Page 87 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 22

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— Y
e ib
Within the Jewish community the hand of Czarist despotism
was heavy; there was a wave of pogroms fomented and smiled
upon by the government. Inevitably this led to the collapse of
the Haskalah which had relied naively upon the regime for
improving the position of the Jews. The Haskalah was losing
momentum and Jewish socialism and nationalism had not yet
emerged, and in Russia there was the darkness of reaction. It
was a period of uncertainty and dismay with no road visible
ahead; there was not the freedom to search for new paths and
to speak out openly and clearly. Since Peretz could not remain
quiet, he resorted to allegory and symbolism. It was necessary to
conceal his thoughts and feelings from the regime, but he con­
trived to communicate them nonetheless, even though he had
to do so obliquely by means of fable and parable. Some are
obvious enough, and in its totality this phase of his career was
not the most original. He did not choose allegory as congenial
to his mode of expression but as a device to impart his thoughts
when the alternative was silence.
There is a vein of triteness in his fable “The Pious Cat” where
the cat devours several birds in succession. Of course, each bird
is consumed for its own “benefit,” so that it may not seduce
the opposite sex with its lascivious singing and thereby forfeit
its portion in paradise, nor pine in its cage for a liberty it has
irrevocably lost. Thus far the “moral” is plain and shopworn,
but then there is a sudden shaft of light, and what was plain
is now profound, well-nigh prophetic. In her voracity, the cat
tore the first bird to pieces and gobbled it up greedily. When
later punished for it, she concludes that her punishment was not
for killing the bird but for her carelessness in letting the feathers
fly all over the room and thus mar its tidiness. She determines
to rectify her error by swallowing the next bird in one gulp, so
that no feathers might be found anywhere. It does not occur to
the cat that heinous murder was wrong and damnable; at no
moment is there a pang of remorse, a sigh of repentance, or a
twinge of conscience.
Is this—the frightening apathy of the cat and the awful
amorality that informs and regulates her total behavior—alien
to the mood and climate of our time and age? Crimes have been
committed in our century that should have shaken to their very
roots the peoples in whose midst they were perpetrated, so that
they should be repeating over and over again,“Not all the oceans
can wash this blood from off our hands.” But are they saying it?
Do they, do we remember? Peretz is as contemporary as today’s
events because he perceived the events of his own time with
penetrating discernment and fathomed them not only for them­
selves but also for their abiding and generalized meaning as
pertinent to other locales and to other periods.