The Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture in Vancouver, Canada, is one of dozens of schools, cultural centres, libraries, organizations, streets and plazas, from Buenos Aires to Birobidzhan, named in honour of I.L. Peretz, considered the single most influential person in the development of modern Jewish culture.
Yitzkhok Leybush Peretz was born in 1852 in Zamostch, a small city in S.E. Poland, to a prominent Orthodox family and by six years of age had already begun to study the Talmud. Recognized as a prodigy, he was expected to become a revered Rabbi or a great Jewish scholar, but as a young teenager was given the key to a private library of masterworks of secular European literature and the social and physical sciences. He painstakingly learned Russian, German, French and some English and was forever transformed by this learning.
In keeping with Orthodox Jewish custom, his parents arranged a teenage marriage for him which did not last, but did produce a son, Lucian, who he took charge of. He soon remarried and that marriage, childless, endured for his lifetime. He was accepted as a law student and by age twenty-five was granted a licence by the Czarist authority to practice private law, but not before the Russian court, and soon developed a respected reputation in and around Zamostch. When 37 years old he was suddenly disbarred without explanation, but presumably for his socialist sympathies. He moved to Warsaw and was offered the position of a functionary for the Jewish Community Council, in charge of burial records for the Jewish cemetery. His income was modest but he now had time to devote to writing. He had previously written a small number of works in Polish and Hebrew but now decided to write in Yiddish, the everyday language of the Jewish people. In 1888, Peretz’s first Yiddish work, “Monish”, a mock-epic verse ballad, was published in Sholem Aleichem’s journal, “Yiddish Folks-Bibliotek”. Nothing so modern in style and content had ever before been written in Yiddish. Sholem Aleichem was seven years younger than Peretz, but had started to write in Yiddish earlier; his humourous sketches and gentle satires of the ways that ordinary Jews in the Ukraine coped with everyday hardships and the many changes that were happening, had made him very popular. Peretz made it very clear in an accompanying letter that he had no intention of trying to copy Sholem Aleichem’s style and goal which he said was to amuse and comfort his readers. Peretz said he intended to appeal more to intellectuals, his goal being to enlighten his readers. Their relationship continued to be cooperative, if somewhat prickly.
Peretz’s literary genius was multi-faceted and his writing styles very varied, reflecting his diverse experience and the psychological and neo-Romantic impulses found in contemporary European literature. He was always concerned about the practical questions of Jewish national and cultural identity during a period of great social and political unrest. He served as a guide and mentor to the next generation of Yiddish writers who would regularly gather at his modest home. “Peretz was committed to one premise above all others: that it was possible, through literature, to fuse Jewish tradition with Western ideas of humanism, reason, and social justice and to show that those ideas were, in fact, implicit in Jewish tradition all along.” (Aaron Lansky) The relevancy of Peretz’s writings to issues facing Jews today is readily apparent.
Examining traditional and khasidic Jewish culture through his secular intellect, he wrote stories, poems, essays and plays where earthly goodness frequently had a higher value than traditional piety and where he often scourged religious hypocrisy and exploitation of women. Although sympathetic to most socialist ideals, Peretz in his last years expressed growing anxiety and uncanny foresight about simplistic class politics that he feared would stifle individual liberty and intellectual and literary expression. He never ceased to champion Yiddish as a unifying force that would strengthen and give voice to the cultural values of the Jewish people.
Peretz was active in Jewish communal affairs in Warsaw; he organized a Jewish library, a choral society and was instrumental in the founding of an orphanage for Jewish children. During the early period of World War I, thousands of Russian Jews were scapegoated for potential disloyalty and forced out by the anti-Semitic Czar, Nicholas II. They flocked to Warsaw where Peretz, among others, made every effort to provide them with food, shelter and medical attention. This huge task and the sight of all the suffering undermined his already frail heart. He died on April 3, 1915. It is said that 100 thousand mourning Jews followed the coffin of the greatest Yiddish literary artist to the cemetery. Today, he is hardly recognized by most Jews in North America.