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I.L. Peretz’s Saints and Sinners

The Yiddish writer’s work suffered the same fate as the language in which he wrote, but his provocative, complicated stories are well worth revisiting

Goldie Morgentaler
June 14, 2022
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia
Original image: Wikipedia

Many years ago, when I was a student at McGill University in Montreal, I took a course on the work of I.L. Peretz with the Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse. I was a reluctant student at first, because my only previous exposure to Peretz’s work had been at my Jewish elementary school and I didn’t remember being impressed. At school we had read child-appropriate stories, like “Oyb nisht nokh hekher” (If Not Higher) and “Nisim oyfn yam” (Miracles on the Sea) that seemed to teach straightforward moral lessons about exemplary behavior. So I was not prepared for the sophistication and worldliness of this very provocative, cynical, occasionally exasperating, but always interesting writer, whose stories give comfort even as they perplex and tease the mind.

Yitskhok Leibush Peretz was one of the greats of Yiddish literature. According to Ruth Wisse, the bibliography of articles and books on Peretz is larger than that of any other two Yiddish writers combined, including the two classical writers, Mendele Mokher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem. Schools have been named after Peretz, as have streets, landmarks, orphanages, publishing houses; there is even a Peretz Square in Lower Manhattan. In fact, Jewish cultural institutions of all kinds throughout Europe, North America, and Israel have borne his name. I grew up with the great writer’s framed photograph looking down at me from the wall in my mother’s workroom, where she hung it as a kind of talisman to inspire her own writing. Arms folded, his large handsome head illuminated from the side, Peretz looks out at the world in this photo with an assessing, amused gaze, a smile barely concealed behind his voluminous mustache.

He was born on May 18, 1852, in Zamość, a city in southeastern Poland. Raised in a religious home, he received a traditional Jewish education in Hebrew and rabbinic texts. He tells us in his autobiography that he was an ilui (a genius) as a child. We may well believe him because as soon as he had access to a private library, he read secular books in Russian, Polish, and German. He also taught himself French in order to read in that language.

Peretz trained as a lawyer and for 10 years he successfully practiced law in Zamość, until 1888, when he was denounced by the czarist authorities for promoting Polish nationalism and socialism. Who denounced him and why remains a mystery to this day. But the result was that he was disbarred and had to leave Zamość to find other work. So he began writing. In 1890, he got a job as an employee of the Warsaw Jewish Community Council, where he worked from 1890 until his death in 1915. In some ways, this was a fortunate development, in the sense that, while he earned less money than he had when practicing law, this job suited his interests in community work and, more importantly, afforded him time to write. Plus, he was now living in the metropolis of Warsaw, home to the largest number of Jews in Poland and a magnet for Jews from elsewhere, especially those with a literary bent who made pilgrimage to Peretz’s home to visit with the Master. Peretz encouraged and inspired an entire generation of Yiddish writers including Sholem Asch, S. An-ski, Dovid Bergelson, Avrom Reysen and many more.

While Peretz’s politics are hard to pin down, he did lean left, more Bundist than Zionist. He subscribed to the notion of doikeyt, which translates awkwardly into English as here-ness, the belief that Jews should fight for equality in the countries where they lived. Thus, Peretz became a recognized leader of the movement to promote Jewish life in the diaspora and a fighter for the acknowledgment of Yiddish as the main language of the Jewish people. He died of a heart attack while sitting at his desk in April 1915, the writerly equivalent of dying with your boots on. His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Warsaw.

Peretz’s preferred method in his best stories—he wrote only stories, as well as plays and poetry, but no novels—is to take a set of opposites: the sinner and the saint, the body and the soul, the virtuous woman and the lustful one, this world and the next, and allow them to play themselves out, initially in accord with the reader’s expectations. Then he pulls the rug out from under those expectations, sometimes by reversing them, sometimes by the use of only one word or phrase that devastatingly turns the story on its head. The saint ends up in hell; the woman who spent a lifetime lusting in her heart after non-Jewish men is revered for her virtue after her death; the three emblems of Jewish self-sacrifice and martyrdom that the wandering soul presents to the Gate Keeper in “The Three Presents” as the price of admission into heaven are pronounced as beautiful—beautiful, but useless.

Peretz’s most famous story, “Bontshe Shvayg,” (Bontshe the Silent) is arguably also his most cynical. Set in czarist times, “Bontshe Shvayg” tells the story of Bontshe, whose life is one long series of misfortunes and afflictions from the moment the mohel’s hand slips during his circumcision to the day that he dies unknown and unmourned in the workhouse and is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Bontshe’s work as a porter carrying heavy loads often goes unpaid, his only child dies; his wife runs off with another man. He is spat upon and despised and suffers endless injury, humiliation and injustice—yet he bears it all in stoic silence, never raising his voice against God or man. On earth, Bontshe is a nobody and no one notices his passing. But in heaven there is a joyous to-do when Bontshe’s soul ascends after his death, because here is that rare thing, a genuinely saintly, meek soul, untarnished by even the slightest moral blemish. During the obligatory heavenly trial to see if he should be allowed into heaven, the prosecuting angel has nothing to say against Bontshe, not even the tiniest sin can be laid to his account. The Voice of God therefore decrees that Bontshe’s soul should have whatever it desires; he has only to ask and it shall be given. With all the vast resources of heaven his for the asking, what is Bontshe’s request? Only a roll with butter to eat every morning. The story ends with the Heavenly Prosecutor laughing.

Clearly, this story is a parable. But a parable of what? Is it a call to arms to the disenfranchised Jewish working class, a criticism of Jewish passivity in the face of antisemitism, an idealization of the humility required of the religious Jew, or a critique of the meekness that never complains about abuse? Is the story a criticism of the religious assumption that the submissive life lived without complaint will be rewarded after death in heaven? If someone as diminished and humiliated as Bontshe actually got to heaven to claim his reward in the afterlife, how would he even know what to ask for? Is that why the Heavenly Prosecutor laughs at the end? I cannot resist mentioning here a comment by one of my non-Jewish students when I taught this story: If Bontshe is dead, asked the student, why does he need a roll with butter every morning? He’s dead! He has no body! Who eats in heaven?

Like “Bontshe Shvayg” many of Peretz’s best-known and most beloved stories have a folkloric feel to them. In fact, Peretz often repurposes folk tales, popular beliefs, and superstitions to his own fictional requirements. These folkloric stories were collected in a volume called Folkstimlekhe Geshikhtn (Folkloric Tales) which was published in 1908. For instance, “The Three Presents” is the story of a soul sentenced to perpetual limbo because the balance between its sins and its good deeds has come out exactly even on the heavenly scales. Neither sinful enough to be condemned to hell nor saintly enough to merit heaven, the soul is condemned to wander between the two until it can find three presents of sufficient goodness and beauty to please the saints of heaven. Only then will the soul be allowed to enter through the heavenly gates.

So the soul flies over the earth searching for the unusual gifts it needs to get into heaven. The three gifts that it eventually finds are symbolic of Jewish martyrdom. The first is of a bit of earth from Palestine, which has cost an elderly Jewish man his life during a robbery. The elderly man had not uttered a sound when the robbers took his gold and silver, but to be deprived of this bit of earth, symbolic of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, was to lose a greater treasure than any precious metal. So he cried out and was killed.

The second gift, symbolic of the virtue and modesty of Jewish women, is a bloody pin which a young Jewish woman, accused of witchcraft, used to fasten the hem of her dress to the flesh of her legs, so that her body would not be exposed as she was dragged through the streets tied to the tail of a wild horse. The third gift is a yarmulke, symbolic of the Jewish religion, which had fallen off the head of a Jewish man forced to walk the gauntlet between two rows of whip-wielding soldiers. When the yarmulke is knocked off the man’s head, he turns, goes back, and retrieves it, thus enduring still more lashes.

These are the three gifts that the soul presents to the saints in its bid to enter paradise. Needless to say, they are accepted and the soul gets into heaven. The main thrust of the narrative evokes the admirable self-sacrificing heroism of the three tragic deaths that have supplied the soul with its “surpassingly beautiful” gifts. But against the chorus singing this exalted theme, there is one persistently off-key note. This sour note can first be heard when the shammes of the heavenly court complains “bitterly” that “the saints of today have taken a liking to presents.” In other words, bribery is as prevalent in the next world as it is in this one—and is just as likely to succeed. The same disquieting note can be heard again in the soul’s complaint about the general mediocrity of the world which has made it so difficult to find properly acceptable presents. Finally, this sour note takes over the very last line of the story. The gifts are beautiful, says the Heavenly Oracle, but of no practical or material value.

So is their value moral? Is it spiritual? Or is the statement intended ironically in that not one of the story’s three deaths in fact moved the world enough to prevent the others from taking place? Nor will the three gifts, which so movingly represent Jewish martyrdom, cause the saints in heaven to do anything practical about the plight of the Jews. The saints may pity the suffering of the martyrs, they may admire their devotion and heroism; they may appreciate the aesthetic value of dying for one’s beliefs, but the only advantage to be gained from such presents is in a fairy tale, like the one we are reading. With his ambiguous last sentence, Peretz manages to question, not merely what kind of world makes possible such “beautiful” presents, but also what, in such a world of exile, can be their ultimate worth and purpose.

Another of Peretz’s folkloric stories, “At the Bedside of the Dying,” recounts the voluntary sacrifice of heaven for the fires of hell. The saintly soul who makes this choice, has spent a lifetime sacrificing himself for others, so that at the very edge of the grave he cannot change his nature. The structure that Peretz sets up in the story leads the reader to assume that she knows the ending, only to be surprised by an unexpected philosophical conundrum at the end.

The story starts with the pious Leibl Konskivoler lying on his deathbed. Leibl was a religious man who never forgot to say his prayers. The shammes of paradise has darted out of heaven in quest of Leibl’s soul, certain that any man who prayed so beautifully must deserve a place by the Holy Throne. But no sooner has the shammes arrived at the bedside of the dying man than he is greeted by a minion of hell, who has been sent for the very same soul. (Peretz has a bit of fun here speculating on the class differences between angels—the shammes clearly outranks the minion—as well as about the relative distances to earth of heaven and hell: Hell is closer.)

Round one goes to the dark angel. Leibl Konskivoler is revealed to have been a hypocrite masquerading as a pious man. In reality, he robbed widows and orphans and committed an assortment of other dastardly deeds. In other words, his heart is as black as pitch and off to hell he is carried.

Reb Nachman of Zbarash is his mirror opposite: a saintly man who neglected to pare his nails properly and often forgot to say the mincha prayer. This time it is a devil out of hell whom we follow to the bed of the dying man, certain that this particular soul belongs below. But devils, it seems, can be as easily misled by outward appearances as angels. Peretz takes care to reverse everything from the way it was in the first part of the story. This time, there is a white angel waiting by the side of the dying man who recounts his good deeds and praises his self-sacrificing nature. Obviously, this is one soul that has thoroughly earned its place among the saints of heaven.

Then comes the twist: Nachman of Zbarash proves himself a true saint by refusing to go to heaven. He complains that he could never be happy amid the golden crowns and glittering thrones of paradise. He has never known such great wealth, nor such perfect rest. In the manner of “Bontshe Shvayg,” he can only conceive of the afterworld as an extension of the world he knows and he chooses to accompany the dark angel to hell, where he may at least be among other suffering souls. Once again, the angel from heaven must return to the heavenly paradise empty handed. Round two, too, goes to the dark angel.

If not the saint and not the sinner, then who goes to paradise? That is one of the questions raised by this story. By opting for hell rather than heaven, Reb Nachman defines the highest reaches of saintliness as the voluntary renunciation of paradise. In that case, there is no soul in heaven that is as saintly as Nachman of Zbarash because, by the terms of this story, the soul that would equal his in sanctity must go to hell. But if all the deserving souls copied Reb Nachman, then heaven would be depopulated; there would be no need for a heaven, but still plenty of need for a hell. Such a scenario would unbalance the world; all the distinctions between sinner and saint would be erased if the final reward for each was the same.

This in turn raises the question of whether the good man acts correctly on earth because he expects a reward in the world to come. If that is the case, then what is the difference between such a man and the Leibl Konskivolers of the world who perform all the mitzvahs as they should, but who care nothing for kindness to others? On the other hand, should not rectitude and sacrifice for the good of others merit some kind of acknowledgement? If not on earth, then when? The logic of Reb Nachman’s life of self-sacrifice decrees that his soul reject the pleasures of heaven as being alien to its nature. In this story, Peretz has stretched the ideal of self-sacrifice to its extreme conclusion. Nachman’s choice leaves a gap, not merely in heaven, but also in the reader’s most cherished and unexamined assumptions about the nature and purpose of final reward and punishment.

Peretz presents yet another variation on the theme of sin and saintliness, this time as these pertain to women, in the story, “Downcast Eyes,” which takes both its title and its theme from the fallibility of the human sense of sight. Here again is a story about how we fallible humans perceive virtue and sin, worked out by means of Peretz’s favourite device of mirror opposites. A man has two daughters. The elder, Nechama, is everything a good Jewish daughter should be—obedient, mild and virtuous. “The goodness,” Peretz writes, “shone out of her eyes.” The younger daughter is her opposite. Within Malka’s eyes there lurks something sharp, piercing and disquieting. She is often absent-minded and dreamy, concealing the true expression of her eyes behind lowered lids.

Malka is drawn to the peasants who gather to dance and flirt in her father’s tavern. It is a look from her eyes that attracts the son of the count from whom her father leases his tavern. To save her from the fate of becoming the young count’s mistress, she is quickly married off to a Jewish merchant in the city of Prague. The necessity of marrying off the younger daughter before the elder subverts the proper order of things; the family’s good fortune turns sour and they are pursued by disaster. The father loses his tavern, is thrown into prison, sickens, and dies. He is soon followed by his wife. Nechama is left, orphaned and unmarried, to fend for herself. She is seduced by a Christian landlord and lives out the rest of her life as his mistress. In the meantime, her younger sister—who never answers Nechama’s written pleas for help—has been left unaffected and untroubled by the family’s reverses. She still walks around with her eyes lowered, which is interpreted by the community as a sign of her modesty and virtue, while concealing the true lustfulness of her thoughts.

In this way Peretz manipulates the situation of the two sisters so that they are diametrically opposite; each sister has what the other desires. One sister sins with her body, the other with her mind; one lives a life of outward propriety and virtue; the other lives in sin; one embraces her husband and pines for a Christian lover, the other is embraced by her Christian lover and pines for her mother. Both walk around with their eyes lowered; one out of hypocrisy, the other out of shame.

In this story Peretz uses lust to illuminate the dichotomy between body and soul. Malka sins with her mind, but her body does not sin, therefore in the eyes of the world she is virtuous, regardless of what goes on in her heart. Her sister sins with her body, therefore in the eyes of the world she is fallen and beyond redemption; the purity of her heart is irrelevant. (It is noteworthy that in this story, the sin is not defined as sex per se, but as sex with a non-Jew.)

As in “Bontshe Shvayg,” the judgment of the world at large is a direct contrast to the judgment of heaven. After death, the souls of the two sisters sort themselves out according to their real states: that of the saintly elder sister flies, like a dove, directly to heaven; while the younger one’s soul falls squawking like a crow into the black pit of hell. But on earth, things turn out differently, because the material world judges in terms of physical reality. Thus, the younger sister’s body is given an expensive funeral and buried in the place of honor in the cemetery, while the elder sister’s body is placed in a sack and buried in a ditch by the gate. When, after a few years, the bodies are exhumed, that of the elder sister, Nekhama, is found to have completely decomposed. An inadvertent kick by the gravedigger displaces even her skull so that no trace of her sinful body is left. But when the tomb of the younger sister is opened, her body is found to be still intact; there is even a smile on her pale face. What is that smile? Is it the triumph of sin over virtue? Or the triumph of outward appearances over inner worth? Or, does it really matter if the heart lusts, so long as the body does not sin? Is it the action that counts or the sinful thought?

Peretz wrote many stories, some more modern, realistic and gritty than the ones I have been discussing here. I love them all. But I find the folkloric tales to be the most philosophically challenging and the most provocative. The more one sees in them, the more there is left to see. Peretz saw folk tales as an expression of the inner life of the Jewish people whose outward existence he had attempted to chronicle realistically in an early work called Travel Sketches of a Journey Through the Tomasców Region in 1890. In that travelogue he had depicted the soul-killing meanness of daily life in the shtetlekh; the abject poverty, the superstition, religious fanaticism, the divisions between Jew and Jew. In the folk tales, Peretz found a means to restore to Jews, like the ones he described in Travel Sketches, their own artistic grandeur, of revitalizing the richness of their cultural life. By reworking and publishing these stories, he could hold up a mirror to a dispirited and persecuted people in which they might see the beauty and wisdom of their own collective soul. The folk tale was the natural cornerstone to building a national literature.

Yet Peretz was essentially an urban, sophisticated man whose instincts as a writer tended toward subtlety and complexity. Folk tales are often rural in setting, simple in structure and straightforward in resolution. The results of such a mind coming to bear on such materials are stories of elegance and profundity. They are perfect blends of the simplicity of the folk tale on the one hand and the questioning, ironic intelligence of the author on the other.

And yet for all the impact he once had on the cultural lives of Ashkenazic Jews, Peretz is little known today, his work and reputation having suffered the same diminishing fate as the Yiddish language in which he wrote. A few years ago, when I excitedly told friends that I was going to be speaking at a Peretz conference in Poland, no one knew whom I was talking about. I had to explain over and over again who Peretz was. I did it by retelling some of his stories, as I have done here. There is, after all, no better way to pay tribute to a writer than to talk about his work. So this is my tribute to the great, complicated intellect of Yitskhok Leybush Peretz, whose stories, many of which are available in English translation, have given me endless pleasure over the years and endless food for thought.

Goldie Morgentaler is the translator and editor of Chava Rosenfarb’s collection of short stories, In the Land of the Postscript: The Complete Short Stories of Chava Rosenfarb, published by White Goat Press.