Yiddish literature is one of the most unique in all the world, and of great interest to scholars dealing in the evolution of writing. Yiddish was a spoken language before it was a written one, having evolved when the Jews in Italy and France fled the crusades and migrated to Eastern Europe, their Hebrew began mixing with the native Germanic and Russian languages of the areas into which they settled. Hebrew remained the primary written language, while Yiddish was spoken in the home.
The first recorded document written in Yiddish was from the 1400s, discovered in Egypt - it was a manual for young ladies, living in this desert land so far from peer support, on how to be proper wives. Other early forms of written Yiddi sh include attempts by the Church to proselytize to the Jews in their own language.
"Real" Yiddish literature, however, began with the haskole. When the Enlightenment finally came to Eastern Europe, it gave many Jews an avenue to break away from the strict confines of religion and become secular scholars, or m askids. Modernism and free thought became more permissable, and creative expression found other avenues than prayer and commentary.
In the space of only two centuries, Yiddish Literature rose up, evolved, and (some might say) reached its twilight, going through the same stages that Western Literature did, only in a super-compressed form. The equivalent for American l iterature would be if Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemmingway all lived and wrote within each other's lifetimes! As you can see, this makes Yiddish Literature a microcosm that literary experts are eager to study.
Below, I have presented brief summaries on some of the major Yiddish authors. Let me emphasize, though, that there were hundreds of published authors of prose and poetry. In addition, most of the great works of Western and Russia n Literature, like Verne and Tolstoy, were translated into Yiddish.
Pre-Holocaust Yiddish poetry can be divided into four main "schools," or camps or writing:
1. The Sweatshop Poets, writing about the harsh conditions of the working world for an immigrant in America.
2. Di Yunge, the younger generation who wanted bring a more modern feel to Yiddish poetry, and attempted to phase out the vulgarisms or backward colloquialisms they felt were the black marks on the sweatshop poetry.
3. In Zich was the NEXT generation, who wanted to revolutionize poetic form by doing away with metric and structural standards and experimenting with whatever they could.
Many other groups existed as well, for both poetry and prose, but they were more like "clubs" than camps. Young Vilna was one of the more famous, where many writers including Chaym Grade could exchange ideas, publish their works in the group journal, and otherwise support one another's careers. The Chaliester was a post-Holocaust collection of the great Soviet Yiddish writers.
Yiddish Literature reached its heyday just prior to the rise of Nazism in Europe. In the time between the two world wars, the major centers of Yiddish writing were Warsaw, Kiev, New York, and Moscow.
With the horror brought by the Holocaust, followed by Joseph Stalin's purges in postwar Russia, most Yiddish writing operations were either destroyed or moved to America, France, and Canada. The killing blow to Yiddish Literature, some say, came on August 12th, 1952, when Stalin ordered a mass execution of almost all the greatest surviving Soviet Yiddish writers.
Today, few authors write in Yiddish. A resurgance of Yiddish Literature seems doubtful, although some dedicated folks (like me and those who taught me!) are desperately trying to keep the language alive, if only so that we can still have access to the wealth that has already been written in Yiddish. The themes raised by these authors are still very relevant today, to Jews and Non-Jews alike. If we forget Yiddish and leave their books unread, we deny ourselves the wisdom they died to transmit.