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.
Warsaw Literary Life
In 1886 Peretz became the target of false and unspecified accusations, and his license to practice law was revoked by the government. He moved his family to Warsaw, where for the rest of his life he was employed by the city’s Jewish community. Here he entered the literary life of this cultured city, resumed his writing in earnest, and was active in its social and political affairs. His essays condemned anti-Semitic acts but were also critical of the poverty and intolerance found in the Jewish community. He was the publisher of Yontev Bletekh (Holiday Pages), which argued for enlightenment and socialist ideals. He also editor of Di Yidishe Bibliotek (The Jewish Library), which published a wide array of articles on secular subjects, including science. Writing in both Hebrew and Yiddish, he became a literary and intellectual magnet to younger Yiddish writers, many who later became well known (for example, David Pinski, Abraham Reisen, Sholem Asch, Joseph Opatoshu).
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.
Pronounced: KHAH-seed, Origin: Hebrew, a Hasidic Jew, a follower of Hasidic Judaism, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronounced: shTETTull, Origin: Yiddish, a small town or village with a large Jewish population existing in Eastern or Central Europe in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century.