The Weekly Reader: Happy Father's Day!

Happy Father's Day! Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day doesn’t have particularly Jewish origins—its roots lie in Christian traditions, and it was established in the United States in 1910 by Washingtonian Sonara Smart Dodd and the Spokane Ministerial Association. Nonetheless, in the decades since it’s become an international and thoroughly secularized holiday. And—let’s not forget the fifth commandment—is there anything more Jewish than honoring one’s father? While Yiddish might be known as mame-loshn, or mother tongue, all the Yiddish-speaking or Yiddish-loving fathers deserve some recognition as well. 

—Ezra Glinter, Senior Staff Writer and Editor

The Grandfather


The first modern Yiddish writers are often conceived of, and conceived of themselves, in explicitly patriarchal terms. Sholem Aleichem referred to his predecessor, Mendele Mokher Sforim, as der zeyde, or the grandfather, of Yiddish literature. The effort to create such a patrimony was a programmatic attempt to establish a Yiddish literary canon where none yet existed. Today you might quibble with this terminology or framing, but it’s fair to say that Mendele was a father figure of sorts to the writers who came after him. Mendele was himself once young, of course, and finding his way. His first publication, translated here by Ri J. Turner, was an 1857 Hebrew letter about pedagogical reform written when the author was twenty-one years old. 

Read “A Letter on the Subject of Education” 

The Mentor


If Mendele was a rhetorical sort of patriarch, I. L. Peretz was more like the real thing. It’s hard to find a modern Yiddish writer who wasn’t influenced or affected by him, and his role in shaping the next generation of Yiddish literature practically overshadowed his own written work. (To get a visceral sense of Peretz’s influence, make sure to visit our new core exhibition, opening October 15, which will feature a life-size re-creation of Peretz’s Warsaw apartment.) If you do want to delve into Peretz’s own writing, however, there is plenty to read or listen to.


Read books by I. L. Peretz in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library


Listen to books by I. L. Peretz in the Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books 

Everyone’s Favorite Uncle

Man wearing blue shirt and woman wearing cream and pink blouse sit in front of bookcase

Of course, we can’t forget the third “classic” Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem. Not only did he propose the patrimonial scheme to begin with, but he was beloved by readers in a way that no other Yiddish writer ever was. Through his literary persona, Aleichem (the pen name of Shalom Rabinovitz) became something like everyone’s favorite uncle. But he had children of his own, some of whom also became writers. In this video, the Center’s Wexler Oral History Project talked with Sholem Aleichem’s grandchildren Sherwin and Bel Kaufman, who shared their memories of their famous grandfather. 

Watch an interview with Sherwin and Bel Kaufman 

Writers and Their Children

Two photographs of playwright Jacob Gordin
Photographs of Jacob Gordin (courtesy of his great-granddaughter, Beth Kaplan)

Sholem Aleichem may be the most famous example, but many Yiddish writers left behind children and grandchildren to carry on their legacies. Over the years, the Wexler Oral History Project has made it a special mission to talk to those writers and their descendants and to capture for posterity who those writers were to those closest to them.

Watch a collection of interviews with Yiddish writers and their descendants

Watch a virtual public program about Yiddish writers and their family legacies

Close to Home

Sholem Asch with four brothers, his mother, and two sisters-in-law
Sholem Asch, second from left, pictured with his brothers, mother, and sisters-in-law (courtesy of David Mazower)

While interviewing the children and grandchildren of Yiddish writers sometimes means traveling to meet them, in other cases those descendants are quite close by. That’s the case of our own bibliographer, David Mazower, who is the great-grandson of famed Yiddish novelist and playwright Sholem Asch. In this illustrated talk, Mazower puts his ancestor’s career as a playwright in the wider context of his life and work, charting his migrations from Poland to America, France, England, and finally Israel.

Watch an illustrated lecture about Sholem Asch  

All in the Family

Man wears glasses and suit, looks directly at camera, grainy quality

For the most part, the children of Yiddish writers did not themselves become writers, or even if they did, not in Yiddish. One notable exception was the Zeitlin family. Hillel Zeitlin was a journalist and intellectual who wrote several books on religious themes, particularly having to do with Hasidism. His son, Arn Zeitlin, was a celebrated Yiddish poet. And while Arn’s brother, Elkhonen, is somewhat less well known, he was the one who wrote the family memoir, In a literarisher shtub (In a Literary House).


Read Elkhonen Zeitlin’s family memoir