Page 86 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 22

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J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
1890 through the drab and dismal towns of Jewish Poland, a
veritable abyss of incredible poverty, and Sholem Aleichem’s
stories of Kasrilevke, to perceive the distance between these tales
and, for example, Caldwell’s
Tobacco Road.
In Peretz’s vignettes
and Sholem Aleichem’s stories there is a bitter cry of suffering
too, but it is not a lament of despair or a wail of degradation;
it is a cry from the depths of the soul,
mimaamakim,
in which the
tzelem Elokim
has not been extinguished but, on the contrary,
bears witness to it. In Peretz’s “If Not Higher” the pathos of the
poor woman in her cold hovel is not dissolved in the flame of
the holiness of the rabbi who brings her, in the guise of a
peasant, wood to kindle a fire. The pathos is lighted up and
absorbed in it as the radiant truth that the succor and compas­
sion that we extend to each other is “higher” than even ascend­
ing into heaven nightly to study Torah with Elijah.
Satire Commingled with Pathos
In Peretz’s earlier stories and poems there is a strain of satire
commingled with pathos. He surveys the scene about him and
not all of it is to his liking. For Mendele the symbol of Jewish
life was a
torbe,
the beggar’s sack, and it was the collective
torbe
of all the people. Mendele’s satire was blended with indignation,
but in Peretz the note of pathos predominates, and the scene he
surveys is not single and uniform but diverse, replete with shad­
ings. There is
dales
, poverty, and there is anguish, but these
have their modulations and degrees. Peretz’s stories and poems
depict such scenes and the people in them in their “particularity”
and “specificity.” There are stories, for example, about orphans,
cared for half-heartedly and therefore neglected, what this does
to them “internally” and how it warps their souls and minds
and bodies too (“The Crazy Batlen”; “The Poor Boy”). There
are stories about the lowly and downtrodden in whom the spark
of rebellion has been extinguished (“Silent Bontche”), and about
the sweetness and wholesomeness of the poor who will not let
the hardships of daily existence stifle their love and solicitude
for each other (“Family-Peace”; “Tevye and Seri”). Some of the
stories are about the lot of the Jewish woman with her special
burden as mother and often as bread-winner so that her husband
may “learn Torah” without worry or interruption (“Mendel
Braine’s”). But Peretz’s sharpest barbs are directed against the
accommodation of religion to the status quo, against its separa­
tion from ethics as a summons for the hallowing of life here-
and-now (“The Fur-Hat”). Peretz’s satire is mild and his sense
of pity keen; in the midst of hunger and want and fear he
glimpses nuances of beauty and grace and unmistakable signs
of nobility.