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Sholem Asch’s Jewish Gospels

The Yiddish writer’s re-Judaized imagining of St. Paul turns 75

Shalom Goldman
December 24, 2018
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine
Collage: Tablet Magazine

Seventy-five years ago, in 1943, the enormously popular Yiddish writer Sholem Asch published The Apostle, a long novel based on the life of St. Paul. Unlike all of Asch’s previous novels, which appeared in Yiddish and then later in English (and many other) translations, The Apostle was published only in English. At 754 pages the book might have struck some prospective readers as a weighty tome on an arcane subject. But the New York publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, had no reservations about the project. It was bound to succeed, as had its immediate predecessor.

Asch’s previous novel, The Nazarene, was an American bestseller. It stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for months and sold 2 million copies within two years of publication. In a long review in the Times, The Nazarene was described as “a great novel in its large and noble conception and its exact and interesting detail.”

American publishers had courted Asch—his books were bestsellers in Europe—but they wanted him to publish his English translations as written by “S. Asch.” They thought that the name “Sholem” would be off-putting for an American audience. Only Putnam’s readily agreed to Asch’s insistence that his Jewish first name be featured prominently on his books. Though he sought recognition as a world-class and international writer, and was said to have lobbied hard for the Nobel Prize in literature, Asch always highlighted his grounding in Yiddish. He said that: “I am not one of those Jews with many languages at their command. All my thoughts are in Yiddish and I write in Yiddish.”

The Apostle was the second of Asch’s trilogy on Christian origins, a trilogy that began with The Nazarene in 1939, continued with The Apostle in 1943, and concluded with Mary in 1949. The Nazarene was first published in English, and only two years later in Yiddish. This was a reversal for Asch, who had always published first in Yiddish. But he had to search high and low for a Yiddish publisher willing to take on this controversial book. (The Nazarene and The Apostle were translated from the Yiddish by Maurice Samuel. Mary was translated by the remarkable polymath Leo Steinberg, who later in life became an eminent art historian.)

Yiddish readers, in contrast to Asch’s English readers, soundly rejected these “Christian” novels. Leading the campaign against Asch was the powerful editor of the Yiddish Daily Forward (The Forverts), Abraham Cahan. The Forward campaign resulted in a boycott of Asch’s writings by almost all American Yiddish publications. Though American Yiddishists and many in the American Jewish community cut their ties with Asch, mandate Palestine’s Yiddishist community did not. Di Goldene Keit, the magazine of Israel’s Yiddish writers, continued to publish him, and readers of Yiddish in the Yishuv continued to read him.

Sholem Asch had sent Cahan chapters from The Nazarene in hope that it would be published soon in The Forward, as had all his submissions of the previous quarter century. But Cahan refused to publish them, and wrote Asch a letter warning him to desist, to put away his plan for a novel about Jesus. When Asch refused, Cahan went to war against him. The pages of The Forward were filled with articles attacking Asch, and Cahan himself authored a book-length attack on Asch (Sholem Asch’s New Way). Cahan said that his campaign against the novelist was “for Judaism’s sake.”

The Apostle, published four years after The Nazarene, rankled Asch’s critics even more than The Nazarene did. First, Asch had dared to write and publish another “Christian” novel. And second, the second novel was even more conciliatory toward Christians and more understanding of Christian doctrine than the first. And, as if to infuriate his critics, the novel was wildly successful, having been selected by The Book of the Month Club.

‘I am not one of those Jews with many languages at their command. All my thoughts are in Yiddish and I write in Yiddish.’

The great irony in Cahan’s attack on Asch was that Cahan and many of his Forward staff were avowed atheists and socialists. As one wit put it, “Cahan was now defending a God in whom he never believed.” But this irony was lost on the great majority of Forward readers, who, it seems, approved of the herem, the virtual excommunication of the novelist. They agreed with Cahan that through these novels Asch was encouraging Jews to convert to Christianity. For The Forward and its readers, and for Asch, of course, the herem or banishment had wide implications—it generated a public furor and eventually forced Asch to leave the United States and move to Israel.

The only New York Yiddish paper willing to publish Asch’s work in the wake of Cahan’s campaign was The Freiheit, a Communist newspaper. Though Asch had no affinities with or sympathies for the Communists, he was grateful that he had a Yiddish paper in which he could publish. But his choice of newspaper proved to be deeply problematic when Asch was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about his political affiliations. Was he a Communist? When Sen. Joseph McCarthy, chairman of HUAC, posed this question to Sholem Asch, the novelist response was “I’m a Yiddish writer. And when The Freiheit opened her pages to me, I accepted. After all, America was at the time allied with the Communists against Nazism. But after the war, when the relations between East and West became sharper, I stopped writing for Freiheit.”


I first became aware of Asch’s Christian novels a year or two before my bar mitzvah. There they were on the bookshelves of my modern Orthodox childhood home, among a selection of American literary fiction, and many classical Jewish texts. What were these obviously goyishe books doing there? I wondered. At home we had no other books with Christian titles on the shelves, and of course, there was no copy of the New Testament, or of the Book of Common Prayer. And then there was the intriguing fact that the author and I shared a first name. As I knew no other Shaloms, except for my very young cousins, I found this oddly comforting. Attracted to a dangerous and forbidden subject—Christianity, I tried reading The Apostle, but it didn’t hold my interest. I forgot the Sholem Asch novels completely, only to consider them decades later.

In What I Believe, a book-length essay published in 1941 (between The Nazarene and The Apostle) Asch hinted at his motivation for portraying both Jesus and Paul as committed Jews. He wrote What I Believe to counter what he described as “the sharp utterances of zealots concerning my work The Nazarene.”

It is an amazing phenomenon: hatred of the Jews has so blinded certain Christian scholars that they turn the record upside down to prove that Paul, this Pharisee of the Pharisees, was an epitome of all the heathen tendencies of his time and to make of him a propagandist of Greek philosophy who merely used Jesus as his vehicle. I see in this the same blasphemy as in the speculations of other “scholars” who would have Jesus anything in the world—a Hindoo, if you like—rather than a Jew.

In retrospect, Asch’s real problem was the timing of his publication. As Avishai Margalit put it, “The conventional wisdom among Jews at the time was that there was a direct line between Christian anti-Semitism and Nazi anti-Semitism calling for the elimination of the Jews. Sholem Asch’s trilogy, which depicted Jesus in a favorable light, was taken as a betrayal by many Jews.” In the eyes of many of his Jewish readers, Asch was calling for Christian-Jewish understanding at the very historical moment in which the Christian world was attempting to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Asch, with these same exterminationist attempts very much on his mind, had the opposite reaction. He felt that the late 1930s was the very time to try to bridge the Jewish-Christian divide, and “cure” Christians of anti-Semitism. As Ben Siegal noted in his 1976 book on Asch: “In retrospect, Asch’s major crime seems to have been bad taste or, more precisely, bad timing. … [W]ere The Nazarene now to make its initial appearance, it would stir little more than a light grumble from even the most parochial Jewish critics.”

While the New York Yiddishists condemned Asch and his Christian novels, the New York literary intellectuals praised them. Philip Rahv, writing in The Nation, described The Nazarene as “brilliant, convincing, and unprecedented in its range.” Alfred Kazin, in The New Republic, went further. He praised the novel highly, and countered the attacks of the Yiddishists with the assertion that “nothing could be more characteristically Yiddish than the Gospel according to chaver Sholem.”

One would have thought that by the end of the 1940s the “Asch affair” had ended and that other concerns occupied American Yiddishists. But as Asch’s Mary, published in 1949, was an even greater financial and critical success than Asch’s two previous novels in the Christian series—it was No. 3 on the 1949 bestseller list—it generated a new wave of anti-Asch activism. And not only Jews were engaged in criticizing the novelist. With the publication of Mary, Protestant and Catholic critics joined the fray. As Ben Siegal noted, “Striving for a Jewish-Catholic-Protestant Mary, who would appeal to all, he created a Mary who, like his Jesus, antagonized many in each faith.”

Asch’s depiction of a Jewish Paul, like his earlier portrait of a Jewish Jesus, was in many ways ahead of its time. It was only in the 1960s that the idea of “The Jewish Jesus” became fashionable in academic circles. Two works, Alan Segal’s Paul the Convert (1990) and Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Paul (2004), were pivotal in similarly re-Judaizing Paul. Jay Parini’s novel, The Damascus Road, which will be published next year by Doubleday, will no doubt deepen our understanding of Paul the Jew.

In 1955, on the eve of his departure from the United States and his move to Israel, Asch responded to charges that he abandoned Judaism and embraced Christianity by telling a New York City audience that the claim was “vicious nonsense.” “I am a Jewish writer who wants to serve humanity by bringing Jews and Christians together,” he explained, “not by abolishing their individual religions or by having each accept the other’s religion, but by showing Christian and Jew alike the sources of their common spiritual inheritance.”


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Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.