The I. L. Peretz Reader

The I. L. Peretz Reader

Edited and with an Introduction Ruth R. Wisse
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 496
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  • Book Info
    The I. L. Peretz Reader
    Book Description:

    Isaac Leybush Peretz (1852-1915) is one of the most influential figures of modern Jewish culture. Born in Poland and dedicated to Yiddish culture, he recognized that Jews needed to adapt to their times while preserving their cultural heritage, and his captivating and beautiful writings explore the complexities inherent in the struggle between tradition and the desire for progress. This book, which presents a memoir, poem, travelogue, and twenty-six stories by Peretz, also provides a detailed essay about Peretz's life by Ruth R. Wisse. This edition of the book includes as well Peretz's great visionary dramaA Night in the Old Marketplace,in a rhymed, performable translation by Hillel Halkin."If you want to discover the beauty, the depth, the unique wonder of Yiddish literature-read this volume by its Master."-Elie Wiesel"For any American reader, this will be a handy and skillfully edited selection of the most representative writings of one of the masters of world literature. For any Jewish American reader, it will also be a monument in commemoration of . . . a writer who . . . laid the foundations for the modern Yiddish literary tradition."-Stanislaw Baranczak,The New Republic"The tales, which occupy most of the book, vary widely. Some have the form and tone of simple folk tales. Others suggest a Hasidic-like mysticism, sometimes approaching the surreal. The best, I think combine both a sympathy for the values of the shtetl and a note of irony."-Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review"[Peretz's] works stand in brilliantly evocative tribute to a bygone era."-Publishers Weekly

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14561-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xxx)
    Ruth R. Wisse

    Isaac Leib Peretz was arguably the most important figure in the development of modern Jewish culture—and until 1939 one would not have had to argue the claim at all. Peretz dominated Jewish literary life in Warsaw almost from the moment he settled there in 1890 until his death on the fifth day of Passover, April 3, 1915, his influence radiating outward from the Polish capital to the growing centers of Jewish settlement worldwide. The estimated hundred thousand people who accompanied his remains to the Warsaw cemetery included delegates and representatives of every sector of Jewish life, testimony to his...

  5. Monish
    (pp. 1-16)

    With the poem “Monish” Peretz made his debut as a Yiddish writer in 1888. This story of a pious Jewish boy, autobiographically inspired, as Peretz tells us in his memoirs, comments on the crisis of the Jewish artist who succumbs to the powerful attraction of Christian culture. The original version contained a discursive passage about the constraints of the Yiddish language, which “has no words for sex appeal / and for such things as lovers feel.” Perhaps Peretz no longer felt these constraints as sharply in later years, because he omitted this passage in the final version of 1908, on...

  6. Impressions of a Journey through the Tomaszow Region
    (pp. 17-84)

    It was toward the end of the good times and the beginning of the bad times. The sky was blackening with clouds. The wind, or spirit—theZeitgeist—did not, as might be expected, dispel the clouds with ease, to pour out their hearts over some distant wilderness. In Europe’s carefully tended vineyard the gardeners paid no heed while a poisonous growth took root, cracked the earth, and sent forth its thorns. The nineteenth century in its old age appeared to have caught cold and to be running a slight fever. Nobody could imagine that this marked the onset of...

  7. Short Stories
    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 85-88)

      Peretz was best known as a writer of short stories, many of which were written for the miscellanies and periodicals that he edited and published himself. In the early 1890s he began contributing to the socialist Yiddish newspapers that had been founded in the United States, and when the Yiddish daily press exploded in Poland at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was one of its most sought-after contributors. He also wrote stories in Hebrew, and translated or supervised the translation of his work from one language to the other.

      Peretz used the story form for the most diverse...

      (pp. 88-93)

      In a little prayerhouse two young yeshiva students, Hayim and Zelig, were seated by the stove. Hayim was reading aloud from Zelig’s notebook and Zelig was listening while mending his shoe with a needle and thread.

      “‘… And beautiful was Hannah like Venus… .’ Tell me, Zelig, please, what does this word ‘Venus’ mean?” asked Hayim.

      “Venus is a mythological goddess,” answered Zelig, driving the needle into the shoe.

      “Mythology? What’s all that?”

      “You know nothing about that either? Think back a little: remember the strange-looking man who appeared a week ago wearing an apron and a red cap, the...

    • WHAT IS THE SOUL? The Story of a Young Man
      (pp. 93-104)

      I remember, as in a dream, that a small, thin man with a pointed beard used to walk around in our house. He used to hug and kiss me all the time.

      Afterward, I remember, this same little man was lying sick in bed. He groaned a lot, and my mother stood by, beating her head.

      Once I got up at night and saw the room full of people. A wailing cry frightened me and I began to scream. One of the men came over to me, dressed me, and took me to a neighbor’s house to sleep.

      The next...

      (pp. 104-118)

      He told me everything at once, in a single breath; within minutes I learned that his name is Chaim, that he is Yona Hrubeshover’s son-in-law, Berl Konskivoler’s son, and that the wealthy Merenstein from Lublin is related to him, an uncle on his mother’s side. This uncle, he gave me to understand, has an almost goyish household; perhaps he doesn’t go so far as to eat nonkosher food, but he himself saw him sit down to a meal without first washing his hands, as prescribed by ritual.

      They are very strange people, he intimated: they have long cloths laid out...

      (pp. 118-125)

      Bryna’s Mendl—there were no family names in those days—was a “tent dweller,” as it was said of Jacob:¹ he was a man who liked to devote his time to study. This meant that Mendl belonged to the spiritual elite of his town—more or less. He was not a great scholar, but he did recite psalms before praying, peruse theEyn Yakovafter praying, and in the evening read a chapter from the Mishna. Quite often he brought home a guest, and every morning he put money into the charity box of Rabbi Meir the Miracle Worker.² He...

      (pp. 125-127)

      A skeleton lies in bed, a skeleton in taut, dry, yellow skin. Mikhl the Musician is dying. On a crate beside him sits his wife, Mirl, with swollen eyes. Their eight sons, musicians like their father, crowd the narrow room. No one speaks. There is nothing to say. The doctor and the barber-surgeon have long since given up on the patient, and even Reuven of the almshouse, who is considered an expert on these matters, says he should be readied for the world to come.

      There will be no inheritance. The shrouds and grave site will be provided by the...

      (pp. 128-130)

      Three canaries, who had all once lived in the same house, were killed by the cat one after the other.

      This was no ordinary cat; she was a truly pious soul who did not wear her glossy Jewish white coat in vain. Heaven shone in her eyes! And devout! She lived for ablutions, washing herself ten times a day. And she always took her meals alone, silently, off to the side or in a corner. During the day she ate nothing but dairy products; only after dark did she taste meat, kosher mouse meat.

      She didn’t rush through her meal...

      (pp. 130-131)

      Great men were once able to perform great miracles.

      When the ghetto of Prague was under attack and marauders wanted to rape the women, roast the children, and murder everyone, when it seemed that all hope was lost, the Maharal Rabbi Judah Loew put aside his Gemara, went out into the street, and, from the first suitable mound of clay that he found in front of the school-teacher’s doorstep, molded the shape of a body. He blew into the golem’s nostrils—and it began to stir. Then he whispered a name into its ear, and our golem strode out of...

      (pp. 131-138)

      The rabbi of Chelm, in ragged fur cap and tattered satin robe, a tiny Jew with a prominent Adam’s apple and laughing gray eyes in a shriveled face.¹ … Between one talmudic problem and the next, the cheerful, gray-headed rabbi gets up, surveys with confidence the open Gemara through glasses on the tip of his nose, his shawl popping out of his chest, and, as his rightful share of worldly pleasures, takes up the wooden snuffbox.

      A softhearted person, a being contented with his lot, he smiles at the snuffbox and taps on the cover, drumming lightly with his small...

    • THE POOR BOY A Story Told by a “Committee Man”
      (pp. 138-145)

      He runs after me with a doglike entreaty in his burning eyes; he kisses my sleeve—it doesn't help! “My income doesn’t permit such daily handouts!”

      “Poor people,” I think, leaving the soup kitchen where I had treated the beggar boy so harshly. “Poor people quickly become a nuisance.”

      The first time I saw the dirty, skinny little face, with its sunken, blazing, sad, but clever eyes, it went straight to my heart. Before I even heard him speak, my heart began to ache, and a ten-groschen coin flew out of my pocket into his skinny hands.

      I remember distinctly...

      (pp. 146-152)

      Here on earth the death of Bontshe Shvayg made no impression. Try asking who Bontshe was, how he lived, what he died of (Did his heart give out? Did he drop from exhaustion? Did he break his back beneath too heavy a load?), and no one can give you an answer. For all you know, he might have starved to death.

      The death of a tram horse would have caused more excitement. It would have been written up in the papers; hundreds of people would have flocked to see the carcass, or even the place where it lay. But that’s...

      (pp. 152-156)

      When times are bad even Torah—that best of merchandise—finds no takers.

      The Lashchev yeshiva was reduced to Reb Yekel, its master, and a single student.

      Reb Yekel is a thin old man with a long, disheveled beard and eyes dulled with age. His beloved remaining pupil, Lemech, is a tall, thin young man with a pale face, black, curly sidelocks, black, feverish eyes, parched lips, and a tremulous, pointed Adam’s apple. Both are dressed in rags, and their chests are exposed for lack of shirts. Only with difficulty does Reb Yekel drag the heavy peasant boots he wears;...

      (pp. 156-162)

      Reb Oyzer Hofenshtand was, may God protect him, a very rich man, perhaps even a millionaire. He had a say in the affairs of this world—and in the affairs of the next world, even more so.

      Here he is sitting at table having his dinner.

      And what a table it is! Would that all who wished me well had such a table. The feast begins with herring, pilchards, and sardines. The silverware—as plentiful as if it were wood—glitters on the table and gleams in the open credenza. On the walls all around the room hang about ten...

      (pp. 162-171)

      Once, while traveling through the provinces in connection with a Jewish census, I came across a Jew trudging along a sandy road. He was dragging one foot after another as though each step were his last, and I felt so sorry for him that I offered him a ride. At once, sitting himself down beside me with a “How do you do?” he began to inquire about the latest news from civilization.

      “Where are you from, my friend?” I asked him.

      “From a dead town,” he replied.

      I assumed he was joking.

      “Exactly where is this town?” I asked. “In...

      (pp. 171-178)

      My uncle’s name was Shakhne and my aunt’s name was Yakhne.

      Whether this was purposely arranged by a special providence to spare me the trouble of thinking up rhymes for their names if I should decide to write a poem about them, or whether it was purely accidental, I don’t know! The truth is that if a special providencehaddedicated itself to providing me continuously with rhymes, I would never write prose at all—only bad rhymes. And then there would be nothing for a literary annual. Readers want only prose, and ordinary prose at that, nothing complicated—“like...

      (pp. 178-181)

      Early every Friday morning, at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the rabbi of Nemirov would vanish.

      He was nowhere to be seen—neither in the synagogue nor in the two study houses nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. His door stood open: whoever wished could go in and out; no one would steal from the rabbi. But not a living creature was within.

      Where could the rabbi be? Where should he be? In heaven, no doubt. A rabbi has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe. Jews, God...

      (pp. 181-184)

      The day was warm, as befitting a holiday, and two men set out for a walk outside the town—Shakhne, tall and lean, among the last of the old followers of the rebbe of Kotsk, and Zerakh, also lean, but short, a relic of the old Hasidim of Belz.¹ As young men they had been sworn enemies. Shakhne had led the Kotsk Hasidim in their fight against the Belzers; Zerakh, the Belz Hasidim against the followers of Kotsk. Now that the dynasty of Kotsk was no longer in its glory and Belz too had lost its fire, the two old...

      (pp. 184-195)

      You have certainly heard of the Brisker rov and the Bialer rebbe.¹ But not everyone knows that the saintly rebbe of Biala, Reb Noahke, had originally been a distinguished pupil of the Brisker rov, and only after studying with the rov for many years had he disappeared, remaining in self-imposed exile for several years before surfacing again in Biala.²

      Reb Noahke had left for the following reason: At the yeshiva of Brisk, they had studied Torah, but the rebbe felt that the Torah they studied was sterile. For instance, they learned the laws governing the conduct of women, or the...

      (pp. 196-200)

      Es iz yahdua lakol—the whole world knows of the joy with which the rebbe of Nemirov, of blessed memory, would worship: like sunbeams flooding the earth, making us Jews forget our exile and our sorrow, making us forget ourselves, making all souls pour into the flame of his being. What burning joy! Some zaddikim know this joy on the Sabbath and holidays—the Vonvolitzer rebbe, of blessed memory, knew it at the close of Yom Kippur—and others at a holiday meal, after the conclusion of the study of a tractate, at a circumcision; but our rebbe, of blessed...

      (pp. 200-212)

      He strolled along the bank of the Vistula, thinking, “Today she will come.”

      And so thinking, he saw it all in the most vivid colors: He is sitting on the bed in his room, in the darkness, waiting. Every sound on the stairs makes his heart beat faster, and he asks himself, “Why? I’m not in love with her, am I?”

      And then it is really she; he recognizes the light, swimming step. He gets up and kindles the lamp on the table. She, meanwhile, pauses on the other side of the door. She is catching her breath; the flight...

      (pp. 212-218)

      Reb Nakhmanke¹ told the story on a Sabbath evening, a few weeks after he had been “revealed”—that is, made manifest to the world in his capacity as zaddik.

      The revealing of the zaddik is—or was—usually accidental, and certainly unsought. It goes something like this: A man or a woman in trouble will come to the zaddik and seek his advice; it may be concerning a match for his daughter, a remedy for the prevention of childlessness or illness, or merely a matter of a livelihood. The zaddik, whose spirit has been sojourning in the upper spheres, cannot...

      (pp. 218-222)

      A magician once came to a town in Volhynia.

      Although he arrived in the hectic days before Passover, when a Jew has more worries than hairs on his head, the newcomer made a great impression. Indeed, he was a walking mystery: he was dressed in rags but wore a creased yet still serviceable top hat, and while God had given him a clearly Jewish nose, his face was as clean-shaven as a Christian’s. He had no travel papers either, and was never observed to touch food, whether kosher or treyf. It was anyone’s guess who he was. If you asked...

      (pp. 222-230)

      Once, long ago, a Jew died somewhere in this world.

      Well, when a Jew dies, he dies. No ones lives forever. He was given a proper funeral and buried with all the honors.

      The gravestone was laid in place, a son said the Mourner’s Prayer, and the dead man’s soul flew up to heaven to be tried by a tribunal of angels.

      It arrived to find the balance used for weighing good and bad deeds already waiting for it.

      The counsel for the defense, who was none other than the dead man’s former conscience, stepped up with a snow-white bag...

      (pp. 230-242)

      A very long time ago in a village a few miles from Prague, there lived a Jew, a certain Yekhiel-Mikhl, who kept the local tavern.

      The landlord of the village was not an ordinary nobleman, but rather a count of great repute, so that Yekhiel-Mikhl made a plentiful living, as they say, “with something to spare.” He became a great personage, a man who dispensed both charity and hospitality. On the High Holy Days, Yekhiel-Mikhl would journey to Prague and there spend money with a free hand. Nor was Yekhiel-Mikhl an ignorant man. While in Prague he became something of...

      (pp. 242-250)

      This story comes down from the mighty scholar, the great light in Israel, “the Sojourner Among the Living,” so called, like many others of his kind, after the name of his most famous work.

      Early one cold and windy morning the Sojourner sat with his colleagues and pupils in the study house. They had just finished the morning prayers and each of them had picked up a sacred book for study. Scarcely had they settled to their task when they heard from outside a voice proclaiming, “Charity averts death,” and the ringing of a chanty box—the immemorial accompaniments of...

      (pp. 251-258)

      Satan, the Evil One, the Enemy of Mankind, the Tempter and Destroyer, sat one day in his private office, idly examining his account book. He sat at ease, one leg dangling over the other, a kindly,complacent smile on his lips; and his fingers turned at random the leaves, which bore the names of all the living souls on earth.

      And then suddenly his complacency vanished and he clapped his palms together: he had come upon the page bearing the name of the rabbi of Chelm, and it was as blank as blank could be.

      At the sound of the clapped...

      (pp. 258-262)

      Once, on a perfectly ordinary day, without a fair or even an auction, a clatter of wheels and a spatter of mud aroused the merchants in the marketplace. Who, they wondered, could it be? It was a horse-drawn carriage. As soon as they saw it, though, they turned away in fear and revulsion. Both horse and carriage were well known. They belonged to a police informer from the neighboring town who was on his way to the provincial capital. God only knew who would be the victim of his talebearing this time.

      All of a sudden, the noise stopped. Involuntarily,...

  8. My Memoirs
    (pp. 263-360)

    I was, as everyone said, a prodigy. I had a quick, logical mind and was very emotional. How are the two things connected? They aren’t. They don’t mix at all. A logical brain and a heart full of feeling are two litigating parties in the creature who the sages tell us was “born to die.”¹

    Just between us, I tried to sketch myself in the poem “Monish.” But I improved on my looks. Unlike Monish, I was thin and dark, though I did have large, burning eyes (sparks of which remain). The boy with the penetrating mind—“However stony the...

  9. A Night in the Old Marketplace
    (pp. 361-432)

    1) The synagogue or shul. An old, low building with gray walls. Its windows, rounded at the top, are mostly broken. On its heavy, oddly misshapen roof is a weather vane in the form of a tin rooster with tattered wings. Stairs run down from ground level to a heavy iron gate.

    2) The synagogue street.

    3) The study house. It is entered by a door in a peeling old wall facing the street. Its old, freshly patched roof slants toward the marketplace. Its windows are long and rectangular.

    4) The ruin. Half a gate hangs askew in its entrance....

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 433-440)
    Hillel Halkin

    Every translation, if it is any challenge at all, has a dominant problem. Even before I began to work onA Night in the Old Marketplace, I could see that this was going to be the rhyme. If I could cope with that, the rest would take care of itself. If not, nothing else would help.

    Of course, being entirely serendipitous, a matter of chance combinations of words that occur in only one language, rhyme is always a vexation for verse translators. There tend to be two schools in regard to it, one holding that it is a hopeless task...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 441-456)
  12. Glossary
    (pp. 457-462)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 463-465)