Perl, Joseph

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PERL, JOSEPH

PERL, JOSEPH (1773–1839), author of significant satirical works and leading figure in the Galician *Haskalah. Perl was born in Tarnopol, where he spent most of his life. In his youth he was attracted to Ḥasidism and acquired knowledge of the movement's way of life and literature. Under the influence of the maskilim, especially those of Brody in Galicia, Perl joined the Haskalah movement as early as the beginning of the 19th century. Perl was very active in Jewish education and public life. In 1813 he established in Tarnopol the first modern Jewish school in Galicia, whose curriculum, in the spirit of moderate Haskalah, included both general and Jewish studies. He supported and directed the school throughout his life. He sought to modernize the Jewish community of Tarnopol by attempting to enlist the aid first of the Russian government and then, after 1815, of the Austrian government. Perhaps most conspicuous was his vigorous fight against the ḥasidic movement, which had spread throughout Volhynia and Podolia as well as Galicia. Perl's literary activity began around 1814. In 1814–16, Perl published calendars which contain both scientific information and excerpts from talmudic literature in the vein of the maskilim. The entire body of his work has never been published, and some of his works are at present in the process of publication for the first time. Those of Perl's works in manuscript stored in his valuable library in Tarnopol were probably, for the most part, destroyed during the Holocaust; vestiges of this collection are preserved in the National Library in Jerusalem. During his lifetime some of Perl's works were circulated in manuscript, while others were published years after they had been presented to the censor for approval, e.g., Boḥen Ẓaddik ("The Test of the Righteous"), which was written in 1825 and published in 1838.

Perl signed his principal satirical works with the pseudonym Obadiah b. Pethahiah, which often prevented the reading public from identifying him as the author. Until recently Perl was known only as a Hebrew writer, but he wrote a polemic against Ḥasidism in German, and was also the author of works in Yiddish. His principal satirical work, Megalleh Temirin ("The Revealer of Secrets"; Vienna, 1819), was written in a parallel Yiddish version, which was first published only in 1937 by yivo in Vilna. Periodical stories in the manner of Naḥman of Bratslav's Sippurei Ma'asiyyot were published in both their Hebrew and Yiddish versions in 1969 by the Israel Academy for Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem. It is also known that he adapted a Yiddish version of a historical novel, Antigonus, and apparently translated Fielding's Tom Jones into Yiddish, probably from a German version.

Although Perl made an important contribution to the creation of Yiddish fiction during the first half of the 19th century he did not advocate the use of this language. Like other Haskalah authors his aim in employing Yiddish was practical – to propagate Haskalah ideas among the Yiddish-speaking masses. Yet none of Perl's Yiddish works, which in spite of his intention show an original and idiomatic use of language, appeared during his lifetime.

Both in his public activities and in his writings Perl fought Ḥasidism because he believed their doctrines and leaders to be obstacles to the modernization of Jewish life. By means of denunciatory and hostile notes and memoranda (recently discovered and published) sent incessantly to the officials, he encouraged the Austrian authorities in Galicia to intervene against the Ḥasidim. In the literary sphere he battled against the movement by means of propaganda, parody, and satire. Characteristic is his German manuscript, Ueber das Wesen der Sekte Chassidim (1816), in which he condemned the ḥasidic movement, its practices and beliefs, on the grounds that they jeopardized the welfare of the state and misled a multitude of innocent believers. Addressing both gentile and Jewish readers he denigrates Ḥasidism by creating a hostile, often distorted anthology of quotations lifted out of context from the ḥasidic sources. Perl wrote stories in the manner of Naḥman of Bratslav, in fact, pretending that they had been discovered after the rabbi's death by one of his Ḥasidim. Thus he published a supplement, as it were, to Naḥman's incompleted Ma'aseh me-Avedat Bat Melekh, claiming it to have been in the possession of a Ḥasid who was close to the rabbi toward the end of his life. Similarly, Perl wrote another story, Ma'aseh me-Avedat Ben Melekh, in Hebrew and Yiddish. These stories use the style and some themes and motifs of R. Naḥman only to further the Haskalah aim of criticizing and eventually eradicating Ḥasidism.

Perl's principal work, Megalleh Temirin, shows the influence of 18th-century satirical stories written in the form of letters, which achieved great popularity in France and Germany (especially Montesquieu's Persian Letters and Wieland's satirical writings). Perl integrated the structure of the secular European satirical letter not only with the style, language, and ideas of the ḥasidic letter, but with its typographical form as well. An imitation of the ḥasidic story, Megalleh Temirin is made up of 151 letters, a preface, and an epilogue.

The story's main character, Obadiah b. Pethahiah, who is possessed of magical powers, presents himself as a fervent Ḥasid who had miraculously obtained these letters. Here the denunciations of Ḥasidism contained in Perl's German manuscript reappear amplified by many annotations attached to the correspondence. The annotations interpret the views and facts mentioned in the letters, and they also serve as a medium for Obadiah's ironic commentary. The letters reveal a number of plots, the principal one being the search for the German "book" (Buch) which endangers Ḥasidism and undermines the authority of its leaders by revealing their innermost secrets. Therefore it must be obtained at any cost and destroyed, and revenge taken on its author. The hunt for the "book," which is actually Perl's own German manuscript, yields several subplots based on intrigues and schemes set within ḥasidic life. The search, resembling a comedy of errors, ends in complete failure. Other aspects of the plot reveal the machinations of the Ḥasidim in their struggle for influence and material gain. In Perl's satire, the ḥasidic leaders do not stop short of employing stratagems of bribery, deceit, blackmail, and intimidation against their rivals, whether rabbis or maskilim. In spite of his intention to demean Ḥasidism, its philosophy and practices, a number of descriptions escape Perl's satiric control, communicating vitality, naturalness, and humor. The Hebrew in which these letters are written contains Yiddishisms lending flexibility and expressiveness to the speech of the Ḥasidim. Like many maskilim Perl considered this ḥasidic Hebrew a ludicrous language, offensive to the Haskalah ideal of a "pure" Hebrew language written in biblical style and according to grammatical rules. In spite of these feelings Perl's ḥasidic Hebrew conveys great liveliness.

Boḥen Ẓaddik, (Prague, 1838), a sequel to Megalleh Temirin, consists of two sections, the first, a discussion of readers' reactions to Megalleh Temirin, and the second, a series of letters. Obadiah b. Pethahiah reappears in this work as a man who possesses a magical device – a board on which people's conversations are secretly recorded. The board, however, can be erased only by an absolutely honest man, and the search for this ideal person brings Obadiah into contact with the diverse elements composing Jewish society, each of whose weaknesses and follies is mercilessly exposed. Thus the number of subjects coming in for satirical treatment is increased to include not only Ḥasidim, but rabbis, traders, artisans, and even maskilim, all of whom are found defective, each in his own way. At the end of these wanderings the honest man is discovered, paradoxically, as a Jewish pious farmer in a remote village in southern Russia, which is governed in an almost utopian fashion by Jewish farmers. Taking to heart all that he learned from his travels, Obadiah turns his back on Ḥasidism and preaches in a pathetic manner to his people.

Perl also wrote letters published in Hebrew periodicals in Austria: Of special importance are his letters protesting against the collection of funds in the name of R. *Meir Ba'al ha-Nes. Ironically, there is an unpublished letter in which a Ḥasid jests at the foibles of the contributors to the periodical Kerem Ḥemed, who pursue honor and empty phrases and whose spiritual horizons are narrow. Perl's satire, employed to promote the aims of the Haskalah, is of interest today primarily because of its literary merit and authenticity, qualities that have outlived the author's immediate intentions. An English translation entitled Joseph Perl's Revealer of Secrets: The First Hebrew novel, with an introduction by Dov Taylor, was published in 1997. Avraham Rubinstein edited and wrote an introduction to Perl's Ueber das Wesen der Sekte Chassidim (1977).

bibliography:

N. Gordon, in: huca (1904), 235–42; I. Davidson, Parody in Hebrew Literature (1907), 61–74; Klausner, Sifrut, 2 (1937), 278–314; I. Weinles, in: Yosef Perls Yidishe Ksovim (1937), 7–70; R. Mahler, Ha-Ḥasidut ve-ha-Haskalah (1961), 155–208; Ch. Shmeruk, in: Zion, 21 (1957), 94–99; S. Werses, in: Tarbiz, 32 (1962/63), 396–401; idem, in: Hasifrut, 1 (1968–69), 206–27; idem and Ch. Shmeruk (eds.), Yosef Perl, Ma'asiyyot ve-Iggerot (1969), 11–86, Eng. summary: A. Rubinstein, in: ks, 37 (1961/62); 38 (1962/63). add. bibliography: S. Werses, "Ginzei Y. Perl bi-Yerushalayim ve-Gilgulehem," in: Ha-Universitah, 19:1 (1974), 38–52; Z. Carpenter, "Yosef Perl et la Haskalah; une approche historique et littéraire," in: Ẓafon, 22–23 (1995), 51–65; M. Caplan, "Science Fiction in the Age of Jewish Enlightenment," in: Prooftexts, 19:1 (1999), 93–100; Ch. Shmeruk, "Devarim ke-Havayatam u-Devarim she-ba-Dimyon be 'Megalleh Temirin'," in: Ha-Keriah la-Navi (1999), 144–55; J. Dauber, "Some Notes on Hebraisms in the Yiddish 'Megalle Temirin'," in: Zutot, 1 (2001), 180–85; N.B. Sinkoff, "The 'Maskil,' the Convert and the 'Agunah': J. Perl as a Historian of Jewish Divorce Law," in: ajs Review, 27:2 (2003), 281–99.

[Samuel Werses]