and
artistic control, they more than compensate for in emotional
intensity, depth of Jewish knowledge and understanding, histori­
cal sweep, grandeur of intention, and nobility of conception.
While his writing is sometimes superficial and maudlin, it is never
devoid of redeeming qualities, both ethical and aesthetic. His best
works are assured of a permanent place in the enduring literary
legacy of the Jewish people.