||Sholem Asch (1880–1957), Yiddish novelist and dramatist. Born in Kutno, Poland, to parents of scholarly orthodox families (though his father was a cattle-dealer and innkeeper), he was educated at the heder and bet ha-midrash until the age of 17. Asch then chanced upon Moses Mendelssohn's German translation of the Psalms in Hebrew characters, with the aid of which he tried to teach himself German. He later learned the German alphabet and began to read the German classics. His parents' subsequent suspicions of heresy, coupled with a sudden restlessness on his part, led him to move to the home of relatives in a Polish village, where he observed the life of the local peasantry, while teaching the children Torah. This was the "elementary school of his life." His "high school" was the town of Wloclawek, where he earned his living by writing letters for illiterate people, an experience which he considered enlightening. Influenced by Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and German works, Asch tried his hand at literary composition and, in 1900, took his first literary efforts to Warsaw where I. L. Peretz advised him to concentrate on Yiddish. Between 1900 and 1903 Asch published a Yiddish story, "Moyshele" (1900), one Yiddish and two Hebrew books and a number of articles and short stories, all of which are pervaded with the sadness of his youth. Also discernible in these early works is the influence of A. Reisen and H. D. Nomberg, his Warsaw roommates with whom he "lodged in dark, damp holes, encountering the needy and the poverty-stricken." A turning point in his life was his meeting with the Polish-Jewish writer, M. M. Shapiro, whose daughter Mathilde he later married. His material needs provided for, Asch's literary achievements flourished correspondingly.
With A Shtetl ("The Village," published in Fraynd, 1904), Asch introduced a new tone into his own works and into Yiddish literature as a whole; the former gloomy portrayal of Jewish life gave way to an awareness of its warmth and geniality. His first play (published as a Yiddish novel, Mitn Shtrom - "With the Stream," 1904) won him further recognition, and it was followed by dramas that were performed on the Russian, Polish, and German stage, the best of these being Got fun Nekomeh (1907; English tr. "God of Vengeance," in J. Landis, The Dybbuk and other Great Yiddish Plays, 1966). In his psychological and socio-nationalist dramas, Asch tried to liberate himself from the spell of the shtetl. The same urge is felt in his first long novel, Mary (1917), and its sequel, Der Veg tsu Zikh ("The Way to Oneself," 1914), both of which deal with worldwide Jewish problems and which were written after Asch had traveled in Europe and made journeys to Erez Israel (1908) and the U.S. (1910). When, in his story "Reb Shloyme Nogid" (1913), Asch reverted to the world of the shtetl, he brought to it a new maturity of outlook; no longer content with lyrical description, he now wished to make a positive statement about this society. The story became the artistic yardstick by which he measured all his subsequent works, few of which reached the required standard. The social novel Motke Ganev ("Motke the Thief," 1917) has a moving beginning, but develops into a mediocre tale of the underworld; Onkl Mozes (1918, translated into English in 1938) lacks the vitality of Motke but displays greater narrative unity and coherence, the scene now being the American version of the Polish town which, no longer the theme for a patriarchal idyll, verges on comedy. He was more successful with Kiddush ha-Shem (1919; Eng. tr. 1926); one of the earliest historical novels in modern Yiddish literature, a story of Jewish martyrdom in mid-17th century Ukraine and Poland. The somewhat melodramatic Di Kishufmakherin fun Kastilien ("The Witch of Castile," 1921) is in spirit a continuation of Kiddush ha-Shem, telling of a beautiful girl's resolute death for her faith. As in his other stories, Asch here contrasts the grey everyday world of Jewish life with the elevated spirit of the Sabbath, and outer servitude with inner freedom.