I.L. Peretz

The contributions of I.L. Peretz to Yiddish literature.

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Peretz wrote poems, essays, plays, and novels, but his short stories and sketches are considered his most astute and powerful work. Though not a Hasidic follower or folk writer, he drew on Hasidictalesto further his own literary conceptions. Peretz's stories layered symbolism and psychological realism, creating a new literary aesthetic in Yiddish literature. His characters, such as Khaim the Porter or Shmerl the Woodcutter, transcended their poverty and oppression with a faith in a higher reality where justice would prevail even after death. The themes of forgiveness, self-sacrifice, modesty, and purity are embedded in his stories.

Bontshe the Silent

One of his most famous stories, "Bontshe Shvayg" (Bontshe the Silent), illustrates some of these themes. Bontshe is a victim of poverty and degradation who never complains about his miserable lot in life, so that when he dies he goes straight to heaven, greeted by a chorus of angels, and is invited by the highest judge of the heavenly tribunal to ask for anything he wants as his just reward. And what is Bontshe's greatest wish? "What I'd like most of all," says Bontshe, "is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning." Hearing this, the judges and angels hang their heads in shame, while the prosecutor breaks out in contemptuous laughter. Bontshe came to symbolize the passive, ignorant, hopeless condition of the typical shtetl Jew.

Another classic neo-Hasidic story is Peretz's "Oyb Nit Hekher" (If Not Higher). This is the story of a Litvak--a skeptical Lithuania Jew--who is determined to disprove the fervent belief of the Hasidim of Nemirov that their charismatic rebbe ascends to heaven during the Ten Days of Penitence to plead with God on their behalf. Sneaking into the Nemirov rabbi's room one night and hiding under his bed, the Litvak sees the rabbi arising before dawn, dressing himself in peasant clothes and going into the woods. There the rabbi chops up a tree with an axe and takes the bundle of wood to the broken-down shack of a sick, old woman. Pretending to be Vasil, a peasant, he brings the wood inside and proceeds to make a fire in the oven. And as he puts each stick of wood into the oven, he recites a part of the day's selichos or penitential prayers. After witnessing this anonymous act of charity, the Litvak becomes a disciple of the rabbi, and thereafter, whenever he hears a Hasid mention that during the Ten Days of Penitence the rabbi of Nemirov goes up to heaven, the Litvak adds quietly, "if not higher."

As one of the three founders of modern Yiddish literature, Peretz contributed new ideas where doubt mingled with faith, where symbolism mixed with psychological realism, where traditional stories were retold in a modern context. For Yiddish readers and writers, Peretz's work was the stage where the intellect struggled with all the contradictions of the modern human condition and strove to achieve transcendence.

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Payson R. Stevens

Payson R. Stevens was President and Creative Director of InterNetwork Inc. and well as InterNetwork Media Inc.