What is shund?

"A good word for shund," an essay by Khayem Libermen, from Forverts, August 3, 1924.

What is shund?

In the 1880s and 90s, the market for Yiddish literature suddenly shifted. For two centuries, traditional and liturgical texts dominated the market. The most popular was the famed seventeenth-century tsenerene, a bible commentary reprinted several times over meant to interest women and men without education in Hebrew and Aramaic. Other notable volumes included compendiums of Hasidic lore, ethical literature, and other liturgical and paraliturgical works. And while these remained popular, toward the end of the nineteenth century, with increased urbanization and modernization, Yiddish readers started to crave something else, something that would better reflect their increasingly culturally hybrid lives.

New forms of Yiddish literature came to fill that gap. Some of these are well known: the most canonized writers of the nineteenth century—Mendele Moykher Sforem (S.Y. Abramovitsh), Sholem Aleichem (Sholem Rabinovitsh), Y.L. Peretz—emerged in the nineteenth century with the goal of fashioning a national literature to match the writing they admired in German, Russian, Polish, and English, all while trying to appeal to the mass Yiddish reader. This meant trying to capture and aestheticize the world of Yiddish speakers, their speech in particular, while meeting European standards for literary art. These writers put great effort into this synthesizing project; they proposed norms, founded institutions and publishing venues, and created family trees, hierarchies, and literary traditions, all with goal of creating a coherent corpus that would represent a diasporic but potentially unified collective on the world stage. This is what is officially known as Yiddish literature.

At the same time, other writers began to produce a different kind of writing in Yiddish, one that similarly responded to a new readership but with more muddled goals and without critical fanfare or recognition. These writers placed less emphasis on a particular ideology, less emphasis on producing a Jewish literature in competition with other national literatures. They instead thought mostly about the bottom line. Shomer (pen name of Nokhem Meyer Shaykevitch) wrote over 200 novels and novellas from the 1870s to the 1890s, on topics that ranged from stories of small town Jewish life to historical romances from ancient Judea, from tales of infidelity and murder in Europe to adventures in the steppes of Africa. His contemporary, Isaac Meyer Dik, adapted the tone and form of traditional chapbooks to moralize against Hasidism and the corruptions of traditional rabbinic leadership while telling entertaining stories. Moyshe Zayfert wrote 64 novels, including several about the lives of Jews in the New World, with titles such as New York as It Laughs and Cries: A Novel of Jewish Life and Cuba or the Spanish Inquisition of the Nineteenth Century: A Historical Novel. These writers, and many others, published their works wherever and however they could—in pamphlets or in books or serialized in newspapers, anonymously or pseudonymously, in Eastern Europe and in the United States and beyond. The writing is sensationalist, at times scandalous, moralizing but not always in a coherent way, comedic but also melodramatic. It’s a messy jumble of anything that would sell.

And these writers were indeed the bestsellers of the nineteenth century, not Sholem Aleichem and the “fathers” of Yiddish literature. It was entertainment-driven literature that most appealed to the Yiddish-reading public. This fact greatly bothered Sholem Aleichem and his allies who wanted more control over Yiddish literature, and several campaigns were launched to critique and degrade such entertainment literature, on the grounds that it didn’t serve national interests and that it otherwise corrupted readers in need of more nourishing stuff. By the end of the 1890s critics had chosen a single word to describe any work that privileged commercial interests over national and ideological ones: shund. Shund literally means trash, designating this literature as worthless and dirty in a way that pollutes the national body.

Of course there is something messy about popular literature, beholden as it is to the shifting tastes of the public more than institutionalized standards. In this way it can be wild and experimental, as writers try anything to hold a reader’s attention. At the same time, it can be deeply conservative—once writers and publishers find something that a reader likes they will write it into the ground. So while the term shund is meant to be pejorative, the idea of trashiness also reflects the dynamism of this category, how broad shund is, how immediate and ephemeral its concerns are. Shund writers translate and adapt anything, without regard for national prestige or critical acclaim. A novelist will change the whole course of a plot should the readers or editors demand it. A text can be deeply interested in Jewish life or it can unapologetically emulate a foreign source—or fetishize it or inconsistently Judaize it.

And this dynamism speaks directly to shund’s history. By the 1890s, the Yiddish newspaper had replaced books, pamphlets, and almanacs as the central forum for Yiddish culture, and writers of entertainment fiction quickly shifted in response. Shund became a fixture in the daily press, with newspapers publishing two or three serialized novels at once to meet popular demand. And not only the novel—newspapers featured daily short stories, monologues, and sketches. With the rapid proliferation of shund the makeup of its authors and readers also changed. Novelists and short story writers like Sarah B. Smith, Yenta Serdatsky, and Miriam Karpilove became stars of the daily press in contrast with more established male writers. Women were always considered the main readers of shund but in the early twentieth century they became crucial consumers of the entire newspaper, with entertainment literature as a central draw. The newspaper became so vital for Yiddish culture that more critically acclaimed writers also published their work there—and sometimes nowhere else. Writers who were critical of shund were thus not immune to its structures and strategies. Celebrated figures like Sholem Asch, Yoysef Opatoshu, Y.Y. Singer, and Isaac Bashevis Singer infused their own serialized novels with melodrama and sensationalism to rival their less celebrated peers.

Shund is thus not a despised footnote in the history of Yiddish literature. Popular entertainment literature in Yiddish—as short story or sprawling novel, as sensationalist pot boiler or studied portrait—might very well be the engine of Yiddish literary culture. The thousands of works of Yiddish entertainment literature remain largely unread and unanalyzed as part of current scholarship on Yiddish literature. One of the goals of this database is to give researchers the tools to rewrite Yiddish literary history through shund.

Shund as it is defined by this database is not only not a despised thing but also not an entirely separate corpus from the rest of Yiddish literature. Users will find in their search results any fiction that appeared in publications meant for mass consumption, Shomer and Sholem Aleichem alike. Critics of the time would not have labeled all of these works as trash—but this project argues that they are all deeply informed by the logic and dynamism of shund.

by Saul Noam Zaritt
Published on Saturday, August 12, 2023