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Asch’s Passion

A popular Yiddish novelist strove for immortality by taking on Jesus, but it cost him his core audience and made him a marked man

Ellen Umansky
April 24, 2007

In 1936, the novelist and critic Ludwig Lewisohn was asked to name the world’s ten greatest living Jews. The resulting list, which ran in The New York Times, included Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, and Louis Brandeis. Lewisohn deemed only one writer great enough to be included in this illustrious company: Sholem Asch. The Polish-born Asch, a prolific author of Yiddish novels, plays, and short stories, was by then getting used to such accolades. In 1928, he had been named honorary president of the Yiddish PEN Club; two years later he celebrated his 50th birthday with fanfare at public celebrations in Warsaw and Vienna, receiving congratulatory cables from Einstein and Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization. Asch’s sprawling historical drama Three Cities, published in 1933, earned a front-page rave from The New York Times Book Review. That same year, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize.

By the end of the 1930s, however, the tide turned. Abraham Cahan, the legendary editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, accused Asch of “having gone off the rails.” A fellow writer charged Asch with apostasy. Rabbis inveighed against him from pulpits. Critics devoted entire books to denouncing him.

What set off all this hatred? In 1939, at the height of Hitler’s power, Asch published The Nazarene, a thick historical novel based on the life of Jesus. If that wasn’t enough, Asch went on to pen two other installments; The Apostle, based on the life of Paul, in 1943, followed six years later by Mary.

For Asch’s devoted Yiddish-speaking readers, this literary move constituted nothing less than a betrayal, and their anger surely must have deepened as the books catapulted up the American best-seller lists, helped by praise from Alfred Kazin and other New York intellectuals. An inexhaustible writer with a penchant for the melodramatic, Asch was best-known for his sepia-tinged portrayals of shtetl life, serialized, to popular acclaim, in the Forward. But throughout his career, he had also displayed a provocative streak, a desire to break out of Jewish parochialism.

Born in a Polish shtetl in 1880, Asch moved to Warsaw around the turn of the century and fell under the tutelage of I.L. Peretz, who urged him to write in Yiddish rather than Hebrew. He complied, and in 1908, Cahan began publishing Asch’s work in the Forward, gaining him an international audience.

Asch plumbed the Jewish world he knew so well for material: He translated the Book of Ruth into Yiddish, and one of his first major hits was Reb Shlomo Nagid (1912), a nostalgic novella based loosely on his childhood. Just a few years earlier, though, he had penned God of Vengeance, a play about a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter—his only hope at salvation—embarks on a lesbian affair with one of his prostitutes. “Burn it,” I.L. Peretz reportedly told his protégé. Asch ignored Peretz’s advice and the play went on to successful runs in Europe and America—until it reached Broadway. It was unceremoniously shut down and its producer and lead actor hauled off to jail for mounting “offensive material,” despite Cahan’s vociferous defense.

Asch and his wife, Matilda, arrived in New York on the eve of World War I, after a two-year stint in Paris. Here he wrote Mottke the Thief, which centered on another Jewish world rarely revealed: the seamy Warsaw criminal network. Asch’s gritty portrayal of a young Jewish man’s rise cemented his literary reputation and made him a household name among American Jews.

In 1925, Asch and his family returned to France. Eventually, they settled in Nice, where he built himself a home called the Villa Shalom and wrote Three Cities, which brought him his widest acclaim. Taking inspiration from the sprawling social novels of Dickens and Dostoevsky, Asch’s tome moves from the well-off assimilated Jews of St. Petersburg to the tight quarters of Warsaw’s anti-tsarists and back east to Moscow and the Bolshevik rise to power. “One of the most absorbing, one of the most vital, one of the most richly creative works of fiction that have appeared in our day,” declared Louis Kronenberger in The New York Times.

Buoyed by this success and with the political news darkening, Asch turned to a project he had been mulling over for decades: a novel about the life of Rabbi Yeshua ben Joseph, otherwise known as Jesus. As Ben Siegel details in his clear-eyed biography, The Controversial Sholem Asch, Asch made his first attempt at the project after a 1908 trip to Palestine. Dissatisfied with the results, he put it aside but remained haunted by the idea. “Since that time I have never thought of Judaism or Christianity separately,” Asch told a reporter of the New York Herald Tribune. “For me it is one culture and one civilization, on which all our peace, our security and our freedom are dependent.”

Of course, there were other, perhaps less conscious factors at play. As popular as Three Cities had been, Asch yearned for another success, one that would broaden his readership beyond its traditional base. He had long coveted the Nobel Prize, and the universal subject of Jesus might catch the eye of the Nobel committee.

Whatever his motives, Asch’s timing couldn’t have been worse. In the late 1930s, atrocities against the Jews were being committed in the name of a “Christian” nation. His readers wanted an explanation for the unexplainable, not an attempt to bridge gaps between the two religions. When he sent the first chapter to the Forward in 1938, Cahan responded decisively. Asch should destroy what he had written, the imperious editor told him, and halt work altogether on the project. Asch refused, and Cahan not only rejected The Nazarene for publication, severing a nearly 30-year-old relationship, but embarked on a public campaign to pillory the author. Other Yiddish papers followed suit, and the former honorary chairman of the Yiddish PEN Club found himself without an outlet in the papers that had launched and nurtured his career. Only the Communist Freiheit would run his work; Asch insisted on a disclaimer distancing him from their politics.

The novel that caused such a commotion is itself an oddity. Asch constructed the book in three parts: Pan Viadomsky, a bilious anti-Semitic history professor in pre-Hitler Warsaw, has just hired an unnamed Jewish assistant to help him translate an ancient manuscript. Soon Viadomsky is confiding in the assistant about his, um, past life as the Roman commander Cornelius, Pontius Pilate’s right-hand man. Viadomsky/Cornelius recounts life in Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple and the appearance of the Rabbi from the Galilee that had everyone talking. The text of the yellowing manuscript, which Viadomsky insists is written by Judah Ish-Kiriot, constitutes the second part of Asch’s novel. Then Asch returns to Viadomsky’s Jewish assistant, who conjures a past life of his own as a student of a rabbi witness to Jesus’ last days.

In rich, dizzying detail, Asch reconstructs ancient Jerusalem chafing under Roman rule, from the gleaming golden towers of the Temple to the spice dealers and money changers of the old city and the poor in the teeming crooked streets below. But his principal goal was to reclaim Jesus—and his earth-bound rabbi Yeshua ben Joseph is unquestionably grounded in his Jewish faith. Asch introduces us to a “lean and hungry-looking” Jesus preaching to the poor fishermen by the harbor, with his dark beard and traditional sidelocks, clad in a tallis with the “ritualistic fringes hanging down almost to the ground.” This is a rabbi who followed Hillel’s teachings, who was well-liked and respected by his fellow clergymen, who declared while speaking from a tiny synagogue pulpit (with his mother, Miriam, proudly watching with the other women in the balcony) that he had come “not to destroy the Law and prophets, but to fulfill them.”

But the attempt to return Yeshua ben Joseph to the people of Israel did little to assuage his critics. Rumors abounded that Asch was on the verge of converting. In the pages of the Forward and in his antagonistic book Sholem Asch’s New Way, Cahan accused Asch of distorting Jewish tradition. The longtime Forward columnist Herman Lieberman published The Christianity of Sholem Asch, a scathing book in which he claimed that The Nazarene “may lure away ignorant Jewish children into worshipping foreign gods.” Such arguments incensed Asch: “I am a Jewish writer, who has all his life tried to understand the Jewish spirit,” he told The New York Herald Tribune. The American public was firmly on Asch’s side; the book shot up the best-seller lists, securing positive reviews from prominent critics, including several first-generation Jewish Americans who rose to defend Asch’s right to write whatever he pleased.

In The New Republic, Alfred Kazin declared, “Nothing, as it happens, could be more characteristically Yiddish or more imperative in its way than this Gospel according to Chaver Sholem.” Philip Rahv, writing in The Nation, called Asch’s effort “brilliant, convincing and unprecedented in its range.” And Clifton Fadiman wrote in The New Yorker in 1943, after the publication of The Apostle: “Let the Nobel Committee convene as soon as may be and award this year’s prize for literature to Sholem Asch.”

The committee never came calling, but the success of The Nazarene gave Asch a financial security he had never known before, which likely incensed his critics further. As the situation in Europe got worse and his detractors more vitriolic, Asch and his wife, who had been living in France, retreated to Stamford, Connecticut, at the urging of friends and family. There he began working on the life of Paul while writing short stories about the dire situation for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. In 1943, he published The Apostle. Predictably, the Yiddish press lambasted it; this time, however, most mainstream critics were also lukewarm. (Paul is “so complex, mystical, and Christian a matter that Asch misses him,” Kazin concluded.) Nevertheless, Asch’s Christological series continued to rack up sales, and The Apostle became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Mary, which appeared in 1949, was the least successful of the three. Asch’s longtime translator, Maurice Samuel—whose English versions Irving Howe preferred to the original—refused to take on the project.

In 1950, the year he turned 70, Asch announced that he would devote himself to Jewish subjects, turning his attention to a long-planned novel about Moses. Still the accusations haunted him. He and Matilda moved to Miami, but after learning of an aborted street assault on him by “Yiddish extremists,” the Asches packed their bags once again, eventually settling in Israel, of all places. He began work on yet another Biblical novel, this one about Rachel and Jacob, but in 1957, during a trip to London, Asch passed away. His wife buried him in the cemetery of the West London Synagogue, noting with bitterness that the English had always been stalwart supporters of her husband’s work. Certainly there was a degree of hubris in writing the Christological trilogy, egoism mixed with naiveté and no small dose of terrifically poor timing. Asch must have believed that his intentions would be clear no matter what, that his act of mediation between the two religions would somehow be understood and matter in such fraught times. The public became more receptive to such ideas after Geza Vermes published Jesus the Jew in 1973.

But in many ways, Asch’s literary efforts underscore a yearning to taste a dizzying freedom that his peripatetic existence never granted him. Asch considered himself a Jewish writer, but also a man of letters to whom the greater world of European literature mattered immensely. The work of his heroes—Dickens, Cervantes, and Dostoevsky—all grew out of the Christian tradition. Asch badly wanted his writing to be considered part of the larger body of Western literature, and what better way to gain permanent admittance to that literary world than to reclaim Jesus as a Jewish figure and prove that his tradition, the Jewish tradition, had been the basis of all that was to come?

Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.

Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.