Sholem Asch Reconsidered

Yale University will host an international conference, “Sholem Asch Reconsidered,” analyzing the life and work of controversial Yiddish author Sholem Asch (1880-1957), from May 13 through 15.

The conference is free and open to the public; no prior registration is necessary. In conjunction with the conference, the University will display treasures from the Sholem Asch collection from May through July. Manuscripts will be on view at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and highlights from Asch’s own collection of books and Judaica will be displayed in Sterling Memorial Library.

Born in Poland and a resident of many countries – United States, France, Israel and England, among others – Asch was one of the best-known Yiddish authors of the first half of the twentieth century. A prolific writer of novels, plays and essays, he was the first Yiddish writer to be widely read in translation.

Asch was not afraid to tackle controversial subjects. His play, “God of Vengeance,” deals with both prostitution and lesbianism. It was banned from the Broadway stage in 1923 and the cast and producer were jailed.

His most popular novels include “Three Cities,” depicting the shattering effect of the Bolshevik revolution on the Jewish communities of eastern Europe; “East River,” about the immigrant Jewish experience in New York City; and a trilogy on the origins of Christianity: “The Nazarene” (1939), “The Apostle” (1943) and “Mary” (1949).

Asch’s fervent belief that Christianity was a form of Judaism, and that Jews and Christians should live together in harmony alienated his core readers. With the publication of his three Christological novels during and immediately after the Holocaust, Asch was dropped from the Yiddish canon and more or less forgotten. Even Abraham Cahan, editor of the influential Yiddish newspaper, the Jewish Daily Forvorts, who was previously one of Asch’s strongest supporters, spurned him.

The conference at Yale will attempt to take a fresh look at Asch and his extensive literary output. Though he still generates strong emotions, the ecumenism – which caused so much controversy during his lifetime – is very much in tune with present-day America.

Asch had close ties to Yale, a fact not generally known. While in the United States, he lived for a time in Stamford, Connecticut, and did research for his novels in the Yale library. He felt a great affinity for Yale and decided that was where he wanted his collection of rare books and manuscripts to go. This became possible through the generosity of Louis M. Rabinowitz, who purchased Asch’s collection and presented it to the University. Yale also received several manuscripts of Asch’s writings. The Asch Collection is housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The conference will begin on Saturday evening with a performance of “The People vs. the God of Vengeance” at the Yale Repertory Theater. Written and directed by Yale Drama School student Rebecca Taichman, the play dramatizes the infamous obscenity trial of 1923, interspersed with scenes from Asch’s banned play. A reception, free and open to the public, will take place at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale (80 Wall Street) following the performance. “The People vs. the God of Vengeance” will be performed at the Yale Repertory Theater from Tuesday, May 9, through Saturday, May 13. Call the theater at 203-432-1234 for performance time and ticket availability.

Leading scholars in the field of Yiddish literature from the United States and abroad will participate in the sessions and discussions that will take place on Sunday, May 14, 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and Monday, May 15, 9:00 a.m. till noon in the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall St.

Asch’s great-grandson, David Mazower, will deliver a slide lecture about the author and his life. Other speakers include Joel Berkowitz of the Oxford Center for Yiddish Studies, David Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Seth Wolitz of the University of Texas at Austin, and Alisa Solomon of CUNY and drama critic of the Village Voice.

Keynote speaker will be Dan Miron, a noted scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature who has appointments at both Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He will present “Mimesis, Faith, and the New Deal: Sholem Asch’s East River, a major American/Jewish Novel” on May 14 at 9 p.m. in the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, 80 Wall St.

For further information, visit the conference web site at or call Nanette Stahl, Judaica curator at the Yale University Library, 203-432-7202. A photo of Sholom Asch is available for publication.

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Gila Reinstein:, 203-432-1325