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About the Author
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 drama A Night in the Old Marketplace, in a rhymed, performable translation by Hillel Halkin.
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The I. L. Peretz Reader
By Ruth R. Wisse
Yale University PressCopyright © 2002 the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature
All rights reserved.
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 ends. He wrote mood pieces to express a gnawing dissatisfaction that afflicted him all his life. His sharp exposures of poverty and suffering introduced a new standard of realism into Yiddish literature. He wrote satires, skirting the censor through the use of fables or veiled allusions. By the turn of the century Peretz was less concerned about abuses within Jewish society, the main focus of his writing in the 1890s, than he was about defections from Jewish society on the part of young Jews espousing internationalist ideologies or simply drifting into assimilation. He wrote stories dramatizing the moral attainments of the Jewish way of life, the vigor of Jewish debate, the charm of Jewish folklore, the troubling grandeur of Jewish history.
In an attempt to explain the contradictory impulses in Peretz's writing, some critics have tried to periodize the stories, tracing a progression from the radical Peretz of the early period to the neoromantic of the later years. Although Peretz did constantly shift his attention to whatever problems seemed most immediate, all his work was characterized by a dialectical tension between the romantic and rational impulses of his character, between cosmopolitan, worldly yearnings and practical Jewish concerns, between personal erotic desire and public accountability. These struggles are not always resolved in the stories, even in those that appear to be most pointed and straightforward.
Like all Yiddish writers of his generation, Peretz struggled to find a natural narrative voice in what was still a raw literary language. In the story "Stories" he treats the psychological and creative dilemma of the estranged Jewish writer who cannot write authentically for either Jews or Gentiles. But even the narrators of such apparently folkish stories as "Three Gifts" or "If Not Higher" stand somewhat apart from the worlds they are describing, and comment on their subjects from various angles and degrees of distance. The final story of the collection, "Yom Kippur in Hell," may be read as a parable of the modern writer who happens to have a "divine" voice, an accidental asset that he turns into a moral cause.
The stories appear in the order of their original appearance in Yiddish, with dates given. In the case of two stories that originally appeared in somewhat different form in Hebrew, the translations are based on the Yiddish version, and both dates are supplied.
VENUS AND SHULAMITH
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 one who sold licorice cookies and other such things for practically nothing?"
"He was a Greek and there is a whole group of people called Greeks."
"And they all sell licorice cookies?"
"Don't be silly, they have their own land: Greece. They are an ancient people, mentioned in the Bible. Their land is called in Hebrew lavan and they are called Ivanim."
"What? lavan? And from this comes Ivan in the Russian?"
"God forbid! Greeks are Greeks, with their own kingdom. They once were a very strong and learned people. I'm sure you've heard of Aristotle and Socrates. Our talmudic sages and even Maimonides knew about them. Aristotle, for example, believed the world was created out of chaos. Such were the Greeks. And even though they were very learned and knew how to paint, sculpt, carve, and appreciate fine things, they were nothing but idol worshipers serving false gods."
"So you see, the stories and tales of the gods, of the idols, are called mythology."
"Well then, what is Venus?"
"Understand that with the Greeks each trade and each craft had its own god. Just as we say that each people has its own genius, such as sculpture, poetry, beauty, health, prowess ..."
"And they all have gods? Then what do you mean by 'goddess'?
A little god?"
"No. A god is a he and a goddess is a she."
"What? They allowed unmarried women to roam about in heaven?"
"Oh, Hayim, why only men and not women?"
"It's true, Zelig, but I thought that gods should be neither male nor female."
"Hayim, you must understand that Greek gods are just like humans, with the difference that they are immortal. Therefore, they have children, wives, and mistresses just like us, only they never die! Even Jupiter, the greatest of their gods, who holds thunder in his hands and makes all the other gods tremble with fright, even he is only a henpecked husband. To his wife, Juno, he's like a little Hebrew teacher snubbed by the rabbi's wife. I told you once about the philosopher Socrates' wife, Xanthippe, the shrew. Why, she was small fry compared to Juno! If you could imagine how Jupiter suffered at her hands! At least ten times a day he wished he was dead. But it's impossible, he can never die."
"I get the point. And Venus?"
"Venus is the goddess of beauty. Now I'll read to you about her life."
Zelig put aside the half-mended shoe, drew out a soiled piece of paper from his breast pocket, and began to read from it.
"'Venus, Aphrodite, Apogenena, Pontogenea, Andiametha ...'"
"I don't understand a word you are saying," said Hayim, bewildered.
"Little fool. Those are the names by which Venus was known in the various parts of Greece and later in Rome."
"She has more names than Adam. What's the use of all these names? Get to the story."
Zelig continued reading: "'Under her many appellations she was held sacred as the goddess of love in various towns and cities.'"
"No longer of beauty?"
"It's all the same! 'She was not born of a mother but sprang forth from the sea. She is the ideal image of womanhood and very alluring as well.'"
"'Alluring'? What does that mean?"
"It means she knows how to entice everyone, excite them, and get them hot, etc."
"'She was represented as either scantily dressed or entirely naked.'"
"That doesn't sound so good."
"'Her husband was Vulcan.'"
"What manner of beast is that?"
"Another god, a god of fire similar to Tubal-Cain. He invented the forging of iron and founded the blacksmith's trade. Understand?"
"A little ..."
"'But she had no children by him.' Gods do not divorce or marry according to the laws of holy matrimony. 'Therefore, she had children by other gods and even by mortals.'"
"Just like that? Do you know what they call such children? Bastards, that's what they're called!"
"Don't be a fool, Hayim! Gods are not bound by the laws of marriage, sanctity, or divorce. They have no shame about sexual things or having bastards."
"Of course, if you don't accept the laws, why pay them lip service? If you don't wash your hands, why say the blessings? But you said she lay with mortals too?"
"Well, what about it? Didn't some of our own saintly men, mentioned in Scripture, go in for—"
"Read on, read on!"
"'She had two children by Mars—'"
"No, not Morris, Mars, the god Mars, the god of war! Two by Bacchus, the god who oversees the making of wine and other spirits.'"
"He must be like Lot, a real drunk."
"'Two by Mercury—'"
"And who is he?"
"Mercury is the god of swindlers, traders, and messengers."
"Quite an unsavory pair."
"'And one by Anchises, a mortal whom Venus, disguised as a shepherdess, happened to meet near a river. A child was born from that encounter. Once the following incident took place. A band of cutthroats chased Venus. She took refuge in a cave and called for Hercules.'"
"A powerful god, not quite a full god but only a demigod. All by himself, he cleaned out thirty-six stalls in a stable."
"Get to the point, Zelig; this is becoming irritating and a little confusing."
"'Hercules came into the cave and let each cutthroat enter one by one. He settled accounts with each in turn.'"
"'Venus used to take revenge on people who spurned love. She metamorphosed townspeople into oxen.'"
"Enough," blurted Hayim, jumping out of his chair. "Enough! I'm absolutely sick. This you call a goddess! And she had a thousand men massacred, run through, and slaughtered! And she gives herself to adultery, whoring, and murder! It's sickening!"
Hayim spat and Zelig stood foaming with rage.
"Do you know what you are saying and spitting at?" Zelig shouted.
"You are taking a nice garment, turning it inside out, and making it into a clown's outfit. I used Venus only as a comparison, an ideal figure in a particular setting, as, for instance, Shulamith in the Song of Songs."
"And that is an accurate comparison? Really! You should be ashamed of yourself, Zelig. As if they were alike! Her brothers called her into their vineyards, so she neglected her own vineyard. Her face is swarthy but not like a gypsy. Her neck is like fine marble. She smells sweeter than all the fields, woods, and gardens. She does not glance up from bashfulness and does not swell with pride like a turkey cock. She looks straight ahead and has nothing to be ashamed of. She has fine, warm, and sincere eyes like two pretty doves. And she has lips—two thin, red feathers! She never sneers with her little mouth or makes ugly faces. She speaks openly and honey flows from her mouth. You know very well that she does not make any evil thoughts come into your head; on the contrary, you forget about whatever you were thinking. She casts her eyes upon you and your own turn away like a thief. Your very heart begins to quiver and tremble like a freshly killed hen. She is simple, pure, and clean as the new-fallen snow. As the summer comes forth, so new life returns to the field and the garden. The turtledove begins to coo, the flowers begin to bud, the fig tree blossoms, the grapes sparkle. Everything comes back to life, everything awakens to a new life, and her heart knows a new sensation. A new feeling suddenly comes over her with intense power. Stronger than death is her love, deeper than hell is her jealousy; and her love is forever. Rivers cannot carry it off, the sea itself cannot extinguish it. She has but one love, a young, handsome shepherd. She does not know that the shepherd wears a crown on his head, and that he is the greatest king in the world. She is simple, open, and noble. She cannot assume a role, or act fickle. It hurts her that he is not her brother from the same father and mother so that she can kiss him openly and freely on all the streets. Such is Shulamith. She is the ideal of a true Jewish maiden. Not like your Venus, that hussy!"
"You are forgetting one thing," interrupted Zelig. "You forget that everything called mythology is just fables that contain hidden philosophic and religious thoughts."
"Oh no, it's you that have the argument backward. It's just the opposite. How can profound thoughts be clothed in shabby examples? How can one wrap diamonds in dirty rags? And do you think we Jews do not read the Song of Songs as a parable? Isn't Solomon the Almighty Himself? And isn't Shulamith the Jewish people, the innocent but persecuted Jewish people! But why all these hidden meanings? Shulamith is Shulamith and Venus is ... Why, there are a hundred thousand million differences between them. It's not even worth talking about. Do you hear, Zelig! Blot her out! Erase her name from your book and write the name of ... what's the name of the girl you are describing? Hannah, wasn't it?"
"Yes, so write that she was as beautiful as ... No, don't write anything! You hear? Don't you dare! It would be impudent of you. Let your Hannah be compared to whomever you like: to Miriam with her timbrel, to Abigail, to Rehavah, to Delilah, even to Queen Esther; but not to Shulamith! No one can be compared to her, absolutely no one, you hear?"
1889 (translated by Seth L. Wolitz)
WHAT IS THE SOUL?
The Story of a Young Man
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 day I didn't recognize our house: straw lay strewn on the floor, the mirror was turned around to face the wall, the hanging lamp was covered with a tablecloth, and my mother was sitting in her stocking feet on a small stool on the floor. When she saw me, she let out a terrible cry, and began to wail: "The orphan, the orphan!"
A light was burning in the window. Near it stood a glass of water, and a piece of cloth was hanging there. I was told that my father had died, that his soul washed itself in the glass of water and dried itself on the cloth, that if I did a good job of saying the Kaddish, his soul would fly straight up to heaven.
And I imagined that the soul was a little bird.
Once the teacher's assistant was escorting me home. Several birds flew quite low and near us. "Souls are flying, souls are flying!" I sang to myself.
The assistant looked around. "You foolish boy," he said to me, "those are ordinary birds!"
Afterward I asked my mother: "How can you tell the difference between a soul and an ordinary bird?"
When I was fourteen years old, I was already studying the Talmud with commentaries at the home of Zorakh Pinch.
To this day I don't know whether that was really his name, or whether his students gave him this nickname because he pinched us without mercy. He didn't even wait until you deserved to be pinched—he paid in advance. "Remind me," he said. "I'll deduct it from the next time!"
Since he also performed circumcisions, he had a pointed fingernail which he used during the ceremony. This meant that you felt his pinches all the way down to your toes.
He used to say: "Don't cry over nothing! I only pinch your body! What harm can it do you if the worms in the grave will have less to eat?"
"The body," Zorakh Pinch said, "is only dust and ashes, and you will see the proof if you rub your hands together." We tried it and we saw for ourselves that the body really is dust and ashes.
"And what is the soul?" I asked.
"Something spiritual!" the teacher answered.
Zorakh Pinch hated his wife with a passion, but his only daughter, Shprintse, was the apple of his eye. We students hated Shprintse because she used to tell on us to her father. But we loved the teacher's wife because she sold us beans and peas on credit, and more than once she saved us from the teacher's hands.
I was her favorite. I used to get the biggest portion, and when the teacher started up with me, she would shout: "Murderer, what do you want from an orphan? His father's soul will take vengeance on you!" The teacher let me be, and his wife got what was meant for me.
Once, I remember, on a winter night, I came home from school so thoroughly pinched and frostbitten that my whole skin ached. I raised my eyes to heaven and prayed: "Dear Father! Take vengeance on Zorakh Pinch! ... Lord in Heaven, what does he want from my soul?!"
I had forgotten that he pinched only my body.
As it says in the Talmud, "A man is not held responsible for what he says when in distress."
Excerpted from The I. L. Peretz Reader by Ruth R. Wisse. Copyright © 2002 the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Impressions of a Journey Through Tomaszow Region,
Venus and Shulamith,
What Is the Soul?,
In the Mail Coach?,
A Musician's Death,
The Pious Cat,
The Shabbes Goy,
The Pooy Boy,
A Contribution for a Wedding,
The Dead Town,
Uncle Shakhne and Aunt Yakhne,
If Not Higher,
Between Two Mountains,
The Missing Melody,
Revelation, or The Story of the Billy Goat,
A Chapter of the Psalms,
A Pinch of Snuff,
Yom Kippur in Hell,
1. Childhood and Childhood Teachers,
2. More Hazy Years,
4. Haskalah. A Libel.,
A Night in the Old Marketplace,
Afterword by Hillel Halkin,
What People are Saying About This
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