Page 183 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 11 (1952-1952)

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carries it to the home of an old sick woman where he makes a
fire for her. When asked if it is true that the rabbi ascends to
Heaven, the scoffer replies: “Yes, if not higher!”
The folk tale “Bontshe the Silent” portrays a meek and long-
suffering Jew who goes through life on earth without ever uttering
a complaint. When he dies and goes up to Heaven and the angels
tell him that he can have whatever reward he desires, the only
request that he makes is that he be given every morning “a hot
roll with fresh butter.” In this story, as in others, Peretz reveals
the Jewish attitude towards material and spiritual attainments.
Yet the story also cries out ironically against the curse of poverty
that degrades the souls of men.
Peretz valiantly espoused the cause of social justice, having
been aroused by the cruel antisemitism of Russia in the eighteen
eighties. He expressed both in words and actions his deep con-
cern for the exploited working man. He loved the Jewish people
and the Jewish people loved him. Peretz, who began writing in
Hebrew, realized that in order to reach the masses of the people
he would have to turn to Yiddish, the living tongue of the people,
just as did Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim.
In John Hersey’s
The Wall
, Noach Levinson, the “archivist,”
records in part the lecture he delivered on the nature of Jewish-
ness, based on the writings of Peretz, during the height of the
battle of the Warsaw Ghetto. In a subterranean hideout, the re-
maining Jews of Warsaw, ignoring their impending doom, gathered
to listen to a discourse of their beloved “Prince of the Ghetto.”
Here are his words: “For those of our people who had never
been bookish, I told a little about Peretz the man — Peretz, the
voice of Eastern European Jewry; Peretz, the most expressive
and most all-embracing writer of Jewishness — born at almost
the very center of the nineteenth century, a Hebrew scholar at
the age of three, a student of Talmud at six; one who had the
audacity to divorce the wife his parents had thrust on him when
he was eighteen, according to ancient tradition, and then to
marry a girl he loved; lawyer, bureaucrat, poor man, story-teller,
essayist, dramatist; eclectic Jew, a man who passed through rigid
Orthodoxy, the enlightened Haskalah movement, and romantic
Hasidism, and kept something of all three, who used and revered
and purified both Hebrew and Yiddish, who fought for Jewish
culture in all the lands of the Diaspora and yet who also felt
the pull of Zion; a small, roly-poly soft-eyed man with a scraggly
mustache and mussed-up hair, a magical talker — to whose
funeral, when he died, in Warsaw in 1915, one hundred thousand
mourners flocked. Then, simply by telling bits of his stories,
reciting short passages, calling up his images and parading his
characters, I began to try to cast the spell for which I aimed . .
GOODMAN — PRINCE OF THE GHETTO
177