In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Yiddish Literature since 1800

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Literary Studies
  • Biographical Lexicons
  • 1800–1900 Introduction
  • 1900–2015 Overviews
  • United States
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • Palestine/Israel
  • Abraham Sutzkever
  • Post-Holocaust
  • Yiddish Theater

Jewish Studies Yiddish Literature since 1800
Yael Chaver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0136


Modern Yiddish literature began to be printed in eastern Europe in the early 19th century. Some of the earliest publications consisted of Hasidic works, such as the Yiddish version of Shivkhey habesht in 1816—a collection of hagiographic stories about the founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (“Besht”). The same year, a Hebrew-Yiddish version of the stories of the Hasidic leader Nahman of Bratslav appeared. Mendel Lefin’s Yiddish translation of the biblical Book of Proverbs was published in 1817. Proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment movement (Haskalah or Haskole in Yiddish) initially considered Yiddish a second-rate language, though they used it in satirical publications meant to counter the effect of Hasidism on the masses. From about the mid-19th century onward, secular Yiddish literature developed and eventually ranked, both in quantity and quality, on a par with other European literatures. It continued to flourish in eastern Europe until the Holocaust, with Poland and Russia/USSR as its geographical centers. Works were produced in all genres and exhibited affinities with many trends in world literature. In the 20th century, Yiddish literature also began to be produced in other European locations, such as Germany, as well as in the United States, where large numbers of European Jews had settled. New York became a major center of Yiddish writing and publishing. In Latin America, Argentina and Mexico were hubs of Yiddish culture. Following the Second World War, some Yiddish literature continued to be published in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Israel. However, secular Yiddish culture has never recovered from its destruction during the Holocaust, as well as from its loss through language shift (mostly to English and Hebrew).

General Overviews

Overviews of Yiddish literature began to be published at the turn of the 20th century. Research since the late 20th century challenges many of the early views. Cammy, et al. 2008, in dialogue with the revisionist approach in Wisse 2000, presents comparative views of a modern Jewish literary canon. Hellerstein 2014 interrogates preconceptions of women’s poetry, and Miron 2010 challenges a long-standing approach to Jewish literature as developing along a continuum. Wiener 1972 (originally published in 1899) is useful as a baseline for later work, while offering perceptive insights. Wisse 2000 makes the case for a reconsidered vision of the Jewish literary canon.

  • Cammy, Justin, Dara Horn, Alyssa Quint, and Rachel Rubinstein, eds. Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon: Essays on Literature and Culture in Honor of Ruth R. Wisse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    This wide-ranging collection of essays is a richly nuanced dialogue with some of the views in Wisse 2000, and it makes comparisons with other national canons. Over a dozen essays are devoted to Yiddish literature, Yiddish theater, and a little-known work by an Orthodox Jewish writer. Includes a first complete English translation of Sholem Aleichem’s polemical pamphlet against “trash” literature, Shoymer’s Mishpet, and an alternative reading of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s famous novella Satan in Goray.

  • Hellerstein, Kathryn. A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish, 1586–1987. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804756228.001.0001

    A groundbreaking literary and cultural survey, augmented by close readings, of eighteen European and American modernist, often radical, women poets who shattered the stereotype of Yiddish “women’s topics” and created their own tradition. Each chapter presents rich historical and biographical background. The poets who are addressed include Kadya Molodowsky, Anna Margolin, Miriam Ulinover, and Celia Dropkin.

  • Krutikov, Mikhail. “Yiddish Literature after 1800.” In YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. New York: YIVO Institute of Jewish Research.

    This valuable article delineates the development of European Yiddish literature, from a largely didactic tool used by Enlightenment ideologues to oppose traditionalism, through the emergence of Yiddish periodicals and popular works, into the proto-modernist trends of the late 19th century, and culminating in the unusual dynamism and flourishing of the early 20th century. Provides historical and geographical context for writers such as Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Peretz Markish. Includes brief biographical notes for many less well-known European Yiddish writers.

  • Miron, Dan. From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804762007.001.0001

    In this thought-provoking book, Miron proceeds from traditional concepts of an organic relationship between Yiddish and Hebrew literatures and proposes a new model that views Jewish literature as multifarious yet intersecting. Sh. Y. Abramovich, Sholem Aleichem, and Franz Kafka are among the writers who are addressed.

  • Novershtern, Avraham. “Yiddish: Women’s Poetry.” Jewish Women’s Archive.

    A comprehensive essay on 20th-century Yiddish poetry written by women, in the context of a culture that expected women to express a “uniquely feminine” experience. Includes writers such as Margolin, Molodowsky, and Rokhl Korn.

  • Wiener, Leo. The History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century. 2d ed. New York: Hermon, 1972.

    The pioneering work on the history of Yiddish literature, originally published in 1899 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons). The book reflects contemporaneous (late 19th century) scholarly approaches, such as consistently referring to the language as “Judeo-German” and adopting an ethnographic emphasis on folklore and folk songs. It offers shrewd insights as well as correctly identifies the innovativeness of the three “classic” writers, Abramovich, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz. Includes a detailed bibliography of works in various genres.

  • Wisse, Ruth R. The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture. New York: Free Press, 2000.

    An ambitious project that seeks to define 20th-century Jewish prose through a revisionist, multilingual lens. Includes discussions of works in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, and other European languages, as well as English, with particular attention to American Jewish writers. Some of the Yiddish writers discussed are Sholem Aleichem, Jacob Glatshteyn, Moyshe Kulbak, and the Singer siblings.

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