Yiddish author and playwright
1. Isaac Leib Peretz, AKA Yitzhak Leibush Peretz and I.L. Peretz, was born in Zamosc, Poland, in 1851 and raised in orthodox Jewish surroundings. But it was a time of change, and when he was fifteen years of age, he opted to support the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment.
2. He learned Polish, Russian, German and French; passed an exam to become a lawyer; then took up a trade as a whiskey distiller, at which he failed. About the same time, he began to write poetry, songs and tales in Hebrew, practicing law to make a living – until the Russian government revoked his license.
3. In 1888 his first Yiddish work appeared, a ballad that was anthologized by Sholom Aleichem, about a young man who tries – unsuccessfully – to ward off the temptations of Lilith.
5. As opposed to Sholom Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Seforim, our two other great classical Yiddish writers, Peretz especially appealed to intellectuals in the cities. His social criticism favored the labor movement. His essays condemned anti-Semitic acts. He argued for enlightenment ideas, calling for self-determination and resistance against humiliation.
6. Still, though his outlook was secular, he respected sincere faith; the short stories highlight the superiority of honest piety over empty religiosity. Doubt mingles with faith, symbolism with realism, and tradition with modernism in tales that explore themes of forgiveness, of self-sacrifice, modesty and purity.
7. His most-known works are “Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher” (“If Not Higher”) and “Bontshe Shvayg” (“Bontshe the Silent”). They are such beautiful stories that I’d like to transcribe them here. If you don’t know them, look them up. Right now.
8. In the last ten years of his life, as unofficial leader of the Yiddishist movement, he worked hard to foster a national cultural life for Jewry in the Diaspora. He was editor of Di Yidishe Bibliotek (The Jewish Library), which presented a broad cross-section of articles on secular subjects, especially science. He was known for his generosity in assisting other Yiddish writers. In 1908 he served as deputy chairman at a conference on Yiddish in Czernowitz, Austria-Hungary.
9. He died in Warsaw in 1915 and was buried in the Okopowa Street Jewish cemetery. A crowd of 100,000 attended the interment.
10. In addition to Tel Aviv and Haifa, streets are named for him in Hod Hasharon, Bat Yam, Kiryat Yam, Holon, Givat Shmuel and Warsaw. Peretz Square in lower Manhattan is named for him, too. His work lives on: the 1907 play A Night in the Old Marketplace was adapted in 2007 by Frank London, the great klezmerist, and Glen Berger, for a multi-media theatrical presentation. A CD is available.
Shanah tovah u’metukah!
In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Peretz Street off Allenby west of the Central Bus Station. In Haifa, look just south of the Haifa Museum.
Special thanks to Tel Avivi (Ido Biran) for the photo of the street and the sign. For more, visit https://www.facebook.com/telavivi1909.