I. L. Peretz

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Peretz, depicted on an old Yiddish-language postcard

Isaac Leib Peretz (also known as Yitskhok Leybush Peretz (יצחק־לייבוש פרץ) and Icchok Lejbusz Perec or Izaak Lejb Perec (in Polish)) (May 18, 1852 – 3 April 1915), best known as I. L. Peretz, was a Yiddish language author and playwright. Payson R. Stevens, Charles M. Levine, and Sol Steinmetz count him with Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem Aleichem as one of the three great classical Yiddish writers. Sol Liptzin wrote: "Yitzkhok Leibush Peretz was the great awakener of Yiddish-speaking Jewry, and Sholom Aleichem its comforter... Peretz aroused in his readers the will for self-emancipation, the will for resistance..."

Peretz rejected cultural universalism, seeing the world as composed of different nations, each with its own character. Liptzin comments that "Every people is seen by him as a chosen people..."; he saw his role as a Jewish writer to express "Jewish ideals...grounded in Jewish tradition and Jewish history."

Unlike many other Maskilim, he greatly respected the Hasidic Jews for their mode of being in the world; at the same time, he understood that there was a need to make allowances for human frailty. His short stories such as "If Not Higher", "The Treasure", and "Beside the Dying" emphasize the importance of sincere piety rather than empty religiosity.

Biography[edit]

Left to right, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, and Yacov Dinezon
Dinezon and Peretz

Born in the shtetl of Zamość, Lublin Governorate, Congress Poland, and raised in an Orthodox Jewish home he gave his allegiance at age fifteen to the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment. He began a deliberate plan of secular learning, reading books in Polish, Russian, German, and French. He planned to go to the theologically liberal Rabbinical school at Zhytomyr, but concern for his mother's feelings got him to stay on in Zamość. He married, through an arranged marriage, the daughter of Gabriel Judah Lichtenfeld, whom Liptzin describes as a "minor poet and philosopher".

He failed in an attempt to make a living distilling whiskey, but began to write Hebrew language poetry, songs, and tales, some of them written with his father-in-law ; this collaboration, however, did not prevent his divorce in 1878, after which he promptly remarried (his second wife was Helena Ringelheim). At about the same time, he passed the examination to become a lawyer, a profession which he successfully pursued for the next decade, until in 1889 his license was revoked by the Imperial Russian authorities, on the basis of suspicion of Polish nationalist feelings. From then on he lived in Warsaw, where his income came largely from a job in the small bureaucracy of the city's Jewish community. There he founded Hazomir (The Nightingale), which became the cultural centre of pre-World War I Yiddish Warsaw.

His first Yiddish work appeared in 1888, notably the long ballad Monish, which appeared that year in the landmark anthology Folksbibliotek ("People's Library"), edited by Sholom Aleichem. This ballad tells the story of an ascetic young man, Monish, who unsuccessfully resists the temptress Lilith.

A writer of social criticism, sympathetic to the labor movement, he wrote stories, folk tales and plays. Liptzin characterizes him as both a realist and a romanticist, who "delved into irrational layers of the soul"... ; "an optimist who believed in the inevitability of progress through enlightenment", and who, at times, expressed this optimism through "visions of Messianic possibilities". Still, while most Jewish intellectuals were unrestrained in their support of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Peretz's view was more reserved, focusing more on the pogroms that took place within the Revolution, and concerned that the Revolution's universalist ideals would leave little space for Jewish non-conformism.

Peretz assisted other Yiddish writers in publishing their work, including Der Nister[1] and Lamed Shapiro.

Much as Jacob Gordin influenced Yiddish theater in New York City in a more serious direction, so did Peretz in Eastern Europe. Israil Bercovici sees Peretz's works for the stage as a synthesis of Gordin and of the more traditional and melodramatic Abraham Goldfaden, an opinion which Peretz himself apparently would not have rejected: "The critics", he wrote, "the worst of them thought that M.M. Seforim was my model. This is not true. My teacher was Abraham Goldfaden."

Some of Peretz's most important works are Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher ("If not Higher") and the short story "Bontshe Shvayg" ("Bontsche the Silent"). "Bontsche" is the story of an extremely meek and modest man, downtrodden on earth but exalted in heaven for his modesty, who, offered any heavenly reward, chooses one as modest as the way he had lived. While the story can be read as praise of this meekness, there is also an ambiguity in the ending, which can be read as showing contempt for someone who cannot even imagine receiving more.

Peretz's 1907 play A Night in the Old Marketplace has been adapted into a multimedia theatrical presentation, with music by Frank London and book and lyrics by Glen Berger, slated to open in 2007; the CD is already on sale. Set in a Jewish shtetl, the comedy presents the philosophical and theological questions of living and dying, in Peretz's typical style.

Peretz died in the city of Warsaw, Congress Poland, in 1915. There are streets in Zamość and in Warsaw named after him ('ulica Icchaka Lejba Pereca', in Polish). He was buried at the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery, a huge crowd about 100,000 strong[2] attending the burial ceremony.

Peretz Square in Lower Manhattan (New York City, USA), which marks the spot where Houston Street, First Avenue, and First Street meet, is named after him. It was dedicated on November 23, 1952.[3]

The American journalist Martin Peretz is one of his descendants.[4] The French author Georges Perec was a distant relative.[5]

There are streets named after him in Israel in the following cities:

Work[edit]

Peretz wrote in both Hebrew and Yiddish. His work The Magician, found inspiration in the folklore of Hasidic Judaism. The story focuses around Elijah, who anonymously visits a poor couple and helps to make them rich. The 1917 edition was illustrated by Marc Chagall. Chagall did not know Peretz and did not read Peretz's work until he was commissioned to create the drawings.[6]

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