Isaac Leib Peretz Essay - Peretz, Isaac Leib

Peretz, Isaac Leib


Peretz, Isaac Leib 1852-1915

(Also transliterated as Isaak, Yitzhok, and Yitskhok; also Leibush, Laybush, Leybush, Leon, and Loeb; also Perets) Polish short story writer, dramatist, poet, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

Peretz was one of the most influential Jewish authors during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Along with such writers as Mendele Mocher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem, he promoted the use of Yiddish, the spoken language of Eastern European Jews, as an international literary language. His works reflect his skeptical yet reverent attitude towards his religion as well as his concern for the sociological problems of his people. His writings have challenged Jews to reexamine their place in the modern world, criticizing restrictive Jewish traditions, but pointing out the pitfalls of assimilation into gentile society.

Biographical Information

Peretz was born into a prominent Jewish family in the town of Zamosc in southeastern Poland. Showing extraordinary intellectual abilities at an early age, he received a traditional Jewish education along with private lessons in secular subjects and became fluent in German, Russian, and Hebrew. As an adolescent Peretz was given access to a book dealer's private library, where he read classics of Western literature and books on science, philosophy, and law. With this exposure to a wider world of ideas, Peretz became aware of the gulf that separated Polish Jews from mainstream European society and began to question his own insular upbringing. Peretz's first marriage, which was arranged by his parents, ended in divorce, but his friendship with his father-in-law resulted in their publishing two books of poetry together. Peretz remarried in the mid-1870s and became a lawyer with a successful practice in Zamosc, but his license was revoked after he was accused of involvement in anti-Czarist politics. Hired by a philanthropist to gather sociological data about the lives of rural Polish Jews, Peretz became interested in the manners and customs of these people, as well as their struggles with poverty, oppression, and ignorance. This experience led to the publication of his first significant prose work, Bilder fun a provintz raize (1894), and informed his later writings about Jewish shtetl life. In 1890 he moved to Warsaw and took a job with a social service agency that allowed him time to write. He published stories, poems, and essays in various journals, wrote plays, and became a leader of Warsaw's Jewish intellectual community as well as an admired mentor of many younger writers.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Peretz's short stories, written in Yiddish and Hebrew, reflect his desire to make his work accessible to the average Jewish reader without sacrificing the complexity of his ideas. Many of his stories draw on folktales and Hasidic lore, recasting the familiar material to reflect his own progressive views. Thus, in stories such as "Dos shtraiml" ("The Fur Hat"), "Der meshulekh" ("The Messenger"), and "Bontche shweig" ("Bontche the Silent"), he dramatizes how passive, backward, tradition-bound shtetl dwellers are victimized and degraded. While he wanted Jews to become active participants in the modern world, Peretz also encouraged them to retain their unique ethnic identity and take pride in the virtues of their Mosaic forebears. This concept is dramatized in "Oyb Nish Noch Hecher" ("If Not Higher"), in which a doubting Jew becomes a believer after discovering that a rabbi rumored to make visits to Heaven actually spends his time in secret acts of charity. "Tzvishen Zwei Berg" ("Between Two Mountains") celebrates the Hasidic tradition of Judaism in its fable of two rabbis; one is a somber scholar whose approach to religion can only be understood by a few and the other offers a joyous, life-affirming faith for the common man and woman.

Critical Reception

By working in the folktale form, Peretz left his stories open to interpretation. In "Drei Matones" ("Three Gifts"), for example, he recounts the self-sacrificing acts of three Jewish martyrs. While the story questions whether or not these sacrifices were worthwhile, commentators have praised its depiction of Jewish fortitude and piety. The fact that Peretz wrote his stories for the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Europe, and that this intended audience was almost completely destroyed by the Holocaust, necessarily affected the way critics writing after World War II perceived his work. Whereas during his lifetime Peretz was acclaimed as a visionary leader of the Yiddish literary movement, contemporary writers emphasize the historical value of his records of bygone aspects of Jewish life, both on a realistic and mythic level.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Bekannte Bilder 1890

Bilder fun a provintz raize (short stories and essays) 1894

Dos shtraiml 1896

Stories and Pictures 1906

Ale Verk 18 vols. (short stories, poetry, and essays) 1910-1913

"Tale of Heaven and Hell" 1937; published in journal Menorah Journal

Peretz [Stories from Peretz] 1947

Three Gifts, and Other Stories 1947

The Three Canopies 1948

As Once We Were: Selections from the Works of Peretz 1951

In This World and the Next: Selected Writings 1958

The Book of Fire 1960

Selected Stories 1974

Other Major Works

"Monisti" (ballad) 1888

Poezie (poetry) 1892

Dramen (drama) 1910

Mayne Zikhroynes [My Memoirs] (memoirs) 1914


S. Niger (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Cedars of Lebanon: An Appreciation of I. L. Peretz," in Commentary, Vol. 27, No. 6, June, 1959, pp. 523-26.

[In the following excerpt, Niger gives an overview of Peretz's contributions to Yiddish literature.]

May 18, 1952, marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Yitzchak Leybush Peretz—poet, storyteller, dramatist, essayist, journalist, editor.

Peretz's work became familiar to readers of Hebrew as early as the 70's and 80's of the 19th century; in 1888 he began to publish in Yiddish and rapidly assumed a position of leadership in Yiddish literature as an inspiring force. However, Peretz never identified wholly either with the Hebraists or with the Yiddishists; he had written in Yiddish before 1888, and he continued to employ Hebrew to achieve certain of his literary goals after that date. For Peretz had too many intellectual interests, was too manysided a man, too dynamic an artist and thinker, and, regardless of his social democratic sympathies, was too much of an individualist ever to be a social or literary partisan.

Hence it is not surprising that almost every group and faction in Jewish life and literature should claim some aspect of Peretz as its own. The hundredth anniversary of his birth [was] celebrated by Yiddishists and Hebraists, Zionists and non-Zionists, Socialists and non-Socialists alike Peretz's diversity was not limited to literary forms and language. He made a deep impression both on the literature of the Jewish Enlightenment (particularly on the popular and Socialist-oriented aspects) and on the literature of the post-Enlightenment period. He was limited to no particular epoch or ideology. Peretz's career is the history of modern East European Jewish thought and writing in brief.

Three factors contributed to the variety of Peretz's genius: the milieu where he spent the first and largest part of his life; his family; and his unique personality.

Born in Zamosc, a former Russian stronghold near the Austrian and German frontiers, Peretz imbibed these various cultures in his youth, in addition to the Jewish, and they all had a part in the shaping of his remarkably broad Weltanschauung.

Other forces conspired to free Peretz from the narrow confines of his birthplace, which despite the appellation of Paris Minor in which its residents delighted, was after all only a provincial Russian-Polish town. Peretz came of a solid Sephardic-Ashkenazic family of distinguished lineage, intellectually sophisticated and rich with the traditional religious culture. Then again, the Jewish community of Zamosc had lost its homogeneous character as early as the first half of the 19th century. In Peretz's youth the community was differentiated—not like other Jewish provincial towns only into the Hasidim and their opponents, the Mitnagdim—but also along the lines of the Orthodox, the semi-Orthodox, and the more-or-less enlightened group that included Jewish merchants whose business took them abroad to such cosmopolitan centers as Danzig and Leipzig. Peretz's early profession was also significant. He was a lawyer, an occupation that enriched his social experience and cultural interests. Yet none of these hereditary and environmental influences would have been efficacious had Peretz not been singularly equipped by his own personal qualities to assimilate them. . . .

Peretz's earliest poetry, written in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish when he was very young, shows a confluence of three cultural streams that could not have been accidental: that of Jewish folklore, that of the Enlightenment, and that of the humanistic "positivist" European literature of the 19th century. Even in his juvenilia certain basic characteristics and motifs typical of his later work are evident: a frequently epigrammatic style; humor blended with satire; the "romantic irony" of Heine, simultaneously sentimental and sarcastic; a narrative tendency in his verse, and a fondness for the form and didactic character of the parable; a concern with social problems and radical interpretations of society; and an interest in love as a psychological motif, an innovation in Yiddish literature in the 70' s and 80's of the 19th century.

In the late 1880's, when Peretz had begun to publish stories in addition to his earlier poetry in both Yiddish and Hebrew, an important change took place in his personal life, as well. He was compelled to quit Zamosc (he had been informed on for propagating Socialist ideas, and the Tsarist regime had deprived him of the right to practice law). For a year Peretz travelled through the Polish provinces as a member of a commission that was investigating the economic situation of the provincial Polish Jews. (The literary result of this trip was a series of excellent sketches of Jewish life in the small towns of Poland.) Afterward Peretz moved his permanent residence to Warsaw, where he took a position in the Jewish community administration. For half his work-day he labored in the Department of Cemeteries; the other half he devoted to his vigorous social and literary activities. He was not content to write poetry, stories, popular science, essays, and later plays—Peretz was also an editor, publisher, did public reading, lectured, was a communal figure, and became a youth leader, particularly interested in those young people who had literary, artistic, or theatrical ambition and talent.

In 1891 Peretz began to publish almanacs devoted to literature and social problems, which were known as the Yiddishe Bibliotek. He was assisted in this work by Jacob Dineson, a popular novelist who devoted almost all of his free time to Peretz, to the point where he practically stopped writing himself to become Peretz's alter ego. The Bibliotek was financed by a group of Jewish intellectuals interested in the enlightenment of the Polish Jewish masses. Peretz eagerly discovered and developed talented co-workers.

A few years later (1894-96) Peretz became associated with the students and young workers. With the collaboration of David Pinsky, who shortly afterward emigrated to the United States, Peretz began to publish brief almanacs, in lieu of a periodical, which it was...

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Leslie A. Fiedler (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Three Jews," in No! in Thunder: Essays on Myth and Literature, Beacon Press, 1960, pp. 93-110.

[In the following essay, Fiedler discusses Peretz's work in relation to Jewish culture and the literature of the absurd.]

It is fifteen years now since I first read Peretz; and before that for perhaps another ten years I had been aware of him dimly as a name, an institution, a folk hero belonging to the darkness of Europe, the double-darkness of the ghetto from which my grandparents had fled to a sunlit America. It is an irony of communal memory that the bitterest critic of a way of life should be identified in recollection with the world he attacks, and yet it is a...

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Sol Liptzin (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Peretz," in The Flowering of Yiddish Literature, Thomas Yoseloff, 1963, pp. 98-116.

[In the following essay, Liptzin praises Peretz's uplifting vision of the Jewish character.]

Yitzkhok Leibush Peretz is the supreme literary artist of Eastern European Jewry. From his poems, stories, and dramas far more than from the cold chronicles of objective historians, one can gain the deepest insight into the moods, morals, and folkways of his colorful cultural epoch. From him also stem many talented disciples who enriched Yiddish literature with literary masterpieces and who are still influencing Jewish life today.

Peretz, who was born in 1852 at Zamosc...

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Israel Knox (essay date 1964-65)

SOURCE: "Yitzhok Leib Peretz: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Death," in Jewish Book Annual, Vol. 22, 1964-1965, pp. 78-84.

[In the following essay, Knox offers an appreciation of Pereti's stories.]

Mendele, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem are regarded as the three "masters" of modern Yiddish literature, and curiously enough a "tag of identification" has been attached to each—satirist, romanticist, humorist. Such "labels," if taken literally, can be misleading and constricting, yet if taken seriously, can be useful in providing a guide-line to an author.

Granted that Mendele is a satirist, he is a satirist who hates with a kind of love. The paradox...

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Isaiah Rabinovich (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Hebrew Fiction in Search of a Hero," in Major Trends in Modern Hebrew Fiction, University of Chicago Press, 1968, pp. 1-42.

[In the following excerpt, Rabinovich discusses Pereti 's use of modernist literary techniques.]

After the collapse of the 1905 Russian revolution and the growing reactionism of the government prior to the First World War and the 1917 revolution, the Jewish township went into decline. Jewish emigration, both to the larger cities of central Europe and to those of the United States, reached its peak, marking an upheaval within the Jewish community that was to produce enormous changes. One such change was the conversion of the majority of...

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David Neal Miller (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Y. L. Perets' 'Bontsye Shvayg': Perspectives on Passivity," in Slavic and Eastern European Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 41-6.

[In the following essay, Miller offers a close reading of the story 'Bontsye Shvayg.']

Yitskhok Leybush Perets' "Bontsye Shvayg" has enjoyed an unusual reception: it passed into the folk tradition within Perets' own lifetime, has seen numerous editions in Yiddish and in translation, and has been performed in stage and television adaptation. Yet there has been no agreement on the question which dominates the critical literature devoted to this tale about the death and subsequent trial in paradise of a poor, humble sufferer:...

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Elie Wiesel (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Victims of God," in The New Republic, Vol. 171, No. 12, September 21, 1974, pp. 26-7.

[In the following essay, Wiesel offers appreciative commentary on Peretz's Selected Stories.]

Do you know I. L. Peretz? You don't? Well that is regrettable but understandable. He did, after all, write in Yiddish, and Yiddish literature, begotten of suffering as a weapon against suffering, seems doomed to a tragic fate: not only is it little known—it is poorly known. Its exponents are ignored after its readership has been murdered. Have you read Aharon Zeitlin, H. Leivick or Jacob Glatstein? Great poets all. And Chaim Grade, do you know him? Yet he is one of the finest...

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Sol Gittleman (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "A Sociology of Mishpoche Stereotypes," in From Shtetl to Suburbia: The Family in Jewish Literary Imagination, Beacon Press, 1978, pp. 86-115.

[In the following excerpt, Gittleman discusses Peretz's depiction of Jewish family life.]

Peretz is inevitably linked to Mendele Mocher Sforim and to Sholom Aleichem to form the great troika of "classical" Yiddish literature. Chronologically and temperamentally, he belongs with them. He represents a different geographic and social audience, however. Peretz wrote primarily for Polish Jewry, and the historical events which produced this community of Jews were different from those which affected the Russian Jew. Poland had...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Humanism, Yiddish-Style," in The New Republic, Vol. 204, No. 3, January 21, 1991, pp. 35-8.

[In the following essay, Baranczak offers an appreciative review of The I. L. Peretz Reader.]

For any American reader, [The I. L. Peretz Reader] will be a handy and skillfully edited selection of the most representative writings of one of the masters of world literature. For any Jewish American reader, it will also be a monument in commemoration of one of the central figures in modern Jewish culture, a writer who, along with Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem Aleichem, laid the foundations for the modern Yiddish literary tradition. For a Polish-American...

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Ruth Adler (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Universal and Jewish Components in Y. L. Peretz's Folktales," in Yiddish, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1991, pp. 81-8.

[In the following essay, Adler discusses Peretz's blending of traditional Jewish tales with his own modern world view.]

Y. L. Peretz invigorated Yiddish and Hebrew writings with cadences from world literature. At the same time he sought to discover and reproduce an authentically Jewish voice. He collected folktales and held folklore evenings at his home and even paid money to obtain folksongs. (In view of this commitment, it is not surprising that it was the young Polish-Jewish folklorists who translated his works into Polish.)


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Ken Frieden (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "I. L. Peretz: Monologue and Madness in the Early Stories," in Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz, State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 259-80.

[In the following excerpt, Frieden explores first-person narratives in Peretz's tales,]

Peretz contributed immeasurably to Yiddish fiction with his first book, a collection of three stories entitled Familiar Scenes (Bakante bilder, 1890). He had formerly published the poetic ballad "Monish" and some insubstantial fiction in The Jewish Popular Library of 1888 and 1889; the three new stories constituted a radical departure from prevailing Yiddish literary norms. Unlike...

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Further Reading

Adler, Ruth. Women of the Shtetl: Through the Eyes of Y. L. Peretz. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980, 144 p.

Examines Peretz's portrayal of shtetl women, providing insight into his personal world view.

Glatstein, Jacob. "Peretz and the Jewish Nineteenth Century." In Voices from the Yiddish: Essays, Memoirs, Diaries, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, pp. 51-63. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Discusses Peretz's contribution to modern Jewish culture.

Howe, Irving, and Eliezer Greenberg. "The World of I. L. Peretz." Commentary 57, No. 1 (January 1974): 43-8.


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