Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Peretz by Ruth R. Wisse

I.L.Peretz (b 1852) dominated Jewish literary life in Warsaw almost from the moment he settled there until his death on the fifth day of Passover, April 3, 1915, his influence radiating outward from the Polish capital to growing centers of Jewish settlement worldwide. . . .

Once the premise of Jewish election was exposed to the beysmedresh, the study house of European culture, many disillusioned youngsters turned their intelligence against the way of life to which it had been consecrated, and tried to liberate themselves simultaneously from an onerous code of behavior and from a despised people. The political handicap of the Jews meant that intellectual realignment with Christian civilization –which was in  any case itself turning secular – also became the key to tangible social and economic temptation.

Peretz  understood the temptation. In his own native city  of Zamosc, along with genuine Jewish reformers, there were converts and highly assimilated Jews, like the well-to do father of Rosa Luxemburg. When Rosa, almost twenty years Peretz’s junior, helped to found the Social Democratic Party of Poland, she advertised her lack of interest in Jews through a Marxist program strenuously opposed to Jewish peoplehood, and to any notion of a Jewish national culture. Peretz was later to write about  ‘the paths that led away from Jewishness,” which attracted those who wanted to revolutionize society as well as those who aspired to rise in it.

Through out the 1890s  Peretz was involved with socialist politics. His stories and publications were credited with bringing many young Jews into the ranks of the emerging socialist movement . . .but, despite his wholehearted sympathy for the oppressed, Peretz was not satisfied by the ideological prescriptions for the reordering of society. No sooner did the Jewish political parties begin to crystallize and to turn their vague protests and aspirations into fixed party platforms than he rebelled against their materialist constraints, and in the dialectical pattern that characterized both his life and work, came to the rescue of the threatened spiritual values. Attracted as he was by some of the egalitarian and liberal aspirations of socialism, he feared that the systematic reapportionment of wealth would stifle individuality and encroach on the freedom of the creative spirit. The rule of the many could become even more oppressive than the rule of the few. He wrote to the movement after the abortive revolution of 1905 had shown the strength of the revolutionary cadres:

I worry that as victors you may become the bureaucracy, apportioning to each his morsel as to inmates in a poor house, allotting work like a sentence of hard labor. You will destroy that creator of new worlds- the human spirit. You will plug up the purest well of human happiness – initiative- the force that is able to pit a single human life against thousands. You will mechanize life .  .  . you will be occupied with regulations . . .no stomach will be empty, yet the mind will be famished.

These fears were sharpened by his concern for the creative vitality of the Jews, because if human needs could be satisfied through the redistribution of wealth alone, why shouldn’t  a  speed up the process by dissolving his particular identity? Peretz was far from persuaded by the necessity of class conflict, and unwilling to assist in the dissolution of the Jews towards any such higher end. In 1899 he was arrested and briefly imprisoned for anti-tsarist activity, but at the very moment when he was enshrined as a political martyr, he used some of his time in prison to write neoromantic tales extolling the glories of the Jewish spirit. And despite the swell of criticism that they aroused among some of the younger revolutionaries, these modern folktales and retold Hasidic stories became his most popular works.

Hasidic tales were nothing new. The inspirational religious leaders of what came to be known as the Hasidic movement had used the miracle tale and the exemplum to inspire faith and piety in their followers, who, in turn, traded stories about the virtues and miracles of their respective rebbes and zaddikim. Thus, as Hasidism swept Poland in the late eighteenth century, it generated a vast fund of legends and music. But a century later these same Hasidim and their charismatic leaders had come to represent for the modernizing Jews the embodiment of everything most corrupt and reactionary in Jewish life. Reformist writers, including  Peretz himself, had mocked the corruption that was known to infect the courts of the rabbis and the attribution to these faith healers of supernatural powers. In fact, in his political essays and news columns Peretz never ceased to criticize the Hasidim for their fundamentalist beliefs and their resistance to change.

Now, however, along with this critical view, Peretz was among the first to recognize in the ideals of the early Hasidic masters, and in the web of legends that had been spun about them, models of spiritual independence that the Jews of his time were otherwise lacking. All around him in Warsaw and in Poland he observed the pace of linguistic adaptation ton Russian and Polish at the expense of Yiddish and Hebrew, the flight of the young to America – or to Palestine or Argentina – and the recklessness with which a new generation was quitting what centuries of Jewish civilization had so painstakingly, and at such sacrifice accumulated. Like an engineer who has tried to stoke a recalcitrant engine, only to see it hurtling down an incline out of control, Peretz tried to retard it, then at least to warn against its runaway abandon.

Despite a superficial similarity to their Hasidic sources, Peretz’s stories present the familiar material from a modern perspective. “If Not Higher,” one of the earliest and perhaps the most famous of the neo-Hasidic stories, is told by a skeptical Jew from Lithuania who is so eager to disprove local legends about the rabbi Of Nemirov that he hides under his bed to check things out for himself. The rabbi’s Hasidic followers believe that when he disappears every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper, he ascends to heaven  to plead on their behalf with God. The skeptical sleuth discovers that the rabbi is assuming the disguise of a woodcutter in order to perform anonymous acts of charity. He becomes the rabbi’s disciple, and thereafter, if anyone speaks of the holy man’s ascent to heaven, he softly adds, “if not higher.”

If faith in the Jewish God was no longer possible, Peretz expected Jews to continue to honor the exalted moral tradition that derived from faith. Somewhat like the Lithuanian in the story, he tracked the faithful, persuaded that their human values were on the one hand superior to the religious impulse that had shaped them, yet on the other hand superior to values that could be arrived at through reason alone. The pointed conclusion to the story attributes a “higher value” to earthly goodness than to its heavenly inspiration, but without repudiating the power of that inspiration. Peretz had come to the paradoxical conclusion that in order to improve the material lot of the Jews he would have to continue to nurture their spiritual-religious heritage. 

The passion for folklore was already highly developed in Poland, where it also served as a kind of substitute for national autonomy. In addition to nostalgia for folk culture that was characteristic of every industrializing society, subject minorities like the Poles of the Jews could use their folk sources to express the will to national resurgence.  Inspired by the work of Polish ethnographers  (some of whom appreciated the Jewish component of Polish lore), Peretz determined to gather every kind of Jewish folk expression and to instill in his followers an appreciation of their native culture. When aspiring writers came to see him with the first samples of their work, he would question them about their background, ask them to sing the songs and tell the stories of their homes, encourage them to collect all they could. In this way he accumulated material for his own writing and directed them to where Jewish inspiration might be found. .  .  .


  1. yes, I must read this man's work immediately. very relevant to my current project.

  2. Nice Post & Good article.
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