Isaac Leib Peretz Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Isaac Leib Peretz (PEHR-ehtz) is regarded as a founder of modern Yiddish literature. He was born in Zamo, Poland, to a prosperous and observant Jewish family. While he was permitted to supplement his traditional Jewish education with private lessons in German and Russian, he was forbidden to attend a secular school. A turning point came when the key to a three-thousand-volume library was bequeathed to the fifteen-year-old. Peretz discovered Western literary classics as well as texts on science and philosophy. Critics theorize that this sudden exposure to various literatures and philosophies led Peretz to question his religious training and to confront the gap between the ghettoized Jew and the wider modern world.

Peretz’s ambitions for higher education were thwarted by an arranged marriage. His father-in-law, however, was a proponent of Jewish enlightenment, and the two collaborated on a book of Hebrew verse. This association ended upon the Peretzes’ divorce. After a period of restlessness and indecision, Peretz settled into a law practice and remarried.

In 1886 Peretz submitted a poem entitled “Monish” to Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish journal, Yidishe Folkbibliotek. Although it was hailed as the first modern narrative poem in Yiddish, Peretz was unhappy with Aleichem’s editing of the work and, demonstrating the independence that would mark his career, declined to submit additional work to the journal.

The following year, Peretz’s law license was revoked when an informant denounced him to authorities as a radical. He moved to Warsaw and, in 1890, joined an expedition collecting sociological data on rural Polish Jews. His sketches in Bilder fun a provints-rayze capture the experience. Returning to Warsaw, Peretz worked in the Cemetery Section of the Jewish Community Services Organization, which...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Isaac Leib Peretz had a strict orthodox education in Hebrew studies. One of his neighbors was so impressed with the genius of his Talmudic interpretations that he gave Isaac the key to his library. Thus, at fifteen, Peretz read his way through the secular learning and fiction of the nineteenth century, in French, German, Polish, and English, which, with the help of dictionaries he found there, he taught himself. When he was eighteen, his father arranged a marriage for him with Sarah Lichtenfeld that ended in divorce in 1876. His father-in-law, Gabriel Yehudah Lichtenfeld, was an intellectual with whom he published a book of poetry. He began the study of law and passed the bar exam in 1877. For a decade he was a practicing attorney, but his license was revoked in 1887 by czarist authorities for alleged radical activities. In 1878 he married Helena Ringelheim and moved to Warsaw in 1889. He was sent by Jan Bloch to make a sociological survey of Jews in the outlying provinces of Poland to refute anti-Semitic charges that Jews controlled the economy. The poverty and starvation Peretz found are recorded in the bleak sketches called “Travel Pictures.” From 1891 to the end of his life, he was a clerk in the Jewish Community office, recording burial dates. He was deeply involved in social reform, lecturing, teaching, and founding schools and journals to educate the poor to better their lives.