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.
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 Peretz remarried in the mid-1870s and became a lawyer with a successful practice in Zamosc, but his license was revoked after he was accused of involvement in anti-Czarist politics.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.
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.