In many respects, the Yiddish story Der retseyekh un di retseyekhte (The Murderer and the Murderess) represents a typical »shundroman.« Published in Zhytomyr in 1875, the fifteen-page booklet depicts a series of passionate crimes that follow many of the genre’s common tropes. Yet, behind the shocking and exciting main storyline, the novel may also be read as leveling unusual social critique at the modernizing tendencies in Jewish society.
For Eastern European Jewry, the second half of the nineteenth century was a time of dramatic transition. Existing lifestyles connected with the shtetl, the traditional Jewish town, began disintegrating in the face of modern transformations and challenges. Economically, the shtetl became impoverished and social mobility intensified, prompting mass emigration to the urban centers. Culturally, traditional Judaism became just one of many possible lifestyles and ideological choices for its Jewish inhabitants. And literarily, as Yiddish became a full-fledged literary language, traditional forms of literature, such as rabbinical treatises and chivalric romances, were complemented by new, markedly modern genres. One of them was the »shundroman.«
Although »shund« (literally: trash) was mainly a source of entertainment for Jewish readers literate in the Yiddish language, the genre is a valuable source reflecting these historical processes. Gaining popularity from the 1870s onwards, »shund« novels offered sensational stories at an affordable price and were consequently widely consumed by readers of Yiddish – and especially by those without reading proficiency in other languages. Depicting scandalous blends of romance and violence, these stories borrowed heavily from non-Jewish pulp fiction, which was often reframed in a Jewish setting.