Modern Yiddish Literature

By Ian Rollins




The Jewish people have experienced many changes throughout the centuries.  Chased out of Western Europe, they were welcomed to settle Germany, Poland, and Russia.  As their population began to grow, the Christian overlords changed their tactics in dealing with the Jews; first separation, then integration.   In the 17th century, the West moved towards the Enlightenment, and the East soon followed.  Many Jewish intellectuals began to sense that Jewish society was lagging behind, so they set out to change this.  With the onset of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, in the 19th century, Jewish literature blossomed.  Centers in major cities like Kiev, Odessa, and St. Petersburg became intellectual meccas for the Jewish intelligentsia.  Authors writing in both Yiddish and Hebrew covered topics ranging from criticisms of the “Shtetl Jew” to questions of a Jewish state.

This enlightenment was welcomed by many, and soon Jewish students began entering University, moving into the major cities, and acquiring vast fortunes. Secularization became the norm for these modern Jews, and through it acceptance.  The situation for the Jews, however, was not always stable.  Reforms passed by previous monarchs began to be ignored or replaced.  Anti-Jewish sentiment was widespread.  As the world moved into the 20th century, Jews began to leave the continent their ancestors had called home for centuries.  They settled everywhere, from Buenos Ares to Johannesburg.  Soon major Yiddish literary centers were located everywhere but Eastern Europe, and many of these authors looked both at the past and into the future to influence their works.

General Overview

“Modern” Yiddish literature has its roots in the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, the Jewish society underwent in the 19th century.  In some ways, it was a confusing time for the Jews of Eastern Europe: should they abandon their centuries-old tradition of semiautonomy or integrate into the modern European world?  Many Jews also began to emigrate to the Holy Land and even pondered the thought of the creation of a Jewish state.

A History of Yiddish Literature

This book, while lengthy, has a wide variety of information on Yiddish literature from its beginnings to modern times.  It includes information on various centers of Yiddish centers across Europe and the Americas.  It also has information on an assortment of Yiddish authors, poets, and playwrights.

Liptzin, Sol. A History of Yiddish Literature. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1972.

Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers

This book acts as a sort of encyclopedia of Yiddish authors, poets and dramatists. It also contains a substantial chapter on Yiddish writings in the Soviet Union.

Madison, Charles A.  Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers.  New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co.1968

A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling

This book provides useful information on famous Yiddish writers and their works, including Nachman of Bratlsav, founder of one of the major branches of Hasidism.

Roskies, David G. A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1995

Maturing of Yiddish Literature

This work gives extensive coverage on Yiddish literary centers in post revolutionary Russia.  It also covers important centers and movements in the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries.

Liptzin, Sol. Maturing of Yiddish Literature. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1970.

Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abromovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, & Peretz

The book discusses the lives and works of the “grandfather, father, and grandson” of Yiddish literature.

Frieden, Ken. Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abromovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, & Peretz. New York: State University of New York Press. 1995.

Yiddish Literature After 1800

Part of the YIVO Encyclopedia’s article on the history of Yiddish literature.  It breaks down the 19th and 20th centuries into different categories by year and topic.  It also contains a list of notable Yiddish writers.


Selected Authors

The authors below represent three major periods on Yiddish literature: its origins, its peak, and its twilight. These authors were, and are, renowned for their contributions to Yiddish literature and through it, a continuation of Jewish society into modern times.

I.L. Peretz

Stories from Peretz

A selection of Peretz’s short stories.

Peretz, I.L. Trans, Sol Liptzin. Stories from Peretz. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company. 1947.

IL Peretz: Psychologist of Literature

An long book, this books analyzes Peretz’s writings.  It also provides commentary on his life.  The book also takes a psychological approach to Peret’z writing.

Roback, A.A. IL Peretz: Psychologist of literature. Cambridge: Sci-Art Publishers. 1935.

I.L. Peretz, Father of the Yiddish Renaissance

This article, from a 2003 issue of Fidelio Magazine, provides a detailed explanation of the situation surrounding Eastern Europe around the time of the Polish Partitions and Russian policies towards the Jews.  It also goes into great detail about Peretz’s life, writings, and the various movements that he was involved in

Yitskhok Leybush Peretz

The YIVO Jewish Encyclopedia’s article on Peretz.  Provides concise information on his life and works.

Sholem Aleichem

Tevye The Dairyman and The Railroad Stories

Perhaps one of the most popular and widely known examples of Yiddish literature ever publish, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker has inspired both a Broadway musical and an Academy and Golden Globe winning movie, Fiddler on the Roof.

Aleichem, Sholem.  Tevye The Dairyman and The Railroad Stories, trans. Hillel Halkin. New York: Schlocken Books.1987.

Sholem Aleichem

An overview of Aleichem.  This book includes detailed information about his life and life in general for Russian Jews at the time of his birth. Provides detailed descriptions and analyses of various Aleichem stories.

Butwin, Frances & Butwin, Joseph.  Sholem Aleichem, . Boston: SG. K. Hall & Co.1977.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

The website for the film discussing Sholem Aleichem, his life, work, and impact on Jewish culture.

Sholem Aleichem

The YIVO Jewish Encyclopedia’s article on Aleichem.  Provides information on his life and works.

Ruth Wisse & Sholem Aleichem

Short clips discussing Aleichem and his impact on Yiddish literature and Jewish culture from Professor Ruth Wisse of Harvard University.


Fiddler On The Roof

A clip from the 1971 film adaptation of the 1964 Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer

An anthology of Singer’s short stories.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. 1982.

The Family Moskat

Perhaps one of Singer’s most recognized works, as it was the first to be published in English, this book tells the story of a family of Jews in the years leading up to World War II, ending with the imminent invasion of Warsaw by the Nazis.  It also analyzes Polish-Jewish society and its responses to the threat of the Nazis.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis.  The Family Moskat. New York: Knopf Publishers. 1950

From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer

This books provides a commentary on Singer and his writing style.

Lee, Grace Farrell. From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1987.

The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer

This books is a collection of short essays by various writers on Singer’s writings.  Their topics range from themes throughout phases of Singer’s works to analyses of his autobiography.

Wolitz, Seth L, ed. The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer. Austin: The University of Texas Press. 2001.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

The YIVO Encyclopedia’s article on Singer.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

This is a link to the Nobel Prize Foundation’s page on Singer, who won the Nobel Literature award in 1978.  It includes a biography, bibliography, and copies of his Nobel lecture, diploma, banquet and award speeches.