Peretz, Isaac Leib

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PERETZ, ISAAC LEIB (Yitskhok Leybush ; 1852–1915), Yiddish and Hebrew author. Peretz was one of the three classic Yiddish writers – with S.Y. *Abramovitsh and *Sholem Aleichem – and the founder of Yiddish modernism. In the first decade of the 20th century he was at the center of an active literary circle in Warsaw. His closest friend was Jacob (Yankev) *Dineson, and he was a mentor to many other leading authors such as Sholem *Asch, H.D. *Nomberg, S. *An-ski, A. *Reisen, and Y.Y. *Trunk. He began writing in Hebrew but is more often remembered for his Yiddish fiction.

Peretz was born in Zamość, Poland, a relatively modern town known for its opposition to the ḥasidim. According to his memoirs, however, one of his early teachers may have been secretly ḥasidic. At about the age of 13, Peretz studied for a short time at yeshivot in Zamość and the nearby town of Shevershin. He was especially enthusiastic about his readings of Maimonides, whose Mishneh Torah influenced his concise Hebrew style. After Peretz gained access to a large private library, he avidly read Polish, Russian, German, and French books. The writings of Heinrich *Heine and Ludwig Börne had a lasting impact on Peretz's literary tastes. For secular learning he hoped to study at a gymnasium or at the rabbinical institute in Zhitomir, but his mother opposed these plans, and he did not receive a systematic education. While the middle-class family was traditional, his father's business travels brought him into broader contact with the outside world. When Peretz was about 19 he married Sarah, the daughter of Gabriel Judah Lichtenfeld, a respected Hebrew author. Peretz seems to have had more in common with his father-in-law than with his bride, whom he divorced a few years later. The two progeny of this marriage were Lucian, born in about 1874, and a book of Hebrew poems published together with Lichtenfeld in 1877.

Peretz lived in Warsaw in 1876, where he met Hebrew authors and started publishing Hebrew poems in Ha-Shaḥar, before returning to Zamość. It is significant that the poem "Nagniel," printed in A.B. Gottlober's Ha-Boker Or ("The Morning Light," 1876), alludes to Y.L. Gordon's poetry and criticizes the outmoded style of Hebrew meliẓah. (Even 20 years later, in a long article published in Ha-Ẓefirah – "Ma haya Gordon, Balshan o Meshorer?" ("What was Gordon, a Linguist or a Poet?") – Peretz continued to attack the neobiblical style of the Hebrew maskilim). Lichtenfeld and Peretz jointly published Sippurim be-Shir ve-Shirim Shonim ("Stories in Verse and Various Poems," 1877), a poetry collection that received little notice, though Peretz *Smolenskin and Reuven Asher *Braudes praised it. In spite of their initialing most of the poems separately or together, it is not always easy to determine the nature of their collaboration; the volume was signed by "Shenei Ba'alei Assufot" ("Two Compilers (or Authors, or Wise Men))," alluding both to Ecclesiastes 12:11 with A. Ibn Ezra's commentary and to a talmudic usage. The longer poems attributed to Peretz show both Heine's influence and Peretz's narrative inclinations. Joseph *Klausner and Samuel *Niger are among the few 20th century critics who recognized the importance of Peretz's early poems, such as "Ḥayei Mishorer Ivri" ("The Life of a Hebrew Poet") and "ḤannahShir Sipuri" ("Hannah – A Narrative Poem"). The first, while followed by the initials of both Peretz and Lichtenfeld, appears to be as much based on Peretz's biography as was his later Yiddish ballad "Monish." The second, initialed by Peretz alone, uses lyrical six-line stanzas (with the rhyme scheme ababcc) to tell a melodramatic tale. Later in life Peretz was embarrassed by having published Sippurim be-Shir ve-Shirim Shonim, because he doubted its value and perhaps also because some poems – probably by Lichtenfeld – lampoon ḥasidic rebbes.

Peretz remarried in 1878, with Helena Ringelbaum, and worked as a lawyer in Zamość for the next decade. He again lived in Warsaw in 1886–87 and published Hebrew fiction and poetry in leading publications such as Ha-Yom, Ha-Ẓefira, and Ha-'Asif. After losing his right to practice law in 1888, Peretz became more active in Yiddish publishing and moved to Warsaw permanently. From 1891 until the end of his life, Peretz worked as a record-keeper for the Jewish Community of Warsaw.

Not until 1886 did he publish his first prose work. As Samuel Niger showed, Peretz's early Hebrew fiction is remarkable for its clear language, extensive use of monologue and dialogue, and probing of psychological states. Several of the earliest stories have enduring value and anticipate his mature work. "Ha-Kaddish" ("The Kaddish," 1886) and "Heẓiẓ ve-Nifga," ("Looked and Was Injured" (referring to the dangers of mystical practices), 1886), set in a small-town synagogue and yeshivah, evoke the traditional world of study and prayer. Peretz's language is effective because he avoids the outmoded rhetoric of maskilic meliẓah. One character in "Heẓiẓ ve-Nifga" even comments on the weakness of the neobiblical style of authors who wrote in Bikkurei ha-Itim. Peretz consciously moved away from the supposedly "pure" language of Haskalah Hebrew writers, who used "bits of verses mixed with complete biblical verses," instead of striving to capture "the language of human beings" ("Heẓiẓ ve-Nifga," section 4).

In 1888 Peretz responded to Sholem Aleichem's call for contributions to his new anthology Di Yudishe Folksbibliotek ("The Jewish Popular Library"), sending him the ballad "Monish." In a letter dated June 17, 1888, Peretz expresses his literary program: "I write for myself, for my own pleasure; and if I sometimes remember the reader, he is from the higher class in society, a person who has read and studied in a living language." (In this context, "a living language" seems to refer primarily to Polish and Russian.). Despite his claim that he writes for himself, Peretz's letters often mention his social goals. He was enraged when Sholem Aleichem (like the editors of Ha-Ẓefirah) made editorial revisions of "Monish" without consulting him. Nevertheless, he sent several stories to him for inclusion in the subsequent volume of Di Yudishe Folksbibliotek (1889). Among these earliest Yiddish stories, "Der Khelmer Melamed" ("The Teacher from Chelm") is a comic folktale about trying to eradicate the evil impulse (der yetser hore) but finding that this threatens population growth; "Yankl Pesimist" ("Jacob the Pessimist") and "Venus un Shulamis," based on conversations between yeshivah boys, illustrate Peretz's lively use of dialogue.

While "Monish" was well received and Peretz continued writing Yiddish poetry, his major original contribution was in prose. In addition to his many stories, Peretz wrote countless literary, cultural, and political essays for newspapers and journals. His first Yiddish book was Bakante bilder ("Familiar Scenes," 1890), edited by Jacob Dineson. It includes three stories, two of which use the avant-garde technique of internal monologue. Both "Der Meshulekh" ("The Messenger") and "Der Meshugener Batlen" ("The Mad Talmudist") are centered in the minds of the main characters. Peretz probes their psychological states in extremis, as the messenger freezes to death and the talmudist torments himself over his desires and unstable identity. Unlike many early Yiddish writers who wrote about Jewish types, Peretz tried to represent unique individuals with their psychological aberrations.

In 1890 Peretz joined a group making a statistical survey that was financed by the philanthropist Ivan (Jan) *Bloch. Peretz visited many small towns and villages in the province of Tomaszow, collecting not only statistical data about the Jewish population (which were never published) but also raw material for his literary works. Peretz's impressions of this expedition are reflected in sketches entitled Bilder fun a Provints-Rayze ("Pictures from a Provincial Journey," 1891), in which he describes the poverty and pettiness of life in Southeastern Poland. Back in Warsaw, Peretz plunged into various social and cultural activities.

His first book of Hebrew prose was a short collection of two stories: Ha-Illemet; Manginot ha-Zeman ("The Mute; Melodies of the Age," 1892). These Hebrew stories show Peretz's unusual ability to empathize with the experiences of women. Ha-Illemet, in particular, follows the tormented life of a mute woman who loves a local boy. After she is married off to an older man against her wishes, she drifts toward madness. The story anticipates one of the most haunting 20th century Yiddish/Hebrew stories, Yakov Steinberg's "Di Blinde" / "Ha-Iveret" ("The Blind Woman," 1912). Like two of the stories in his Bakante Bilder (1890), those of his first volume of Hebrew fiction probe deeply into individual psychology. Whereas the Yiddish stories use first-person internal monologue, the Hebrew stories use third-person narrative to enter the consciousness of women.

Following Sholem Aleichem's example, Peretz edited three volumes of Yiddish anthologies called Di Yudishe Bibliotek ("The Jewish Library," 1891–95). Assisted by David Pinsky, he also edited numerous issues of Yontev Bletlekh ("Holiday Papers," 1895–96), filling them with his own poems, stories, and essays under various pseudonyms. Peretz's Yontev Bletlekh were sufficiently popular and anti-traditional that they elicited hostile responses from Orthodox circles. He also edited a Hebrew collection called Ha-Ḥeẓ ("The Arrow, 1894), which includes the important story "Mishnat Ḥasidim" ("Teachings of the Ḥasidim"). His collection Literatur un Lebn ("Literature and Life," 1894) features two classic Yiddish stories that were widely read by workers in the socialist movement. "Bontshe Shvayg" ("Bontshe the Silent") uses narrative irony to question the passive acceptance of poverty and misfortune; "Dos Shtrayml" ("The Fur Hat") is narrated by a skeptical hatmaker who pretends to believe that the shtrayml he creates has vast power. Both stories implicitly criticize religious tradition and authority.

In the 1890s, Peretz published extensively in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Like his Yiddish fiction in Bakante Bilder, his Hebrew stories showed his interest in psychology. In addition, the stories "Leil Zeva'ah" ("A Night of Torment") and "Be-Ma'on Kayiẓ" ("In a Summer House"), published in 1893, use dialogue extensively and effectively. Peretz's attraction to folklore is suggested by "Ha-Maḥshavah ve-ha-Kinnor" ("The Thought and the Harp," 1894), subtitled "an Arabic legend"; but it was sometimes read as a political allegory, as does other short fiction in Yiddish and Hebrew, such as "In Gemoyzekhts" ("In the Muck," 1893), "Mayselekh fun Dul-Hoyz" ("Stories from the Madhouse," 1895) and "Be-Agaf ha-Meshuga'im" ("In the Insane Asylum," 1896). In 1890, 1892, and 1895–97 – after the Hebrew journal Ha-Ẓefirah became a daily – Peretz published dozens of stories, articles, and poems in that paper. Of particular interest is "Eshet Ḥaver" ("A Friendly Wife" / "The Wife of a Friend," 1890), which enters the mind of an impoverished woman. When she reproaches her talmudist husband for doing nothing to obtain provisions for the Sabbath and Passover, he angrily berates her for disturbing his study, leaving her to contemplate suicide. Peretz recycled this Hebrew text as the Yiddish story "A Kas fun a Yidene" ("A Woman's Anger", 1893). Another recurrent technique is Peretz's use of first-person narrators, personae who often create the impression of telling their stories orally. Among these narrators is Yohanan the Teacher (in a sequence of stories called "Sippurei Yoḥanan ha-Melammed" – or, in Yiddish, "Yokhanan Melameds Mayselekh," 1897), whose tales were later incorporated into Peretz's volume of neo-ḥasidic tales.

Between 1893 and 1899 Peretz was involved in socialist circles, and some Yiddish stories such as "Di Toyte Shtot" ("The Dead City," 1895) present a harsh picture of poverty in the shtetl. "Ha-Isha Marat Ḥannah (Ẓeror Mikhtavim)" ("The Woman Mrs. Hannah (A Bundle of Letters)," 1896) graphically shows how – because of the inheritance laws in Czarist Russia – a helpless widow is prevented from inheriting her husband's estate by a ruthless brother-in-law. "Veberlibe" ("Weaver Love," 1897) uses the epistolary form to describe the sufferings of a poor weaver. In 1899, because of a lecture he gave to striking workers, Peretz was arrested and served three months in prison. While imprisoned he told the tale "Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher" ("If Not Higher," 1900) to his friend and cellmate Mordecai *Spector. According to one of Peretz's letters, Spector was so impressed by the story that he threatened that, if Peretz did not write it down, he would request to be moved to a different cell (yivo Bleter, 28 (1946), 198).

Some of Peretz's best stories were neo-ḥasidic. The Hebrew story "Ha-Mekubbalim" ("Kabbalists," 1891; Yiddish version, "Mekubolim," 1894) is the earliest of the stories that were later included in the genre and volume called Khasidish ("Ḥasidic"). Instead of praising the rebbe in the manner of Shivehei ha-BeShT, however, "Ha-Mekubalim" uses irony to show his inadequacy. With "Mishnat Ḥasidim" ("Teachings of the Ḥasidim," 1894; Yiddish version, 1902), Peretz begins to move away from social satire and toward the recreation of traditional materials. This story is brilliantly told in the voice of a disciple of the rebbe, echoing the writings of Nathan Sternharz of Nemirov. To enhance the neo-ḥasidic effect, Peretz introduces a persona, "Ha-Yatom mi-Nemirov," ("The Orphan from Nemirov"), who signs this story, the subsequent "Dem Rebns Tsibek" ("The Rebbe's Pipe," 1895), and "Der Feter Shakhne un di Mume Yakhne" ("Uncle Shakhne and Aunt Yakhne," 1895). Two masterpieces in Peretz's neo-ḥasidic corpus are the aforementioned "Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher" and "Tsvishn Tsvey Berg" ("Between Two Mountains"), both published in 1900. These texts revolve around the long-standing tension between the ḥasidim and the mitnaggedim, which Peretz often represents more broadly as the opposition between emotion and intellect. In "Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher," a skeptical Litvak – a Jew from Lithuania, the center of talmudic study – becomes a disciple of an inspirational rebbe upon seeing his kindness and good deeds. In "Tsvishn Tsvey Berg," narrated by a hasidic disciple, the two mountains that come together are the Rebbe of Biale and the Rabbi of Brisk. Moving beyond the Enlightenment tradition of anti-ḥasidic satire, Peretz balances the narrator's adulation of his ḥasidic leader with his portrait of an adversarial rabbi. The naïve superstitions expressed by the ḥasidic narrator, moreover, suggest a layer of authorial irony that also counteracts the narrator's enthusiastic but unquestioning endorsement of the ḥasidic world.

An interesting twist is Peretz's allusion to Rabbi *Naḥman of Bratslav in his series of "Reb Nakhmanke's Mayselekh" ("Rabbi Nachman's Tales," 1903–4). Although Peretz wrote to Israel Zinberg that he was never a hasid and had only once met a ḥasidic leader, the Bialer Rebbe, he used the ḥasidic tradition effectively in his neo-ḥasidic stories. Instead of simply relying on Western literary forms, Peretz sought inspiration from within the Judaic tradition. At the Czernowitz Yiddish conference in 1908, he therefore stated that "Reb Nahman with his seven beggars" was the first Jewish folksdikhter, and that in hasidic tales lie the origins of Yiddish literature. Peretz's return to ḥasidic tales influenced Martin *Buber in his retellings of the stories by Nahman of Bratslav (1905–6) and about the Ba`al Shem Tov (1907).

Peretz became increasingly interested in Jewish folklore and ethnography in 1900–1, when his commitment to a kind of cultural nationalism took the place of his former socialist ideology. As part of his neo-romantic return to the "folk," Peretz continued to add to his neo-ḥasidic stories and began work on the Folkstimlekhe Geshikhtn ("Folk Tales," 1904–15). Elements of irony and satire remain, as in the stunning tale "Dray Matones" ("Three Gifts," 1904), but Peretz also includes straightforward recreations of Yiddish folktales. Folkstimlekhe Geshikhtn was a popular success and was favorably received in literary circles.

Dialogue always played an important role in Peretz's fiction, and this may have led to his secondary career as a dramatist. He wrote one-act and full-length plays and was actively involved in performances by amateur and professional troupes. He gave lectures on theater in an effort to educate the audience and raise the artistic level. A letter from Dineson reveals that Peretz even dreamed of founding a serious Yiddish theater in the United States. In 1903 Peretz published the Hebrew drama Ḥurban Beit Ẓaddik ("The Ruin of the Ẓaddik's House"). This was the first version of the later Yiddish play Di Goldene Keyt ("The Golden Chain," 1909) about the conflict of generations. The plot revolves around a ḥasidic rebbe's determination to prolong the Sabbath, and thus, by force of will, liberate the world from pettiness and anguish. Besides Di Goldene Keyt and several realistic one-act plays in Hebrew and in Yiddish, he published two major Yiddish dramas: Bay Nakht afn Altn Mark ("At Night in the Old Market," 1907) and In Polish af der Keyt ("Chained in the Vestibule," 1908–9). The former is a symbolic drama in verse in which the author attempts to unfurl all of Polish Jewish history. Deeply pessimistic, the play has prompted much discussion, has been variously interpreted, and has been criticized both for its absence of plot and for its ambiguity.

One of Peretz's important, though unfinished, literary works is Mayne Zikhroynes ("My Memoirs," 1913–14), the main source for his biography until 1870. (Another biographical source that intimately describes his later years is R. Peretz-Laks' Arum Peretzn.) In the last years of his life, Peretz was active in the cultural life of Polish Jews. Their sufferings in the early years of the First World War greatly depressed him. Peretz, who had always assiduously followed his literary pursuits, worked almost up to the last moment. He died of a heart attack at home, having just written the phrase, "Shtiler, shtiler, er vil danken…" ("Quieter, quieter, he wants to thank …"). Peretz's funeral, purportedly attended by 100,000 people in Warsaw, demonstrated his popularity.

Peretz's originality as a Hebrew stylist has received too little recognition, in part because Hebraists have tended to dismiss him as a Yiddishist. Moreover, derivative Hebrew authors like his contemporary David *Frischmann were unable to appreciate his contribution. H.N. *Bialik added to the problem by claiming that "nusaḥ Mendele" (the Hebrew style of S.Y. Abramovitsh) was the only true path for modern Hebrew literature. Even before "nusaḥ Mendele" came into being (with Abramovitsh's short fiction from 1886 to 1896), there was another axis of Hebrew writing that ran from ḥasidic and anti-ḥasidic authors (especially Naḥman of Bratslav, Nathan Sternharz, and Joseph Perl) to Peretz. Their uniqueness lay in the ability to create the illusion of a lively, vernacular Hebrew by ignoring the maskilic norms of meliḥah, and they achieved unusual vitality by using a style that sounds as if it has been translated from Yiddish.

Peretz laid the foundations of both Yiddish modernism and a new Hebrew style. He excelled in the genre of short fiction, and in compressed form he conveyed psychological depth. Around 1900 the center of gravity in his fiction shifted from social satire to a remaking of traditional forms in Judaic literature. He achieved the greatest artistic success where he was able to suspend his works "between two mountains": the ḥasidim and the mitnaggedim, emotion and intellect, or tradition and innovation.

In Peretz's lifetime, the best edition of his Yiddish works was Ale verk ("Complete Works," 10 vols., 1909–13). A more complete edition is Ale verk fun I.L. Peretz, 18 vols. (1925–6), followed by an additional volume, Briv un redes ("Letters and Speeches," ed. N. Meisel). Also useful, because it provides the original publication date of each text, is Ale verk, edited by S. Niger, 11 vols. (1947–8). Peretz's Hebrew work was collected in Ketavim ("Writings," 4 parts, 1899–1901) and, more comprehensively, in Kitvei I.L. Peretz ("Writings of I.L. Peretz," 10 vols., 1922–7); currently the most accessible edition is Kol kitvei I.L. Peretz ("The Complete Works of I.L. Peretz," ed. S. Meltzer, 1961–2). Friedlander (1974) reprinted some of the Hebrew verse that was not included in Peretz's collected works. A.R. Malachi lists many other Hebrew works that were excluded from the editions of Peretz's works, in yivo Bleter, 28 (1946), 157–64. Translations of Peretz's fiction and memoirs may be found in many anthologies, including Selected Stories, ed. I. Howe and E. Greenberg (1974), The I.L. Peretz Reader, ed. R. Wisse (1990), and Classic Yiddish Stories, ed. K. Frieden (2004).


N. Meisel, Y.L. Peretz, Zayn Lebn un Shafn (1945); idem, Yitshok Leybush Peretz un Zayn Dor Shrayber (1951); S. Niger, Y.L. Peretz (1952); idem, in: Tekufah, 30–31 (1946), 439–502; S. Meltzer (ed.), Y.L. Peretz ve-Yeẓirato, Book 2: Al Y.L. Peretz: Divrei Soferim Ivrim (1961). add. bibliography: Ber Borokhov, in: Y.L. Peretz: a Zamlbukh tzu Zayn Ondenkn (1915); S.L. Tsitron, Dray Literarishe Doyres, vol. 1 (1920); J. Klausner, Yoẓerim u-Vonim, vol. 2 (1929); R. Peretz-Laks, Arum Peretzn (1935); Y.Y. Trunk, Poyln, vol. 5: Peretz (1949); A.R. Malachi, in: yivo Bleter, 34 (1950), 221–30, 236 (1952), 355–61; Y.D. Berkovitsh, Ha-Rishonim ki-Venei Adam (1953–54); Kh. Shmeruk, Peretzs Yiesh-Vizie (1971); Y. Friedlander, Bein Ḥavayah le-Ḥavayah: Massot al Yeẓirato ha-Ivrit shel Y.L. Peretz (1974); D.C. Jacobson, Modern Midrash (1987); R. Wisse, I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (1991); K. Frieden, Classic Yiddish Fiction (1995).

[Yehuda Arye Klausner /

Ken Frieden (2nd ed.)]

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Peretz, Isaac Leib

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