While Peretz (1852-1915), who was the central figure of Yiddish culture in Poland and, along with Shalom Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Seforim, was also one of the key founders of modern Yiddish literature and an important figure in Hebrew literature as well. A prolific and versatile writer who introduced new literary forms and adapted the short story and symbolic drama into Yiddish and Hebrew literatures, he regarded the essence of Jewish literature as being grounded in Jewish traditions and Jewish history and as the expression of Jewish ideals. Unlike most other writers of the Haskalah (the Jewish “Enlightenment”), he had great respect for Chassidic Jews and often used Chassidic folktales as a vehicle to express his own beliefs and views – particularly interesting given that his pious father was staunchly anti-Chassidic.
Peretz, who was broadly seen as the literary voice of the Jewish working class in Eastern Europe, was much beloved because of his sensitive and compassionate championing of the cause of the oppressed. In the midst of wretched poverty, he discovered and presented moral beauty as well as deep mystical truths in the life and faith of the poor, the ignorant, and the simple and, urging his readers never to be content with mere survival, he awakened in them the will for self-emancipation and resistance.
Although he published his first book of Hebrew poetry in 1877, Peretz began by writing most his works in Polish and he maintained a negative attitude toward Yiddish until the 1881 pogroms, after which Jewish nationalism rose and Yiddish became central to his oeuvre. His first poem, Monish (1888), a sentimental and ironic poetic ballad that became a milestone in the development of Yiddish literature, was published in Shalom Aleichem’s landmark anthology, Di Yidishe Folksbibliotek (Jewish People’s Library).
Peretz went on to preach the importance of the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature. He gathered together Yiddish intellectuals and assisted and promoted Yiddish writers, and his home became the unofficial center of the new wave of Yiddish writers. He initiated a Yiddish dramatic group within Hazomir (“The Nightingale”), an association for Jewish music and literature, which became a lively cultural center of pre-World War I Yiddish Warsaw.
Peretz was very much a product of the struggle between traditional Orthodoxy and the emerging Haskalah. Born in Zamość in southeastern Poland, he was raised in a strictly Orthodox home, received a traditional Jewish education in Hebrew and rabbinic texts, and was fervently observant. For a short time after his bar mitzvah, he studied at traditional yeshivot in Zamość and Szczebrzeszyn and, recognized as a prodigy, he was expected to become a rabbinical scholar.
However, Zamość was an important center of the Haskalah and Peretz’s father, a Talmudic scholar in his own right and the son of the famous Penei Yehoshua (R. Yaakov Yehoshua Katz), slowly became an “enlightened” Jew who, when his wife refused to permit their son to attend a secular high school, provided him with Russian, Polish, German, and French tutors. As a result, the young Peretz became exposed to and enamored with classic secular European literature and enlightenment philosophy and he adopted a secular life. Nonetheless, his approach was to fuse Jewish traditionalism with Western liberal humanism, secular idealism, and intellectual modernism as he worked to structure an anti-assimilationist path for enlightened Jews to live secular lives while also maintaining fidelity to their Jewish identities.
However, he developed a deep enmity for traditional Orthodoxy, which he characterized as childish and fatuous and which played a key role in his thinking and writing. For example, his short stories such as If Not Higher, The Treasure, and Beside the Dying emphasize the importance of sincere piety rather than empty religiosity and, in The Argument, he criticizes Zionist ideology as having become “infantile” after its capture by Orthodox Jewish leaders. Similarly, in Bontshe Shvayg (“Bontshe the Silent”), perhaps his best-known story, when an extremely meek, downtrodden, passive, and ignorant Orthodox Jew ascends to heaven and is offered anything – anything – he wants, he asks for what was to him inconceivable: a hot roll with fresh butter. Bontshe strongly affected working class Jews and played an important role in turning them to Peretz’s socialism.
In One Guy Swindles the Other (1895), Peretz irreverently scorns the cynicism of modern secular Zionists in striking a “devil’s bargain” with Orthodox Jewish leaders to advance their political goals. The story tells the tale of Gavriel, a devout Orthodox Jew who, with the encouragement of the Zionists, had made aliyah only to have his ten sons die in Eretz Yisrael, and it is only later that he understands that he had been misled by the Zionists into believing that there are no pogroms in Eretz Yisrael. After returning to Eastern Europe, he encounters three secular “enlightened” emissaries and is shocked to see them adopting the mantle of Jewish piety, including wearing head coverings and expounding on the eternity of the Holy Torah and the Holy Jewish People. He originally views them as frauds, but ultimately is misled into being convinced of their sincerity.
Starting at age 18, Peretz embarked upon various business ventures, including a failed attempt to make a living distilling whiskey and working as a Hebrew tutor. In 1878, he passed the attorney’s examination and successfully practiced law in Zamość for the next ten years, until the Imperial Russian authorities arrested him for delivering a lecture in support of striking workers, accused him of promoting socialist and Polish nationalist ideas, jailed him for three months, and revoked his license. He moved to Warsaw where, as part of a group of surveyors, he visited many small towns and villages in Tomaszow province and collected information about Jewish lives there. His impressions of these expeditions are reflected in Pictures from a Provincial Journey (1891), in which he described in detail the bitter poverty in the Pale of Settlement. He also secured a permanent position in charge of burial sites of the Warsaw Jewish community, a position he held until his death.
Peretz doubted that an ancient tongue could be revived or that an ancient country could be reborn; his nationalism did not include a homeland or territory and he believed that the proposal to create a Jewish spiritual center in Eretz Yisrael was an elitist fantasy unrelated to the pressing needs of Eastern European Jews. He wrote about the positive effect of exile on Jewish consciousness and believed that progressivism would benefit Jews far more than having their own country; as he wrote in 1891, “our national goal is cosmopolitan and there is reason to fear that when we arrive in the Holy Land, we will lose our enlightenment and our free spirit and become fanatics and reactionaries.”
In 1893, Peretz published Hekht (“pike fish”), the story of pike, purchased by a Jewish family for a festive meal, who struggle to escape their fate and return home to the river from whence they came. Bemoaning the fact that the memory of their “homeland” has been forgotten by so many of their kind, a few “brave” carp concoct a plan to jump out of the bowl but, when they do so, they have only a few moments to realize that their plan was suicidal. The story ends with a debate by the surviving carp in the bowl regarding how many further live offerings must be made to effect a successful escape to the river. Peretz later confirmed that the story is a Zionist allegory: the pike were members of Chovevei Tzion (“Lovers of Zion”), a leading group of organizations founded in 1881 that became the forerunner and foundation-builder of modern Zionism, and the Jews would similarly be committing suicide by pursuing their false hopes in Eretz Yisrael instead of working to improve their lives in the Diaspora.
In In Eyrope Un Bay Undz Hintern Oyvn, Peretz equates the Chovevei Tzion practice of selling land in Eretz Yisrael to poor Eastern European Jews to the practices of Chelm, the fabled town of Jewish idiots and fools. And in Literature and Life (1894), a vicious anti-Zionist screed, he illustrates Chovevei Tzion as a cunning multi-headed dragon who spreads its contradictory messages to confuse the Jewish people and to take control of them; anyone who foolishly follows the lead of either the dragon or Chovevei Tzion will ultimately get burned to a crisp.
However, Peretz also wrote stories that praised Chovevei Tzion – and he even helped to establish a chapter of the organization in Zamość in his early years. In his Hebrew pamphlet, Even V’Even, Eyfa V’Eyfa (“Stone and Stone, Double Standard”), he approvingly describes soliciting wealthy Jews for contributions to Chovevei Tzion. In 1892, only a year before issuing the anti-Zionist Hekht, he published Manginat Ha-Zman (“The Melody of our Age”), an almost messianic Hebrew pro-Chovevei Tzion publicity piece in which he describes the yearning for Eretz Yisrael in unambiguous terms and characterizes neglecting Zion as a grave sin.
In general, after the rise of Herzl and the First Zionist Congress (1897), Peretz seems to have developed a renewed respect of sorts for traditional Jewish values and, arguably, for Zionism. For example, in Der Yud (1902) – a Zionist publication – he argued that, putting aside class issues, Zionism is a national and political movement that unites and accrues to the benefit of all Jews.
How to explain Peretz’s seeming inconsistencies? Some authorities suggest that he took a generally pro-Zionist position with his Hebrew readers and an anti-Zionist position with his Yiddish readers. Others argue that he was never actually an anti-Zionist but, rather, a non-Zionist whose aim was always to sever what he perceived to be the noxious relationship between Zionism and the rabbinical establishment; in this regard, he was merely one of many who believed that the Zionist movement should not be bound by religious law and practice.
But the question of Peretz’s Zionism becomes even more muddled when considering his beautiful handwritten correspondence to Yehoash dated “Friday, Erev Shabbat Kodesh, 1 Kislev 1914,” exhibited here. Co-signed by Jacob Dinesohn, the two great writers express great love for Eretz Yisrael – and actually communicate envy for Yehoash for being able to make aliyah:
To the beautiful poet and thinker, friend Yehoash
People have written to us that [you are not in good health and that] you are departing to the Holy Land. [We are pained that you are ill, but] we are happy that you are going to the land from which we are physically torn away and to which we are spiritually bound. We wish you from the bottom of our hearts a happy journey and health. Take us along with you in your heart and in your thoughts and communicate in our names to the mountains of Yehuda and Levanon, and all that remains: we will never exchange you for any other land; Zion is our past, and the world with Zion at its head is our future.
With hearty collegial regards, and not without a bit of envy.
Y.L. Peretz, Yankev Dinesohn Warsaw Yerozolimska 89
It is strange, indeed, for Peretz to wax so eloquent about Eretz Yisrael and aliyah in this letter. Written a year before his death, is it possible that he changed his mind? Or is he just being polite in wishing his friend well? However, to express envy strongly suggests that his affection for Eretz Yisrael was heartfelt. Another possible explanation is that Peretz always manifested affection for Eretz Yisrael as the Holy Land rich in the history of the Jewish people while rejecting contemporary Jewish nationhood there. Rather than being strictly anti-Zionist, his positions may have reflected his core belief that vast financial resources should not be wasted on a futile Zionist dream when the Jews of Eastern Europe has so many serious unaddressed needs.
Peretz morphed from a Chovevei Tzion supporter to one who later renounced it for its territorial ambitions. Thus, at the end of the day, it is perhaps most apt to characterize Peretz as a “diaspora Zionist” who believed in a Zionism without a geopolitical component – if such a thing can even exist; another discussion for another day – and free of Orthodox religious “coercion.”
Peretz assisted many other Yiddish writers in publishing their work, including his lifelong friend Jacob Dinesohn (1851-1919), with whom he collaborated on Di Yidishe Bibliotek (“The Jewish Library”) and Di Yontiff Bletlekh (“Holiday Pages”), two landmark Yiddish literary anthologies. As WWI refugees poured into Warsaw from the war zone between Russia and Germany towards the end of his life, the two writers founded an orphanage and established schools for displaced Jewish children.
Though Dinesohn published only a relatively small number of books, they were much beloved and avidly read and, although today he is largely forgotten, he became perhaps the most popular Yiddish novelist of the 19th century. A product of the Haskalah and a leading supporter of the radical shift from religious observance to secular Jewish culture, his novels are characterized by sentimental descriptions of Jewish life and epic battles between good and evil in which justice usually prevails. His numerous correspondence, such as our letter here, represent an important part of his work and are of particular literary and historical value.
“Yehoash,” the pseudonym for Solomon Bloomgarden (1872-1927), was a Yiddish-language poet, scholar and Bible translator who published his poems, ballads, and fables and translated many works of world literature into Yiddish, including, famously, Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” His translations included parts of the Koran, classical Arabic writings, and Pirkei Avot, but he was most renowned for his translation of the entire Tanach into Yiddish which, faithful to the original, was hailed as a contribution of national significance and the greatest masterpiece in the Yiddish language.
Born in Virbalis, Lithuania, Yehoash studied both Torah and enlightenment literature with his father, a devout scholar and active member of Chovevei Tzion, and he briefly attended the great yeshiva of Volozhin before beginning his career as a poet. After emigrating to the United States and settling in New York (1890), where he turned first to poetry and then to the translations that would make his reputation, he made aliyah (1913) and publicly identified himself with the “Jewish Renaissance in the ancient land of the Jewish people.”
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Peretz’s popularity was such that over 100,000 people attended his funeral at the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. Streets in Tel Aviv and Haifa, among other cities in Israel, are named for him, and Peretz Square in Lower Manhattan, a site once known for its Yiddish theatres and Jewish restaurants, was dedicated on November 23, 1952.