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Reprinted with permission from Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish (Simon & Schuster).
I.L. Peretz (1851-1915) is the third of the great classical Yiddish writers [along with Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholom Aleichem] and the one considered the more literary and probing realist of the trio. Whereas Mendele and Sholom Aleichem wrote about shtetl life and were loved by the masses as folk heroes, Peretz appealed to the intellectuals who lived in the thriving cities. His writing was a call for self-determination and resistance against Jewish humiliation. Peretz was ultimately an optimist who believed that progress was the path to greater Jewish freedom and enlightenment. He understood that shtetl Jews had to examine and alter their beliefs in order for them to be emancipated. Peretz believed in his roots as a Jew, but saw his religion as needing to evolve beyond its traditional strictures to advance the progress of the Jewish people
Peretz was born into a respected family in the Polish small town of Zamosc. Though raised as an Orthodox Jew, he was eager for secular knowledge even at an early age. He learned Polish, Russian, German, and French so he could read in those languages and be exposed to larger worlds. His family married him off at 18 in the hope of his settling into a traditional Jewish life. But Peretz was not suited for these constraints and rebelled against his family’s wishes, eventually divorcing his wife and marrying his sweetheart.
He published poems and lyrics in Hebrew and Polish through the 1870s. At 25, Peretz became a lawyer and spent 10 years building a successful practice in Zamosc, during which time he wrote little. Peretz was initially a proponent of the Haskalah [Enlightenment], and was intensely involved in Russian and Polish issues. He initially felt Yiddish was only a temporary vehicle to reach the masses and not a permanent language for Jews. The murderous Russian pogroms of 1881 altered his views about Yiddish, as he found himself identifying more deeply with his underprivileged brethren. He began to write in Yiddish, and in 1888 submitted his poem, Monish, to Sholom Aleichem’s Folksbibliotek journal. It is considered the first major Yiddish poem, with themes of the earthly and spiritual forces pulling at Monish (a pious youth facing a religious crisis), who symbolizes the Jewish artist struggling against the attractions of secular culture.
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