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The following year, Peretz’s law license was revoked when an informant denounced him to authorities as a radical.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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