The major works of the Polish-born writer Shalom Asch (1880-1957) are built on an epic scale, show profound insight into human character, and reveal prophetic vision. They depict patriarchal Jewish life with its devotional joys and fateful martyrdom.
Shalom Asch was born in Kutno, Poland, where he studied at a Hebrew religious school. At the age of 18 he left for Wocawek to become a Hebrew teacher. His reading was extensive in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and German literatures, and he started writing in Hebrew. In 1899 he showed his work to the noted Yiddish writer H. L. Peretz, who advised him to turn to Yiddish as a medium of expression. From that time on, most of Asch's writing was done in Yiddish.
In 1900 he published his first short story, "Moishele." Subsequently his sketches, short stories, and plays appeared in Jewish weeklies and periodicals. Like his childhood, they were steeped in sadness.
When Asch met the Polish writer M. M. Shapira, whose daughter Matilda he later married, his literary horizons broadened. The short story "The Little Town" (1905) opened a new chapter in Yiddish literature. The emphasis on poverty shifted now to the idyllic and romantic atmosphere of the small town, despondency gave way to faith, and satire turned to humor. A year earlier Asch had written his first play, He Left and Returned. His two following plays, The Days of Messiah and God of Vengeance, were performed in several European languages. Asch's reputation grew in the literary centers of the world.
At the outset of World War I Asch emigrated to the United States; several years after the war he returned to Poland. Later he took up residence in France, then moved again to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1938. For many years Asch was a member of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. He later resided in England, then moved to Israel in 1954 with the intention of settling there for the rest of his life. During a visit to his daughter in London he died in 1957.
Scope of the Work
Asch was extremely versatile in his literary forms, and the subjects that absorbed him covered a wide range. He wrote about life in little towns in Poland and in metropolitan New York, about social and religious problems, and about Zionism and the Nazi holocaust. His outstanding works— Motke the Thief, God of Vengeance, Kiddush Hashem (The Sanctification of God's Name), Sabbetai Zvi, The Mother, and Three Cities —depict the exaltations and degradations of environmental influences. The survival under adversity and the idealism and indestructible spirit of his people are transformed by his pen into sublime drama, comedy, and tragedy. In his Christian trilogy—The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary —he tried to bring out the common elements in Judaism and Christianity.
Asch started by depicting the provincial Jewish town and ended by opening international, intercultural, and interfaith vistas to Jewish literature. He was a writer of the highest order, both an idealist and a realist. His works have been translated into all major languages.
Further Reading on Shalom Asch
There is little material on Asch in English. Solomon Liptzin, The Flowering of Yiddish Literature (1963), includes a chapter on his life and works. Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature (4 vols., 1930-1936; rev. ed., 5 vols., 1960), discusses his work until 1935. For general background see Charles A. Madison, Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Siegel, Ben, The Controversial Sholem Asch: an introduction to his fiction, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976.