Peretz was a writer, social activist, and a leading figure among the authors of Yiddish literature in Poland. He was born in 1852 in Zamość to a well-respected mercantile family. He died on 3 April, 1915 in Warsaw.
He was the son of Jehuda Peretz and Rivka, née Lewin. Yitskhok Leybush was an exceptionally talented child, which motivated his parents to invest in his private education. They were both religious Jews, albeit open-minded, and acted as moral models to their son. Besides studying the Talmud and Torah, young Yitskhok learnt various languages – he was fluent in Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish, and also had a reasonable command of German and Polish. He was also an autodidact – the scope of his readings was extremely wide and included works by Maimonides and authors of the Jewish Enlightenment movement (Haskalah).
In 1870, a marriage was arranged to Sara, daughter of Gabriel Yehuda Lichtenfeld. He published his first poem collection in Hebrew together with the latter. Prior to that, in 1874, he had published some poems written in Polish, but thought they lacked quality or otherwise a relevant ideological resonance. He never went back to writing in Polish, as he was convinced that Jewish literature should be composed in Jewish languages (Hebrew or Yiddish). He did, however, continue to follow the trends in Polish literature and appeared to be well-versed in it, which made him stand out among the other Yiddish writers – such as Mendele Mocher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem.
The young couple would recurrently change their place of residence: after a short stay in Grabów, they moved to Opatów, and later to Sandomierz. Peretz tried to financially support his family by opening a mill, a tavern, and a school, but met little success. The marriage didn’t survive the test of time and fell apart after five years. Their son, Lucjan, was to be looked after by the father.
Peretz was soon to meet his second wife, who became his lifelong companion – it was Helena Ringelheim, who also came from a merchant family. In 1876-77 he was living in Warsaw, where he obtained the license to run a law firm. While preparing for it, he earned money by giving Hebrew classes. He passed his exam upon returning to Zamość and continued to operate his firm for the next 11 years. This, however, was not his only occupation. Peretz was also involved in social activism – he contributed to the foundation of the local volunteer fire department, gave evening classes to workers, and co-founded a Jewish secondary school.
In 1887, as a result of a denunciation, Tsar's authorities took Perec’s license away, accusing him of supporting ‘Polish nationalism’ and popularizing socialist views. Since he was unable to carry on with his profession, he moved to Warsaw, where a renowned activist and thinker, Nahum Sokolov, invited him to take part in a project financed by the philanthropist Jan Bloch, whose aim was to animate Jewish communities from small towns. A fictionalized documentary Bilder fun a provintz-rayze in tomashover poviat in 1890 yor (Images From a Journey Around the Province of Tomaszów Region) was created under its umbrella. From the next year on until his death, Peretz worked as a clerk at the Jewish Community of Warsaw and lived in the Ceglana Street (which presently bears his name), and later moved to Aleje Jerozolimskie.
Peretz debuted as a writer in 1888 with the publication of his poem Monish in the 1st volume of Yiddishe Folksbibliotek, edited by Sholem Aleichem. Monish is a ballad about a young Jewish man led to temptation by a beautiful Christian woman called Maria. The poem was broadly criticized, but had a fan in the author and publisher Jacob Dinezon, who announced the arrival of a new sun with it, after a long, dark night. In the following years Peretz became increasingly radical and devoted his short stories and articles to the poor living conditions of workers and the wretched situation of women. He criticized those who were at the time just beginning to express their longing to create a national hub in the land of Israel.
Soon afterwards, Perec became a leading figure on Warsaw's Jewish literary scene. His apartment would be the meeting place of writers from all generations, who years later would reminisce about coming across him as a breakthrough moment that affected their future lives. He acted as a road sign for the young writers. Apart from his own pieces, he also published a series: a three-volume Di yiddishe bibliotek (A Jewish Library), Literatur un lebn, and Yontev bletlekh (Holiday Papers). The latter were his main field of struggle against social injustice. Perec intentionally gave them a neutral title, in order to mislead the Tsar’s censoring authorities. He would call himself a socialist, but was never affiliated with any specific political party. It was his strong belief that literature should be politically engaged – he was, however, more of an idealist than a man of politics. In 1899 he was arrested by the Tsar's forces during an illegal congregation and spent several months in the Warsaw Citadel – Tsar Nicholas's I fortress where political prisoners were detained.
It was probably during his incarceration in the Citadel that his views altered and he turned towards a form of neo-romanticism. He began his search for a new path – through Jewish tradition, and Hasidic stories. Up until then he could, to a certain extent, be described as an assimilated Jew, just like many others Jews from his generation. He, however, became disappointed when the brotherly enthusiasm that was present during and after the January Uprising was taken over by increasing anti-Semitism.
In 1908, when giving a speech at a conference in Chernivtsi, where Yiddish was proclaimed a national language, he was to say that the Hasidic story is like the Book of Genesis, and that Nachman of Breslov was the first Jewish folk poet.
Peretz thus expressed his conviction that Jewish literature should turn back to Jewish themes and folklore. He would also collect folk songs, and even pay those who delivered these to him, but never made his collection available to a wider public.
Peretz was becoming increasingly wary of the influence of ideology on literature, or even on individuals. His feeling was that the endeavour to make everyone equal may lead to a levelling downwards, to mediocrity. "Would you not cut the cedars, to stop them from growing taller than grass?" – he wrote in the 9th volume of his Collected Works.
Hilel Zeitlin, a thinker and mystic, and an equally pivotal figure for the Warsaw's Jewish community, said about Peretz: "He believed in Heaven, but in his heaven there was no God". Indeed, Peretz referred to Hasidism in order to proclaim secular rather than religious views. Moreover, he was hard to classify, as he changed his beliefs a number of times and occasionally contradicted himself. He would use irony so skilfully that he made critics doubt their abilities to interpret his thoughts.
The writer died suddenly of a heart attack on 3rd of April 1915, during the Passover. His funeral turned into a big manifestation and was attended by approximately 100 thousand people. Peretz was buried in the main lane of the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. Right after his death, a vast number of texts by and about him were published. Numerous societies, kindergartens, and Jewish schools across the world were named after him, e.g. the last Polish Jewish school in Łódź, which was closed down in 1968.
Peretz’s most important works include the plays Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain, 1909) and Baynakht oyfn altn mark (A Night in the Old Marketplace), and the collections of short stories Folkshtimlekhe geshikhtn (Folk stories, 1908), and Hsidish (Hasidic tales, 1909). Before his death, he had started to systematize notes about his life, but he never completed this task. They were published years later under the title Mayne zikhroynes (My Memories).
Peretz is also an author of numerous articles on social and literary issues (including Wos felt undzer literatur / What our Literature is Lacking) and poems - for children as well. His works have been published in 11 volumes.
Peretz's writings in Yiddish are available at polona.pl.
Author: Bella Szwarcman-Czarnota, April 2014, translated by Anna Micińska, April 2014
Yitskhok Leybush Peretz