Texts & Translation

A Survey of New Jewish Literature

Mao Dun

Translation by Anruo Bao


This piece by Mao Dun (pen name of Shen Yan­bing, 1896 – 1981), orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Chi­nese in 1921, was the first arti­cle to thor­ough­ly intro­duce major mod­ern Yid­dish writ­ers to the Chi­nese read­er­ship. It rep­re­sents Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­als’ under­stand­ing of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture in the 1920s when Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture was first intro­duced to Chi­na. It was pub­lished along­side a few Yid­dish sto­ries in one of the most famous lit­er­ary mag­a­zines in Chi­na at that time, Xiaoshuo Yue­bao (The Short Sto­ry Mag­a­zine). The arti­cle and trans­lat­ed Yid­dish sto­ries were part of a larg­er project of intro­duc­ing the lit­er­ary works of the weak nations,” whose sit­u­a­tion the edi­tors felt was anal­o­gous to the polit­i­cal posi­tion of China. 

Sev­er­al mis­con­cep­tions are evi­dent in the arti­cle, stem­ming from the author’s own cul­tur­al con­text. Mao Dun was a left-wing writer who accept­ed the ideas of lan­guage reformists and advo­cat­ed writ­ing in oral Chi­nese instead of clas­si­cal Chi­nese. Although his rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the rela­tion­ship between Yid­dish and Hebrew in his arti­cle is inac­cu­rate, the mis­take is sig­nif­i­cant for schol­ars because it demon­strates how a Chi­nese intel­lec­tu­al broad­cast­ed his ide­al of lan­guage reform by using the mate­ri­als from anoth­er cul­ture, name­ly Yid­dish. This demon­strates how Yid­dish lan­guage pol­i­tics were held up as an exam­ple out­side of a Jew­ish context.

After the estab­lish­ment of the People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na, Mao Dun was des­ig­nat­ed as the first min­is­ter of the Min­istry of Cul­ture and was elect­ed the chair­man of the Chi­na Lit­er­a­ture Arts Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Assem­bly because of his con­tri­bu­tions to mod­ern Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture. One of the most pres­ti­gious lit­er­a­ture prizes in Chi­na, the Mao Dun Lit­er­a­ture Prize (estab­lished in 1982 in Mao Dun’s will), pro­motes nov­el writing.

This trans­la­tion accom­pa­nies a blog post with inter­views about the state of Yid­dish Stud­ies in China. 

* In geveb is grate­ful to David Hull for his edi­to­r­i­al work on this translation.

1. The Triumvirate of Masters in the Rising Age of New Jewish Literature at the End of the 19th Century

Jewish people are among the oldest peoples in the world and the only people who do not have a motherland in modern times. They live dispersed throughout the entire world. Under the rule of the different governments in each country, they constantly suffer the most cruel treatment because of racial and religious differences. Although they live among the great powers, they still keep their own beliefs, customs and eastern thinking. Those who can read English might have already read and known the works of the modern novelists who are good at describing Jewish customs, such as Zangwill 1 1 Author’s Note: Zangwill’s parents were Jewish. He was born in London in 1864 and got his bachelor’s degree from the University of London. He wrote a large number of Jewish novels, and also authored numerous books discussing Jewish life. and Franzos. But if we compare these works to those of the New Jewish Writers, such as Pinski, there is a considerable difference. Not only were these former writers’ works (such as Zangwill) written in English - which is a difference in appearance - but they also lack the thinking that is particular to the Jewish people. While their novels might all describe Jewish weddings, the descriptions in Zangwill and the New Jewish Writers are sharply different. The former’s description is but a photograph of a Jewish wedding, a record of a Jewish person’s wedding. The latter is a photograph of the souls of a young Jewish man and woman. Within each narrative beats the living heart of modern Jews. The former description is shallow and dead, but the latter is profound and alive. This is the same reason that we cannot compare the Polish novels of J. Conrad 2 2 Author’s Note: Conrad was Polish, but was raised and grew up in Britain. He wrote many Polish novels in English, and was a famous modern British writer. to the works of modern Polish novelists.

New Jewish Literature began to rise in the second half of the 19th century, or we might also say it was initiated after 1828; but at the beginning of the 19th century, there had already been Jewish writers, such as Lefin, Aksenfeld, writing novels in Yiddish. And, Yiddish, a language which had always been taken as a colloquial, Jewish dialect, was elevated to the literary world and became the language in which New Jewish Literature is now written. In 1817, Lefin published his translation of “Psalms” in the new Jewish script 3 3 Translator’s note: Although Mao Dun wrote “new Jewish script” in the article, as a matter of fact, there was no such thing as “new Jewish script.” Yiddish originated in the 9th century in Germany, since then, basically, it adopted German grammar but was written in Hebrew alphabet. Until the 1920s, when this article was written, Yiddish was still written in Hebrew alphabet, and Mao Dun might not be fully clear about this point. which was nothing less than a declaration that Hebrew, in actuality already a dead script, could no longer serve to express thoughts and convey feelings for a Jewish writer. However, Jewish writers could not express complete accord on the grand occasion of this “language revolution.” A good many of them wrote in both the new (Yiddish) and the old (Hebrew) languages. Up until the end of the 19th century, there were still some stubborn “Haskala” [Here, he meant “Maskilim”— translator] who opposed abandoning the Hebrew language, and maintained the use of the colloquial language. To respond to this stubborn party, Peretz gave the best answer:

Whosoever wants their works to be read by the rich people, who can understand the works after learning the language, let them use Hebrew to write their works, or write in any kind of language, it’s all the same. But if he wants to arouse the hearts of the unadorned and not yet educated people, to laugh with them, to cry with them, then he must write in the “colloquial” language! 4 4 Translator’s note: Due to the contemporaneous Chinese literary reformists’ ideology, Mao Dun, deliberately or not, misunderstood Peretz by translating this excerpt from Peretz’s article “Education” (Bildung). As a matter of fact, Peretz did not oppose Hebrew in that article, but argued that “[w]e cannot, however, get along solely with Hebrew…” As for this excerpt, what Peretz wrote was: “Whosoever wants to understand the Jewish people, whosoever wants to teach them, must be able to read and write Yiddish… No language is holy per se; no language is good or bad in itself. Language is a means whereby human beings communicate with each other and whereby the educated influence the uneducated.” See I. L. Peretz, “Education” (Bildung), in YIVO Bilingual Series: Peretz, trans. Sol Liptzin (New York: Yiddish Scientific Institute-- YIVO, 1947), 334. Thanks to Dr. Adi Mahalel for his help in finding the source for this excerpt.

Just as Peretz says, there was only one goal for these 19th century Jewish writers to write in the new language: at the goal was to enlighten the wisdom of their ethnic brothers, and to comfort them in their anxiety. This was the goal and mission of these New Jewish Writers. Ever since [Sholem Yankev] Abramovitch’s literary debut, it is as if the first gentle breeze in spring has just arrived, and beautiful scenes attend together.

Abramovitch was the first New Jewish Writer who socialized literature; his works greatly influenced common Jewish people and some had some influence on the thought and art of many later Jewish writers. In his early years, he published a social play titled The Tax or The Gang of City Benefactors, which unrelentingly called out the loopholes in the self-governing law systems where Jewish people lived which led to corruption. The play gave rise to such a fierce reaction, he had no choice but to flee into exile. He was also attacked when his long poem, “Yudl,” which satirized religion, was published. But the Jewish people were mercilessly shocked awake from their sweet dreams by him. In particular, his depiction of the life of the lower classes in Fishke the Lame, brought Jews to understand another emotion— sympathy.

The novel, Fishke the Lame, described the Jewish life of the lowest class, the Jewish refugees who wander within the borders of Russia. Although the protagonist, Fishke, was down-and-out – we could also say degenerate – in the extreme, he always showed his god-given Jewish positive characteristics: purity and self-restraint. Fishke accidentally entered a farm at night. Since he was beset with hunger and thirst, he couldn’t help but eat a cucumber in the farm, but he was seen by farmers and was taken as a thief. They sent him to a policeman, who just happened to be patrolling there and lived nearby in the home of a gentryman. The following citation is the scene after Fishke met the policeman:

[I] first looked into the window, and the heretic gave me a jostle and steadily stood by the door without a hat. In surprise, I also took off my hat and stared around the four walls, rubbing hands like an idiot.

In the middle of the room sat a scrivener, copying something. The pen held by his hand always wanted to go to the ink bottle and drink ink, but smeared paper after drinking.

The scrivener speedily copied; after every time he dipped the pen in the ink, his body bent lower than the last time. His mouth mumbled complaints, from which it could obviously be seen that both of them were bored—neither of them was happy— the pen was unhappy about the scrivener’s coarse and clumsy hand and its crooks, while the scrivener was unhappy about the smears of ink from the pen. He: a squeezer— the pen: a smear of ink. In the middle of the room stood a person of a kind that was with red collars, brass buttons, swollen faces and big pot bellies…His mouse-like eyes were like fire-ejecting. Twisting his long goatee, he was showing his powerful anger to two people standing beside the door with their heads bowed: the tall one’s body was strong, with a bald head and a left ear with a silver ring; the other one was thin and had little goatee, bending his head and bowed over and over.

The red collar first yelled at the first of the two with a furious voice: “Shackle him! Assign an escort to send him to Siberia!” He turned around and yelled at the second one:

“I’ll be back to you, damn you—the devil should catch your great grandma!”

My limbs were stiff. I trembled, and a strident sound was in my head; I could only hear humming near my ears.

I did not see with my eyes, I did not hear with my ears, and I did not listen to the curses of the heretic. But, when the rude Russian words of the red collar turned to me, I could listen to him all of a sudden.

A half-crooked finger waggled in front of my eyes and terrible words sounded near my ears:

“Thief! Smuggling forbidden things! Smuggler! Pickpocket! Shackles! Prison! Send him to Siberia!”

Suddenly, he saw my earrings 5 5 Translator’s note: Here, Mao Dun made a mistake: in the original text, it was not the earring that was cut by the red collar but his sidecurls. Although this mistake, as the confusion of Hebrew and Yiddish, shows Mao Dun’s lack of knowledge about Jews, it reflects Chinese intellectuals’ imagination of Jews in the 1920s. In addition, Mao Dun also omitted several sentences that appeared in the original text. It is unclear why he did so, this needs to be explored deeper. and dragged me to him. He grabbed a pair of scissors and sheared one of my earrings! I saw my earring falling on the ground and could not help cover my face with tears: I had worn this pair of old, gray earrings from childhood until old age now; it was as if they had shared my life and carried all my happiness and sorrow with me in this life. They were decorating my face when I had been a strong youth. With time passed by, they became gray, but this change did not humiliate me. After hardship, poverty, unfair humiliation, both of the earrings became gray, just like my hair.

Whom did my earrings hinder? And whom did my gray hair hinder?

My heart broke and wanted to scream “Help! Help!” But my lips were tightly closed and did not utter a single word. I idiotically looked at the four walls, like a prosecuted goat. Da! Da! My soybean-like tears dropped.

My gray pale face blushed, and it must have become ugly. At that time, I must have been very pathetic.

Since, at the same time, the red collar changed his mood, with his hand on my shoulder, he talked to me gently. This must have been because his human-being heart under the brass buttons was touched. My gray hair and the whole appearance proved that I was not a thief. He turned to yelled at that heretic, waving his hand to let him go. He took the hat, said one sentence to one person, and said another sentence to the other one and left. 6 6 Translator’s note:Although Fishke the Lame has been translated to English, this excerpt is translated from the Chinese translation in Mao Dun’s article to English by the translator. There are three reasons to do this. First, the mistake (see footnote 4) Mao Dun made is worth discussing from the perspective of cultural misreading and the way that texts are transmitted between cultural contexts. Second Mao Dun’s Chinese translation left off several sentences from the Yiddish text; his source for this passage needs to be explored. Third, Mao Dun’s Chinese translation, compared to the juicy Yiddish text, is concise and rough, and the English translation here keeps this style. To compare the difference between styles in this rough translation and a smoother, closer one, see Ted Gorelick’s English translation of S. Y. Abramovitsh’s Fishke the Lame (New York: Schocken Books, 1996, 89-92.)

In Fishke the Lame, Abramovitch strove to display the infinite power of sincerity to move people, which is perhaps slightly over-idealistic. But in other aspects, such as his potent description of the sorrowful souls of the lowest class in the Jewish society, this novel is indeed a masterpiece.

Another writer, a contemporary of Abramovitch who was also a little idealistic, was [Mordecai] Spektor. Despite the fact that his writings were not as vigorous and bold as Abramovitch’s, and his artistic skills were not as complete as Peretz’s, his relaxing narration brought readers much amusement, which eased their nervousness and melancholy. In addition, after completing his books, readers were left with a deep impression, which is another strong point. It is hard to find other characters as lovely as Franya and her father from his Jewish Students and the Jewish Daughters. On completing the book, readers cannot help but have their own hearts filled with Franya’s generosity and justice. In his booklet, Three People, 7 7 Translator’s note: Yiddish: Reb Tsaytl. Spektor described three types of modern Jews: an orthodox Jew in Russia, 8 8 Translator’s note: In the original Chinese text, Mao Dun wrote “俄羅斯正教的猶太人,” the Chinese meaning is quite ambiguous. It could mean “an orthodox Jew in Russia” or “a Russian orthodox Jew.” Though we translated it as “an orthodox Jew in Russia,” it was also possible that he meant “a Russian orthodox Jew,” which was another mistake. an assimilated (in all but religion) Russian Jew, and a Palestinian - all exceptionally brilliant. He also hinted several ways of solving the Jewish problem in Russia. Moreover, he wrote a book about a Jewish peasant’s just criticism of the Russian government’s policy on Jews; he demonstrated a positive attitude towards the government’s invitation of Jews to live in her territory.

The greatest poets of the New Jewish Literature in the 1880s were [Simon] Frug and [Avrom] Goldfaden. The latter made efforts in Jewish theater after establishing Jewish Drama in 1876, and he is a figure that greatly contributed to the establishment of modern Jewish theater. Frug was born and raised in the countryside, and he loved nature. He wrote several poems praising nature, which was quite rare among the New Jewish Writers. Meanwhile, he was also interested in the modern idea of equality of humans; he believed that there is no doubt of the equality of man before nature. In one poem, he wrote:

Nature is my mentor— she makes me study
She teaches to sing, instructs me to play,
Guides me to think, to sense, day after day,
Leads me to sensitively distinguish all the beauty
Heart must be fresh, mind must be clear and stable,
Scales and rulers are prepared and waiting,
Finally, I come— just as you know,
I am a poet, brothers, a poor and sorrowful Jewish poet.

Frug took himself as nature’s son. He loved nature not only because nature was beautiful or intoxicated him, but also because he felt that he, himself – as all humans – relied entirely on nature, just as a son to a mother. Thus, this was the same to all humans. However, the fates of humans were extremely different: nature’s Jewish sons were crawling in “a dark, gloomy airless space”. Meanwhile her other sons were, “in other gardens, in the wild fields between mountains, the children with rosy cheeks, laughing and playing all day long, free and lively as air.” It is because of this that in the end, Frug could not avoid being a poet of outrage. Although he had great affection for nature, and often sung of its beauty, he believed that this kind of description of nature alone would not fulfill a poet’s responsibility to his brethren. In the fifth stanza of his poem, which mourned Michael Gordon (he was also a Jewish poet and most of his works were written in Hebrew, except one volume of folk songs that was written in the new Jewish language, which was taken as a masterpiece), he wrote:

In the hundreds of thousands of years in the future,
As long as there is only one living Jew,
Your songs will be sung again and again,
Someone with laughter, and someone with tears.

These lines in praise of Gordon also serve as the vocation of the poet Frug. From an examination of his meticulous observations of the beauty of nature and his ardent heart, Frug indeed deserves to be called a model of the modern Jewish poets.

Besides these three writers, there was also [Yitzkhok] Linetsky, whose only work, The Polish Boy, 9 9 Translator’s note: Yiddish: Dos poylishe yingl. was well-known, and Dienesohn [Yankev Dinezon], who was famous for his Yossele. Yossele was a tearful novel, which told a story about Yossele the child, who was mistakenly taken as a thief and sent to the court. Among the poets, [Morris] Rosenfeld, who wrote “Songs from Ghetto,” was also well known, but, in order to save space, I pass over him here. In the following section, I will talk briefly about the figures who profoundly influenced the development of New Jewish Literature.

2. Peretz and Rabinovitch

[Yitskhok Leybush] Peretz was the best short story writer in New Jewish Literature, and was also the first writer who adopted the artistry of strict realism. In the literary circle of 1890s, he was the only writer who grafted onto the new territory exploited by Abramovitch, and through continuing to cultivate Abramovitch’s land, he opened new gates for followers. Although he lived in the same time with the contemporary core writers, he actually held the position of originator and launched a new epoch of short stories in the history of New Jewish Literature. His works were bright, with profound meanings, sad but not despondent. On the one hand, they were like a river that connected the thinking of all the intellectual Jews. On the other hand, they also indeed reflected all contemporaneous Jews’ lives and thoughts. In his stories, we can see the situation that Jews were in at that time and their spirit of striving for progress while enduring humiliation. One of his fifty-odd stories, “Yom Kippur,” can be said to be representative of the appearance of his works. However, his stories still had one shortcoming, which was the lack of profound psychological depiction. This defect was revealed in his full-length novel 10 10 Translator’s note: As a matter of fact, Peretz never wrote a novel. Mao Dun made a mistake here. Thanks to Dr. Adi Mahalel, who provided this piece of information. (which was actually a booklet) Discussion on Business. 11 11 Translator’s note: In the Chinese text, this book’s title was put as “商業論,” and the direct English translation is “Discussion on Business.” As a matter of fact, the Yiddish title of this booklet is Iber profesyonen, whose English equivalence is “About professions.” This article was written in 1891, and the booklet was published in 1894. Thanks to Dr. Adi Mahalel, who provided this piece of information. This novel was published in the form of a booklet in 1894. From the very beginning, it had already attracted much attention because, just like Spektor’s Three People, this novel was also written to solve the Jewish problem, so it could have a large influence. Before he began to write novels, Peretz also wrote several poems. The most famous was called “The Song of a Wedding Gown,” 12 12 Translator’s note: In the Chinese text, this poem’s name was put as “結婚褂之歌,” which means “The Song of a Wedding Gown” literarily, the Yiddish title of this poem is “Baym fremdn khupe kleyd: a stsene fun varshever lebn,” whose English equivalence is “By a Foreign Wedding Dress: A Scene from Life in Warsaw.” Thanks to Dr. Adi Mahalel, who provided this piece of information. though quite beautiful, it lacked Frug’s sharp sensitivity and so it was a lesser work.

Peretz’s contribution to the New Jewish Literature was developed by another master of his time and ended in a surprising achievement. This great writer was [Shalom] Rabinowitch, who always used “Sholom Aleichem” as his pseudonym. Peretz was taken as “the Jewish Dandet,” while Rabinowitch was “the Jewish Mark Twain.” He was a great poet, a novelist, a playwright and a literary critic. He had over a dozen of pseudonyms, but, more often than not, he used “Sholom Aleichem.” This name was composed by two Hebrew words, meaning “peace on you,” and was a common greeting among Jews. He intentionally chose this name to publish his most humorous stories. The profound sarcasm he put in “A Man from Buenos Aires” could not be equalled by any writer except the modern writer, [David] Pinski. And the charm in “This Night” 13 13 Translator’s note: In Sholem Aleichem’s Mayses far yidishe kinder, there is no story with a title “This Night,” it needs more exploration to match the title to the story. (which was originally published in The Stories for Jewish Children) was like Turgenev’s poetic prose. His description of the Jewish matchmaker in his play A Doctor could be considered his best writing. Goldberg 14 14 Translator’s note: Although Mao Dun did not indicate the first name of this Goldberg, it can be reasonably guessed that this Goldberg might be Ben Goldberg, a Columbia student who intensively worked with Sholem Aleichem and later married Sholem Aleichem’s daughter Marie Waife-Goldberg. criticized his works: “his achievement in the circle of Jewish literature was much greater than theater. Thirty years ago, he carried the responsibility of reviving new Jewish poetry; he set a new direction for Jewish literature. As an editor, he established new standard. As a literary critic, he broke the long-existed bias of shallowness and ignorance.” He also said: “He obtained his style from the Russians Gogol and Ostrovsky, and his humorous works are particularly similar to them. His poetry seems to have been influenced by Nekrassof.”

Just like Peretz’s works, Rabinowitch’s works had the same shortcoming: they lacked profound psychological depictions. Readers could sense beauty and pain in his works, but not the deep agony of the soul. This might be his great weakness, but we should keep this in mind: in the Jewish literary scene, he served as the predecessor of several contemporary writers. He stood in the middle of the path of New Jewish Literature’s evolution and was strongly influenced by the artistic zeitgeist throughout the world. Therefore, this shortcoming was not necessarily from his lack of talent. If we consider Sholom Aleichem’s literary writing through another perspective, it was only with his establishment of the foundation, that the rise of contemporary Jewish writers could became simpler.

3. The Core Contemporary Writers

The core contemporary Jewish writers, to say those that attained the most fame, were David Pinski, Sholem Ash and Leon Kobrin. The three of them were novelists and playwrights; among them, Pinski was particularly famous for his playwriting.

Just like Ash and Kobrin, Pinski was born in Mobilov in Russia, and lived in Warsaw for a long time. Now, he is living in the US. Besides playwriting, he also wrote a collection of short stories, Temptations, in which he wrote with great penetration on the poverty and weakness of the human soul (see “Jewish Literature and Pinski”, this journal, no. 7). As for his playwriting, after the performance of the four-act play, The Treasure, in Berlin in 1910, Pinski achieved sudden fame, and now, he is considered to be among the greatest playwrights in the world. From 1899 to 1918, he wrote 27 play scripts, which made him the most productive playwright in the world. His works could depict the deepest part of the soul and stab an inner pain through the mask of modern civilization. As for the language, it is a unique rhyming prose of his own invention. No matter in the fields of thought or artistry, he is truly far beyond his predecessors in a way rarely seen. Compared to his contemporary, Sholom Ash, Pinski’s observation was sharper, which made him a better writer. Although both of them are modern people, and both are Jewish writers, their thoughts are different. Pinski is more like the Russian writer [Leonid]Andreyev, and he wants to touch the morbid root of modern people. He is suspicious of the entire body of current human civilization, suspicious of the ability of man. Although he takes the Jewish life in his hometown as the material for his writings, what he actually talks about is the totality of mankind. And no matter what kind of materials he uses to write, he always adds humanist thought in a contemporary sense. But, Ash is different. The background of his works is Jewish, and the thoughts are also Jewish. He reveals the weakness of all human beings and Jews, but wants to redeem them through Jewish thoughts. This could be seen through a comparison among God of Vengeance (by Ash), The Treasure (1906), The Eternal Jew (1900), and Issac Sheftel (1899). Ash’s environment from childhood, being born in Warsaw is also slightly different from that of Pinksi’s.

Since the publication of the first chapter of A Shtetl (Dos Schtedtel), 15 15 Translator’s note: The Yiddish title of this book was cited by Mao Dun. when Ash was only twenty-four years old, he was praised as the “Jewish Maupassant.” But, nowadays, this tag is not so accurate, since Ash also became an first-class playwright. But compared to the playwright Pinski, there is an artistic difference, which could be revealed through the comparison between Pinski’s Forgotten Souls 16 16 Translator’s note: This title was translated into English through the Chinese title that Mao Dun wrote in the article, and the Yiddish title of this work is Glikfergesene, and, in the article, Mao Dun wrote “Gluech-Vergessene.” and Ash’s In Winter. The actions of the self-sacrificing elder sister in Forgotten Souls are, obviously, inspired and put into action by a new thinking. Meanwhile, the actions of the elder sister in In Winter are motivated by a view of self-sacrifice that is inherent to the Jewish people. There is quite a difference there. Jewish people have always been rich in mysticism and symbols, which is a feature of eastern peoples. Everyone knows that ancient Jewish literature is full of mysteries and symbols. Since contemporary Jewish literature has come in contact with world literature, this mystic and symbolic atmosphere is weakened slightly. But, to some extent, the mystic element is preserved in some of Ash’s works, such as one-act play The Sinner and Dos Schtedtel.

If we say Pinski is an author who is affected by socialism and longs for a “universal world,” Ash is of Hebrew thinking. If we say Pinski’s thought represents a certain part of the modern Jews, Ash’s thought also represents a certain part of the modern Jews. These two grand mountain peaks hold up aspects of the modern Jewish literature circles, encompassing their entirety. However, a third person appears and grabs a position in this circle. This person is [Léon] Kobrin.

Kobrin was also a writer born in Russian and is now living in the US. His works are of many genres, including short stories, long novels and play scripts, his long novels are the best. Through an artistic perspective, he is a writer of pure naturalism; through a thinking perspective, he is a writer of optimistic idealism. He treats the old thoughts of his Jewish brethren and the new thinking of the world (socialism) equally. He says that the Jewish, eastern culture is calm, seeking no fame or wealth, while the modern, western culture is all upheaval and passion. He believes both of the cultures had their own advantages and disadvantages, and prefect good could only be achieved if they were to be combined. His short story collection, From a Lithuanian Shtetl to Tenement House in New York, 17 17 Translator’s note: This title was translated into English through the Chinese title that Mao Dun wrote in the article, and the Yiddish title of this work is Fun a litvish shtedtel biz’n tenement-hoyz: ertseylungen. describes life in his first motherland without a hint of bias in his examination. Then he describes life in his second motherland, also without a hint of bias in his examination. Although he shows a little dissatisfaction about urban life in New York, this dissatisfaction does not mean he objects the trend of Jewish youths welcoming life in their new motherland.

Thirty years have passed since he gained great fame of publishing Karl Marx. Now, three of his novels are taken as masterpieces: (1) The Awakening, 18 18 Translator’s note: This title was translated into English through the Chinese title that Mao Dun wrote in the article, and the Yiddish title of this work is Di ervakhung: roman, and Mao Dun wrote it as “Di Eruachung” in the article. which describes wild, passionate love; (2) Oré the Big Beard, 19 19 Translator’s note: This title was translated into English through the Chinese title that Mao Dun wrote in the article, and the Yiddish title of this work is Oré di bord. which depicts the lives of Jewish people living in an American city; (3) From a Lithuanian Shtetl to Tenement House in New York (This book has been translated into English, the title changed to A Lithuanian Village). This novel’s frank description of the Lithuanian village was considered similar to the works of Caradoc Ivans (a great modern British writer from Scotland, who published a collection of short stories, My People, describing Scottish peasants’ lives). As a matter of fact, Kobrin’s artistry was better than Ivans’s.

Although these three writers more or less make up the contemporary Jewish literary circle, there are still many other poets who are gradually gaining momentum. We cannot but bring out some words to talk about them.

Most of these young poets have been influenced by French symbolist poetry. They have founded a journal, titled In zikh (In Oneself). The famous among them like Guriye and [Aron Glantz] Leyeles are young poets of genius. They adopt an arhythmic free style to express the passion and agony of youth. The chief editor of The Jewish [Daily] Forward, Abraham Cahan, said: “Thanks to the efforts of Kobrin and the young poets, the evolution of New Jewish Literature went to the second stage.” Though this is not fully correct, at least, it is half right.

At first, I hoped to find an article about modern Jewish literature so I could translate it, first, so as to avoid my own embarrassment, and second to bear a bit less responsibility. But who could know that none of the materials regarding New Jewish Literature at hand were quite suitable to my needs. The only thing I could do was to gather these materials and write it up myself: the result is this very thing.

It more fitting to call contemporary Jewish literature “Yiddish” literature rather than “Jewish” literature, because those authors used Yiddish to write them. My translation of “New Jewish Literature” is just from this point.

Mao Dun. “A Survey of New Jewish Literature.” In geveb, March 2020: Trans. Anruo Bao. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/a-survey-of-new-jewish-literature-1.
Mao Dun. “A Survey of New Jewish Literature.” Translated by Anruo Bao. In geveb (March 2020): Accessed May 26, 2024.


Mao Dun


Anruo Bao

Anruo Bao is a Ph.D. candidate in Yiddish studies and comparative literature of the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University.