Authors: Isaac Leib Peretz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Polish short-story writer, playwright, and poet

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Bekannte Bilder, 1890

Dos shtreimel, 1896

Stories and Pictures, 1906

Bontshe the Silent, and Other Stories, 1927

Peretz, 1947 (Stories from Peretz, 1964)

Three Gifts and Other Stories, 1947

The Three Canopies, 1948

As Once We Were: Selections from the Works of I. L. Peretz, 1951

In This World and the Next: Selected Writings, 1958

The Book of Fire: Stories by I. L. Peretz, 1960

Selected Stories, 1974


Baynakht oyfn altn mark, pb. 1907

Di goldne keyt, pb. 1909

In polish oyf der keyt, pb. 1909


Poezie, 1892


Mayne zikhroynes, 1914 (My Memoirs, 1964)


Bilder fun a provints-rayze, 1891

Ale verk, 1910-1913

The I. L. Peretz Reader, 1990


Isaac Leib Peretz (PEHR-ehtz) is regarded as a founder of modern Yiddish literature. He was born in Zamość, Poland, to a prosperous and observant Jewish family. While he was permitted to supplement his traditional Jewish education with private lessons in German and Russian, he was forbidden to attend a secular school. A turning point came when the key to a three-thousand-volume library was bequeathed to the fifteen-year-old. Peretz discovered Western literary classics as well as texts on science and philosophy. Critics theorize that this sudden exposure to various literatures and philosophies led Peretz to question his religious training and to confront the gap between the ghettoized Jew and the wider modern world.{$I[AN]9810001711}{$I[A]Peretz, Isaac Leib}{$I[geo]POLAND;Peretz, Isaac Leib}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Peretz, Isaac Leib}{$I[tim]1852;Peretz, Isaac Leib}

Peretz’s ambitions for higher education were thwarted by an arranged marriage. His father-in-law, however, was a proponent of Jewish enlightenment, and the two collaborated on a book of Hebrew verse. This association ended upon the Peretzes’ divorce. After a period of restlessness and indecision, Peretz settled into a law practice and remarried.

In 1886 Peretz submitted a poem entitled “Monish” to Sholem Aleichem’s Yiddish journal, Yidishe Folkbibliotek. Although it was hailed as the first modern narrative poem in Yiddish, Peretz was unhappy with Aleichem’s editing of the work and, demonstrating the independence that would mark his career, declined to submit additional work to the journal.

The following year, Peretz’s law license was revoked when an informant denounced him to authorities as a radical. He moved to Warsaw and, in 1890, joined an expedition collecting sociological data on rural Polish Jews. His sketches in Bilder fun a provints-rayze capture the experience. Returning to Warsaw, Peretz worked in the Cemetery Section of the Jewish Community Services Organization, which acquainted him with all levels of the population.

Witnessing at first hand the poverty and ignorance among Poland’s Jews stirred Peretz’s social conscience. He increasingly devoted himself to social service and reform. The introductory essay of his short-lived literary journal Di Yidishe Bibliotek was entitled “Building,” a Yiddish word meaning both education and culture. The ideas expressed in this essay became a kind of Yiddishist credo, proclaiming Yiddish as a means toward enlightenment and education as well as toward the development of a modern Jewish literature and culture.

Prevented by the government from publishing either a daily newspaper or monthly magazine in Yiddish, Peretz next launched Yontev Bletlekh, an anthology that appeared on Jewish holidays. The seventeen issues published between 1894 and 1896 marked the emergence of a radical socialist trend in Yiddish writing. Peretz’s socialist sympathies led to his arrest and imprisonment for several months in 1899. Yontev Bletlekh also reflected Peretz’s literary ambitions for Yiddish. In Peretz’s writing the critic Emanuel S. Goldsmith finds Yiddish “transformed” into a language expressing the “nervousness” of modern life and the “nuances” of modern thought.

Neoromantic and symbolist currents in Western European art in the mid-1890’s, which mined folklore for its mythic and symbolic riches, greatly influenced Peretz. Neither an adherent of Hasidism–an ecstatic religious movement among Eastern European Jews–nor a naïve folk artist, Peretz used Hasidic and folk materials as a vehicle for shaping a new literary aesthetic. By recasting traditional tales in a modern style and giving them an ironic edge, he hoped to reacquaint assimilated Jews with their heritage and to provoke readers to more independent thought.

Peretz continues to be remembered for these stories. Many criticize religious customs that isolate Jews from the modern world. “The Fur Cap,” for example, satirizes the deference shown this traditional religious symbol regardless of the qualities of the rabbi wearing it. Peretz’s most celebrated–and controversial–story is “Bontshe the Silent.” Bontshe, after a lifetime of poverty and humiliation, is admitted into heaven, where, offered his choice of its glories, he asks only for his daily bread and butter. The irony of this ending is often interpreted as an attack on passivity and submission.

Peretz’s career peaked in the first decade of the twentieth century. His work appeared in virtually every Hebrew and Yiddish periodical of the day, and writers and intellectuals regularly gathered in his home, singing Yiddish folk songs he had collected and published. To this period belong Peretz’s efforts on behalf of the Yiddish theater. Max Reinhardt, the famed theatrical director, considered staging Baynakht oyfn altn mark, Peretz’s Faustian verse drama, calling it “a rare specimen of a universalist-symbolic play.” An estimated hundred thousand attended Peretz’s funeral. His death drew mourners from across the ideological and organizational spectrum, a tribute to his vision of Jewish cultural unity.

BibliographyBellow, Saul, ed. Great Jewish Short Stories. New York: Dell, 1969. Contains four classic Peretz stories as well as a representative assortment of tales from major Jewish writers, from biblical times to the present. Bellow’s interesting introduction suggests the tradition and continuity of the material.Frieden, Ken. Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Compares the fiction of Shalom Abramovich and Aleichem with that of Peretz.Howe, Irving, and Eliezer Greenberg, eds. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. New York: Viking Press, 1968. Contains seven Peretz stories, along with a judicious selection of Yiddish narratives of all major types and significant authors. The editors’ introduction, although concise, is the best single survey of Yiddish writing available.Liptzin, Sol. A History of Yiddish Literature. Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David, 1972. A comprehensive overview of Yiddish writing from its beginnings to its current practice in the Americas, South Africa, Australia, Europe, and Israel. Contains perceptive and favorable critiques of writings by Peretz and sound judgments of his position in world literature.Liptzin, Sol. Peretz. New York: YIVO Bilingual Series, 1947. An important investigation of the author’s life and career, with Yiddish and English on opposite pages. Thoroughly readable, informative, and provocative. Liptzin awards Peretz higher status than do most Yiddish literary historians.Peretz, Isaac Leib. Selected Stories. Edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. New York: Schocken Books, 1974. An essential Peretz collection because of the editorial skills of Howe and Greenberg. Like any superior anthology, this one reveals new facets of its subject’s talent. Peretz is interpreted as a major writer in both Hebrew and Yiddish, who made interesting contemporary uses of traditional Jewish materials. Peretz is viewed more as the forerunner of Franz Kafka than as the disciple of Sholom Aleichem.Roback, A. A. Peretz, Psychologist of Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Sci-Art, 1935. A stimulating psychological examination of Peretz’s writings by a prolific writer of psychological and literary studies.Roskies, David G. A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Discusses Peretz as the master architect of Jewish modernism who first made use of folk material to mock it, but then later changed direction, insisting that a connection with the past was essential to Jewish nationalism.Waxman, Meyer. History of Jewish Literature. New York: Bloch, 1930. A complete survey of Jewish writing from the postbiblical period to the 1930’s. Interesting for its attempt to place Peretz within the broader context of Jewish history, ethics, religion, and Zionist thought.Wisse, Ruth R. I. L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991. Explores Peretz’s contributions to Jewish and non-Jewish society.
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