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Folk-Style Stories, I.L. Peretz (1908)

Tales that contain multitudes

David Samuels
September 17, 2013

My grandfather was the first person I ever loved. He was the only member of his large family to survive the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and he worked for most of his adult life in a tiny fruit store in the Jewish quarter of Montreal. I loved visiting him there and playing in the sawdust while he worked the old stand-up cash register in his white grocer’s apron. Only later did I discover that he hated fruit. His lifelong dream was to resume the studies at which he had excelled, and that were interrupted in his first year of gymnasium in Czarist Russia when he was accused of hitting the daughter of the governor in the eye with a snowball. (In my grandfather’s telling of the story, the girl protected him, but he was forced to leave school anyway.) After dropping a box of perfectly ripe fruit for me—oranges, cherries, nectarines—by the radiator in the hallway, he would settle into his chair, with a big stand-up hotel lobby ashtray at his left hand, smoke a few cigarettes, and take a snooze. Even better than watching him sleep was when he would wake up and see me there and then reach for the big book of stories by I.L. Peretz, his favorite Yiddish author. He would read me the stories in Yiddish, and freely translate them into English. I don’t know to this day which were stories by Peretz and which were stories that my grandfather made up, and which were the stories of his family, and the people he knew, and the shtetl he grew up in. What I know is that all of his stories contained the truth of his personal experience, including the ones by Peretz. I can’t think of a more meaningful thing to say about a writer.

David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.