Isaac Leib Peretz Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although best known for his short stories—especially the quintessential tale “Bontsha the Silent”—Isaac Peretz was a noted playwright, poet, essayist, and ideologue in two languages. He wrote prolifically in Hebrew and Yiddish, and only the novel form escaped his sustained attack. In 1888, his mock-heroic poem Monish (1888), published under the auspices of Sholom Aleichem, demonstrated his ability to express themes from Jewish life with the sophistication derived from secular literary pursuits. His symbolic dramas, such as Baynakht oyfn altn mark (1907; night in the old marketplace), provided further proof of his ability to harmonize diverse traditions. In Warsaw, he published a literary almanac, the first volume of which was distinguished by what he called “Travel Pictures” delineating shtetl life. In the 1890’s, Peretz contributed to New York Yiddish journals many poems and stories that were regarded as anticlerical and politically subversive. A subsequent change of heart led him to East European mystical lore, and his writings assumed the manner of Hasidic monologues, symbolic romances, and folkloric sketches. In allegories sometimes defying classification, he sought to penetrate the social concerns of his time, especially those impinging on international Jewish life. His writings are surviving testimony to his broad interests, which encompassed history, science, social welfare, and Jewish national survival.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Mendele Mokher Sefarim preceded him as “the father of modern Yiddish fiction” and Sholom Aleichem always surpassed him in popularity, Isaac Peretz’s accomplishments remain unique. Sol Liptzin has called Peretz “the great awakener of Yiddish-speaking Jewry,” arousing in readers the desire for emancipation from restrictions, whether imposed from without or within. Peretz did not merely console his audience or praise their endurance. He combined in his personality the realism of a successful lawyer with the romantic mysticism of a Hasidic Jew. In a style enriched by the knowledge of Polish, Russian, German, French, Yiddish, and Hebrew, and with the authority of an enlightened thinker, he spoke in a variety of literary forms. Though he did not always escape the sentimentality and self-pity to which Yiddish literature has generally been prone, he was an intellectual voice and a social conscience, his hope always mingled with skepticism. While his leading antiheroes, those Jewish sufferers such as Bontsha the Silent and Rabbi Moses Leib of Sasov were stock figures of Yiddish fiction, Peretz also pointed beyond the stereotypes, toward the schlemiel as Everyman, which would culminate in James Joyce’s great character, Leopold Bloom, the Jew as modern-age Odysseus.

Peretz brought the refinements of mainstream European artistic movements—of naturalism, neo-Romanticism, and Symbolism—into a provincial literature. He endowed his writing with a psychological realism that is reminiscent of Fyodor Dostoevski’s. Sholem Asch was one of the first Peretz protégés to reach beyond the shtetl or even the later “golden ghetto” of the more affluent Jewish diaspora to address the Gentile world. It was Peretz’s stories that inspired Isaac Bashevis Singer to become a writer instead of a rabbi. “Gimpel the Fool” is “Bontsha” in later incarnation. Bernard Malamud has, in many of his own stories, embellished themes from Peretz, and Saul Bellow’s rhetoric also echoes the Yiddish master. Peretz’s influence is thus felt by thousands of fiction readers who have never heard his name.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bellow, Saul, ed. Great Jewish Short Stories. New York: Dell, 1969. Contains four classic Peretz stories as well as a representative assortment of tales from major Jewish writers, from biblical times to the present. Bellow’s interesting introduction suggests the tradition and continuity of the material.

Frieden, Ken. Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Compares the fiction of Shalom Abramovich and Aleichem with that of Peretz.

Howe, Irving, and Eliezer Greenberg, eds. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. New York: Viking Press, 1968. Contains seven Peretz stories, along with a judicious selection of Yiddish narratives of all major types and significant authors. The editors’ introduction, although concise, is the best single survey of Yiddish writing available.

Liptzin, Sol. A History of Yiddish Literature. Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David, 1972. A comprehensive overview of Yiddish writing from its beginnings to its current practice in the Americas, South Africa, Australia, Europe, and Israel. Contains perceptive and favorable critiques of writings by Peretz and sound judgments of his position in world literature.

Liptzin, Sol. Peretz. New York: YIVO Bilingual Series, 1947. An important...

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