Yiddish literature is the literature of Jews who write and speak the Yiddish language. Yiddish literature originated in the late 1200's and reached its peak in the late 1800's and early 1900's.
The earliest Yiddish literature took the form of explanations, interpretations, and translations of the Hebrew Bible and other traditional religious and ethical writings. The invention of the printing press had an enormous effect on this literature in the 1500's. Many guides to morals and customs, religious poetry, prayer books, and poems on Biblical subjects were published beginning in the mid-1500's. Perhaps the most important and popular work of this period was the Tsenerene, or Women's Bible (1590). Although a few Yiddish writers produced knightly romances, historical poems, and other nonreligious works, until the 1800's Yiddish literature focused primarily on ethical and religious subjects.
Three important Yiddish writers appeared in the late 1800's and early 1900's. They were Mendele the Bookseller, the pen name of Sholem Jacob Abramovich; Isaac Leib Peretz; and Sholom Aleichem, the pen name of Shalom Rabinowitz. The novels, stories, and plays of these writers are rooted in the world of the shtetl (small Jewish town). Their works typically describe social conflicts within the community and the challenges from the non-Jewish world to traditional Jewish life.
Between the end of World War I in 1918 and the start of World War II in 1939, Yiddish literature flourished in such Eastern European cities as Moscow; Warsaw, Poland; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Kiev, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. New York City also became an important center, especially for Yiddish poetry. Outstanding writers of the period included Sholem Asch, Israel Joshua Singer, Moshe Kulbak, and David Bergelson in Eastern Europe; and Moshe Leib Halperin and Mani Leib in the United States. Many Yiddish writers were among the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust (1939-1945). The government of the Soviet Union often imprisoned Yiddish writers. Many, including Bergelson, were executed in 1952.
Interest in Yiddish literature has increased in the late 1900's, partly because of the availability of good translations. In addition, such writers as Jacob Glatstein, Chaim Grade, and Isaac Bashevis Singer kept the Yiddish literary tradition alive. In 1978, Singer, the younger brother of Israel Joshua Singer, became the first Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. The United States and Israel are the main centers for Yiddish literature today.