Several examples of medieval Yiddish literature
have survived. These are for the most part glosses written in the
western Yiddish dialect as margin notes of Hebrew religious manuscripts.
An unusual discovery is a collection of religious and secular poetry
dating back to the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, found in the late
nineteenth century in the genizah of a Cairo synagogue.
Until the eighteenth century, Yiddish literature by and large was
made up of oral tradition, such as fairy tales, fables and songs, just
as in the surrounding cultures.
A printed Yiddish version of an Italian romance by Buovo d'Antona
(1540, modeled on the English work by Sir Bevis of Southampton) was
published in Yiddish in Germany by Elijah Levita in 1542. The many
versions of this work, titled Bove Mayse [Yiddish, Bova's Stories], were
found in all countries having Ashkenazy populations. The work was
ever-popular, particularly among female readers, which explains why its
title was sometimes translated as Bobe Majse (Yiddish, Grandma's
Stories; a much more pejorative translation would be: Women's Talk).
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of midrashim
were translated into Yiddish, as well as the lives of the great figures
of Judaism and popular secular literature, printed under the joint title
Majse Buch [Yiddish, Book of Stories]. Texts of performances associated
with the religious ceremonies of Purim (purimshpil) were being written
and sometimes even published in Yiddish.
Historical songs have also survived in Yiddish, some of which were
incorporated into the synagogal liturgy, such as those commemorating the
victims of a massacre during Cossack uprising of 1648. There were also
epic poems based on Biblical and Talmudic themes, as well as excerpts
from the Bible printed in Yiddish that were especially meant for women.
Most popular was a book titled Tsene urine [Hebrew, Come Out and Look],
which was written by a rabbi named Yaakov ben Itzhaak Ashkenazy
(1550-1628) of Janow Lubelski, first published in 1622.
Chasidic literature, written both on religious
subject matter as well as within the realm of folklore, appeared in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition to Talmudic treatises
and commentaries on the Bible, the teachings of various tzaddikim were
also published in Yiddish, often in the form of parables and aphorisms.
Among the most beautiful are stories about the life and teachings of
Baal Shem Tov: Shivechey ha-BeShT (Hebrew, Praise of Besht, 1809); and
the parables of rabbi Nachman of Braclaw.
The beginnings of modern Jewish literature are connected with
Haskalah, although the main thrust of this movement was not associated
with writings in the Hebrew language. Enlightenment supporters
recognized Hebrew as the language of the Jewish elite. Yiddish writings
advanced the idea of Enlightenment among the masses. Menachem Mendel
Levin translated the Book of Psalms into Yiddish, and was also the
author of anti-Chasidic comedies that have not survived. Itzhaak Euchel
and Aron Wolfsohn, colleagues of Moses Mendelssohn, wrote the following
comedies: Reb Henoch oder was tut me damit [Yiddish, Mr. Henoch or What
to Do With This?] and Leichcinn und frummerlei [Germanized Yiddish,
Lekkomy�lno�� i bigoteria], modeled on purimshpile. The Galician
Haskalah activist J. Perl, in addition to many works in Hebrew, also
left manuscripts in Yiddish. In 1864, S. J. Abramowicz, known by his pen
name Mendele Mojcher Sforim, published his first short story in Yiddish
in the weekly Kol Mevaser [Hebrew, Voice of the Messenger], a
supplement to the Hebrew periodical Ha-melits [Hebrew, Speaker],
published in Odessa. The popularity of his short stories gained him the
nickname "father of Yiddish literature". His short stories The Nag [old
horse -translator's note] and The Jewish Don Quixote (1875) were the
first works in Yiddish to be translated into Polish (under the titles
Szkapa and Donkiszot zydowski).
In the second half of the nineteenth century, two other classic
authors of Yiddish literature were writing--Sholem Aleykhem and Isaac
Leib Peretz. The former developed his own unique style, drawing on
Jewish folklore, combining humor and sadness, lyrical reflection and
satire. Peretz introduced European styles into Yiddish literature, such
as realistic short stories (remaining under the influence of Polish
Positivism), as well as modernism and symbolism, adapted to Jewish
culture, which was called "Chasidic neo-Romanticism". The novel Hasidish
(Yiddish, Chasidic Motifs, 1900) belonged to the second group, as did
the plays Di goldene keyt (Yiddish, The Golden Chain, 1903), Baynacht
oyfn altn mark (Yiddish, Night on the Old Market Square, 1906).
In interwar Poland, modern Yiddish literature
flourished, particularly that which was associated with Yiddishism, and
also with new literary movements, such as Expressionism. During this
period, groups such as Yung Idysh and Khaliastre were active in certain
circles of artists and poets, including Expressionists and Futurists,
such as M. Broderson, U. C. Grinberg, P. Markisz and M. Rawicz. In
Wilno, a group of poets and artists known as Yung Vilne was founded,
whose members included C. Grade and A. Sutzkever. Symbolism and
surrealism existed in prose and poetry at that time; I. Manger was one
of the leading surrealist. Other prominent Yiddish writers of this
period included S. Ash, J. Opatoshu, the brothers I. Y. and I. B.
Singer, Y. Perle, M. Burshtyn and I. Rabon.
In the early 1930's, there was a workers' poetry movement,
ideologically connected with leftist Jewish movements, such as the Bund
and Poale Zion), as well as with communism. In the twentieth century,
collections of songs began to be published, some of which can be
categorized as urban folklore, such as Folkstimlech (Yiddish, On a Folk
Note, 1920), by M. Gebirtig. From 1900 to 1925, Yiddish literature,
particularly poetry, flourished in the United States and Soviet Russia,
Yiddish oral tradition played a special role during the Second World
War, when conditions in the ghettos meant that professional writers and
poets were also limited to this genre. The Ringelblum archive [now
housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw - translator's note]
contains several hand-written testimonies regarding this phenomenon.
Yiddish literature disappeared along with the Polish Jews. After the
Second World War, very few writers continued writing in Yiddish. These
included the prose writer I. B. Singer in the United States; A.
Sutzkever in Israel; and J. Zonshayn and E. Rayzman, who published their
poetry in Poland. See also: press; theater.