The earliest known Judæo-German translation of the Maḥzor belongs to the fourteenth century, and Isaac ben Eliezer's "Sefer ha-Gan," which has had many editions, as well as Simeon ben Judah's "Sefer ha-Musar," was written in the fifteenth century. The latter two belong to that small class of original ethical-religious works in which early Judæo-German literature attained its highest development. With these exceptions most of the earlier works in that language were translations, beginning with the Bible (see
Works on "minhagim," or ritual customs, of which that by Jehiel Epstein of Lemberg (1679) is one of the earliest and the best, were much in favor in those times. But the attempt to introduce prayers in Judæo-German was opposed by the Rabbis, and Aaron b. Samuel's "Liebliche Tefillah, oder Kräftige Arznei für Guf und Neshamah" (1709), was interdicted. But there was no opposition to the large number of "teḥinnot" (prayers) composed especially for women, which began to appear as early as 1599 ("Teḥinnot be-Kol Yom," by Akiba Frankfurter, Basel) and multiplied very rapidly (see
The number of works on secular subjects in the earlier periods of the literature is very small, and the number of those possessing any merit, either literary or historical, is still smaller. Gershon ben Eliezer's curious book of travels, "Gelilot Ereẓ Yisrael," and Menahem Man b. Solomon's "She'erit Yisrael," which was designed as a supplement to the "Yosippon" (1743), are the best examples in geography and history which this literature produced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The poetical productions that began with rhythmical paraphrasing of the Bible, as the "Shmuel Buch" (1543), and include poetical descriptions of persecutions, as the "Vinzlied" (1614) and the "Schwedischlied," and some imitations of the "Niebelungenlied," dealing with Biblical subjects and Midrashic tales, as the "Targum Sheni Lied" (1717), also possess very little literary merit. The Judæo-German folk-medicine books, dream-books, lot-books, and other books written for the ignorant masses, mostly by ignorant authors, are of interest to bibliographers only; this is true, indeed, of the bulk of the Judæo-German literature from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century inclusive. The number of Jews able to read Hebrew was so large in those three centuries that talented writers found among them a sufficient number of readers for all their literary productions. The Judæo-German writers were usually the publishers themselves, and they never attempted to produce, and therefore never succeeded in producing, works of real merit.
The quantity, like the quality, of the works of the early period is much more insignificant than is generally supposed. Steinschneider's list of the Judæo-German works contained in the Oppenheim collection includes the great majority of the books printed in that language down to about 1740, and consists of 385 numbers ("Serapeum," 1848, pp. 313 et seq.; ib. 1849, pp. 9 et seq.). The number of Judæo-German works written in the century which followed that period is probably much smaller than the number now (1904) produced in Russia alone in the course of a decade.Modern Movement.
The modern period of Judæo-German literature began with the works of Isaac Baer Lewinsohn, Abraham Baer Gottlober, and other early leaders of the Haskalah movement, who thus sought adherents among the ignorant masses. The effort of Mendel Levin (Satanov) to imitate his friend and master Moses Mendelssohn by translating the Bible was abortive, and his translation of the Book of Proverbs into Judæo-German as spoken in Russia is known only through the ridicule heaped upon him by Tobias Feder in his "Ḳol Meḥaẓeẓim." The supposition that this translation had any influence on later writers, or was ever popular, is disproved by the fact that so competent a bibliographer as Benjacob, who was almost a contemporary of Levin, hardly knew of it (see "Oẓar ha-Sefarim," p. 644). Aksenfeld of Odessa was the first to raise the Judæo-German drama above the level of the "Purimspiel" and "Mekirat Yosef"; Ettinger of Russian Poland and Ehrenkranz-Zbarzer of Galicia introduced popular poetry surpassing anything that preceded it; and Isaac Meïr Dick of Wilna was the author of short stories that would be considered masterpieces even to-day were his style more in accordance with modern requirements.
The first Judæo-German newspaper was Alexander Zederbaum's "Ḳol Mebasser" (1863); in thesame decade appeared Zunser the folk-poet, Abramovich the novelist, and Goldfaden the poet and playwright, none of whom has yet been excelled in his peculiar field. Among the earliest and best satirists were Joel Linetzki ("Polisher Yingel"), Mani Dlugotch ("'Olam ha-Tohu'nik"), M. A. Shatzkes ("Der Jüdischer far Pessaḥ"), and Eliezer Zweifel ("Der Gekaufter Maftir"). Some of the works of the above-mentioned writers have been translated into several European languages.
While the Judæo-German literature of the earlier period is rightly described by Karpeles as an "undercurrent" of Hebrew literature, the modern" Yiddish" literature (as it is preferably called by its devotees) equals, and in some respects rises above, the latter. This is especially true in the domains of belles-lettres, poetry, and periodical literature, and in dramatic works the Hebrew "closet-drama" remains far behind the Yiddish drama, which is successfully presented in several countries (see Drama, Yiddish). In periodical literature, Hebrew long held sway in Russia, where the better classes, almost all of whom are able to read Hebrew, form the bulk of the newspaper-reading public. But the inevitable change is occurring even there, and the oldest Hebrew newspaper ("Ha-Meliẓ") ceased to appear two months after the establishment, in Jan., 1904, of two daily Yiddish papers. In the United States—next to Russia, the most important center of Yiddish literature—where there is no censor to discriminate in favor of Hebrew, the Yiddish press is much more popular, and has been so from the beginning, while the Hebrew periodical press has only a precarious existence.Novelists and Poets.
Among the later novelists in Russia, Dinesohn, Spektor, and Rabinowitz hold the highest rank, the latter's "Stempenju" and "Yosele Solovei" being considered the best productions of their kind. But most critics are unjust to fertile N. M. Shaikewich, whose stories possess more merit than is usually conceded to them. Of the poets, Frischman, M. Gordon, Frug, Reisen, Bialik, and J. L. Peretz stand preeminent. The last-named, perhaps unduly extolled at first, is now in great danger, owing to the reaction against him in Russia, of being underestimated. Goldfaden and Zunser went to the United States, and have almost ceased to write. The foremost among the Judæo-German poets whose talents were developed outside of Russia is Morris Rosenfeld, who, with A. M. Sharkanski, Ben-Neẓ, Edelstat, Jehoash Bovshoer, and others, represents the latest school of Yiddish poetry, emancipated from the censor and from the predominance of Hebrew which overshadowed it in Russia.
For scientific works of all descriptions, the Judæo-German literature of to-day depends on translations and compilations almost as much as it did in the earlier periods, Jacob Psanter's writings on the history of the Jews in Rumania and Lazar Schulman's researches into the history of Judæo-German literature being exceptions, to which, perhaps, may be added Kranz's "Culturgeschichte" (New York). But the number of original articles on various scientific subjects that have appeared in dailies, weeklies, and monthlies in both hemispheres is very large; some of them are very valuable. The year-books, as the "Jüdischer Volksbibliothek" (Kiev, 1888 and 1889), the "Volksfreund," and "Literatur und Leben," have a permanent literary value, and when the prejudice against the literature of this language has disappeared much that is contained in it will be found worthy of being translated into other European languages.In America.
In the United States Alexander Harkavy has published a series of Yiddish-English and English-Yiddish dictionaries, Shaikewich, Dolitzki, Bukanski, Tannenbaum, Hermalin, Kranz, Kobrin, Gorin, Gordin, and several others have written original works, of more or less merit, that have helped the Judæo-German literature of the western hemisphere to assume respectable proportions. Its most prominent representatives in the journalistic field are Leon Zolotkoff of Chicago, Maurice Vinchevski (the above-named Ben-Neẓ), Abraham Cahan, John Paley, Feigenbaum, Malitz, Minz, Zevin, and Libin, almost all of whom are authors of works written in America. The sensational stories that appeared in the United States in the last decade of the nineteenth century became very popular in Russia, and the American export of Yiddish works promises soon to exceed, if it does not exceed already, the import of such works from the Old World.Literary History.
The older Judæo-German literature has been studied and extensively treated by Jewish and non-Jewish literary historians, from the time of Wagenseil down to the present time. Karpeles devoted to it nearly thirty pages, although he has not even mentioned its modern developments. Grünbaum's "Jüdisch-Deutsche Chrestomathie" (Leipsic, 1882) is confined to selections from old works, while his "Jüdisch-Deutsche Literatur in Deutschland, Polen, und Amerika" (Berlin, 1894) hardly deserves notice. The poetical works of the modern division of that literature fared better, as they were introduced to the outside world in Dalman's "Jüdisch-Deutsche Volkslieder aus Galizien und Russland" (Berlin, 1891). A good bibliography of modern poetical works is appended to the excellent collection of Russian-Jewish folk-songs by Ginzburg and Marek ("Yevreiskya Narodnia Pyesni w Rossii," St. Petersburg, 1901).
- Delitzsch, Zur Gesch. der Jüdischen Poesie, pp. 80-82, Leipsic, 1836;
- Gosche's Archiv für Literaturgesch. i. 93 et seq., Leipsic, 1870;
- Karpeles, Gesch. der Jüdischen Litteratur, ii. 1000-1029;
- Schulman, in Jüdische Volksbibliothek, ii. 115 et seq., Kiev, 1889;
- Steinschneider, in Monatsschrift, xlii. 74 et seq.;
- Verhandlungen der 26ten Versammlung Deutschen Philologen und Schulmänner in Würzburg, pp. 215 et seq., Leipsic, 1869;
- Wiener's Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century, New York, 1899 (the only authority for general modern Judæo-German literature).