“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
By the early 1930s, Polish writer Shalom Asch was at the top of his literary game. Convinced by I.L. Peretz to write in Yiddish instead of Hebrew, Asch was best known for his portrayals of shtetl life serialized by the Forward as well as his 1933 historical drama, Three Cities. Then, in 1939, Asch wrote another historical novel—this time based on the life of Jesus.
As former senior editor Ellen Umansky wrote in 2007, Asch’s quest for widespread appeal would quickly lead to his downfall in the Jewish literary community. “He had long coveted the Nobel Prize, and the universal subject of Jesus might catch the eye of the Nobel committee,” Umansky explained. Yet Asch’s timing was horrific—1939, really?—and though the book featured prominently on bestseller lists (and spawned follow-up books The Apostle and Mary), there was no undoing the damage done to his reputation in the Jewish literary world.
Read Asch’s Passion, by Ellen Umansky
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.