Page 84 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 22

Basic HTML Version

YITZHOK LEIB PERETZ
On the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Death
B
y
I s r a e l K n o x
M
e n d e l e
,
Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem are regarded as the
three “masters” of modern Yiddish literature, and curiously
enough a “tag of identification” has been attached to each—
satirist, romanticist, humorist. Such “labels,” if taken literally,
can be misleading and constricting, yet if taken seriously, can
be useful in providing a guide-line to an author.
Granted that Mendele is a satirist, he is a satirist who hates
with a kind of love. The paradox ceases to be puzzling if the
tenses are put in proper order: the satirist is dissatisfied with
the state of affairs as it is because he believes it can be better
tomorrow
if we will it;
he is critical of the present, but only
for the sake of a brighter future. Mendele’s Jewish world was
still relatively firm and stable, and he was therefore intent upon
winnowing out the weeds in its garden. His social consciousness
(and conscience) was twofold: he was responsive to the iniquities
heaped upon his people from the outside by the Czarist regime,
and to the injustices within the Jewish community.
The world of Peretz and Sholem Aleichem was less stable.
It was caught up in a process of transition, of epochal change—
the dissolution of a way of life as it functioned in the
shtetl
(and in the cities too). Peretz has been described as a romanticist,
and it is true he was a romanticist not only because much of
his subject matter and themes were out of the past but also
because of the treatment he accorded his subject matter and
characters, because of his preoccupation with lore and legend
as though they contained the stuff of reality. But that is just it:
Peretz did not exalt the past
as such;
he selected what was ideal
in it to serve as an inspiration and perhaps as a pattern for the
present. He was not concerned with the past as set over against
the present, but as linking it with the present. What he wanted
most was to discover the
sources
of the strength and courage of
his own generations.
It is Peretz’s distinctive merit as author and prophet that he
dealt with lore and legend as though they contained the stuff of
78