Page 95 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 4

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M I N K I N ---- I. L. PERETZ
“Your Torah,” said the Rebbe of Biala to the Rabbi of Brisk,
“ is all justice. I t is without mercy. There is not a spark of grace
in your Torah and, therefore, it is joyless, and cannot breathe
freely.”
The moral and spiritual quality of Peretz’s genius did not come
to him without effort. I t was born of conflict. Like “The Meta-
morphosis of a Melody,” his life was a steady growth, an ascent,
a climb. For in his youth, Peretz was a Maskil, indeed, a pillar
of the school of Enlightenment, to which the first fruit of his
maturing faculties were devoted. He wrote Hebrew poems which
were published in the leading Haskalah periodicals of his day.
He was a friend and disciple of Smolenskin, Gordon, and Gottlober.
But he soon realized that their ways must part. They belonged
to two different worlds. They clamored for light while he pleaded
for inwardness. They called for superficial reforms, he demanded
spiritual faith and courage. They scorned and derided Hassidism,
fought it with all their weapons of satire and ridicule; he regarded
it as a heaven-sent gift to mend the riven and deteriorating Jewish
personality.
When Leah finds the atmosphere of her ancestral home stifling,
breaks the “Golden Chain” of a long dynasty of Hassidic saints,
goes out into the world and marries an apostle of light and reason,
she comes back empty and repentant, admitting bitterly that
“Light, like snow, is clear, but cold . . . cold and dead. That
which is clear is cold and iron-hard . . . Man has a heart, a warm
and feeling heart. The world, too, must have a heart, a pitying
and compassionate heart. The world cannot live without God.”
PERETZ THE REALIST
But Peretz was a realist, perhaps the most clear-eyed of Jewish
writers. He saw the external conditions of his people, their poverty
and misery, their starvation and hopelessness, their educational
backwardness and ceremonial absurdities, and his heart was filled
with unspeakable pain. He travelled through many of the towns
and Jewish communities in Poland to acquaint himself with their
lot, and the impact of that journey was shocking. He recorded
his impressions in his
Travel Pictures
and the cumulative effect
is dismal and depressing. But always the inner light of the Jew,
his love of learning, his devotion to Torah, his pious and saintly
life, his ideal family relations and the resignation to his bitter
material lot spread an aura of holiness over lives otherwise drab
and miserable.