Isaac Leib Peretz

Icchak Lejb Perec, Icchok Lejbusz) (1852-1915)
The writer Icchak Lejb Perec is recognized as the creator of modern Yiddish literature.

Peretz was born in Zamosc into a family of small shop keepers, in which his father's liberal attitudes were balanced by his mother's traditional and Orthodox upbringing. She never allowed her sons to attend non-religious schools. To a large extent Peretz was self-educated.

He wrote in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish. In keeping with tradition, he started his own family at the age of eighteen. After a few years however, his wife left him and took their son with her. Peretz went to Warsaw to study law. There, he met enlightened Jews and made his first attempts at writing poetry, which he nevertheless quickly abandoned. In 1876, he gained the qualifications needed to practice law and returned to Zamosc, where he dedicated himself to his work and to community activities. He also started a second family.

After his time in Warsaw and his renewed contact with Jewish writers, he was inspired to write poetry in Hebrew, as well as small prose works, which were published in 1887. This influenced Peretz's future not because of the publication's artistic significance, but because of the envy it engendered in one of his rivals, who later told the tsarist authorities that Peretz was a socialist. As a result, Peretz was deprived of the right to practice law and instead dedicated himself
to writing in Yiddish in his attempts to support himself.

He contacted Sholem Aleichem, who intended to publish a Yiddish-language literary journal. He sent him sentimental and ironic poem entitled "Monisz". Aleichem edited the work for style at Peretz's request. Peretz was disappointed with the final effect, although both writers were dedicated to Yiddish literature and were not rivals, for a long time they did not discuss their writing. Aleichem, nevertheless, later published other works by Peretz. When he read Falkstimleche geshichtn (Yiddish, Folk Tales), he appreciated Peretz's writing and recognized that his Chassidic mysticism had artistic value, although he had previously considered it to be Peretz's weak point. This did not mean, however, an end to the writer's financial troubles.

At that time Jan Bloch, a well-known Warsaw financier and philanthropist, founded a group whose task it would be to describe the life of Jews in the Polish provinces. Peretz joined the group in an attempt to earn a living. He collected materials on his travels through cities and small towns that had a Jewish population. On the basis of the materials he collected, he gave lectures in Warsaw in Hebrew, and participated actively in Jewish society. Another collection of stories was titled Familiar Scenes, in 1891 he published Bilder fun provintsrayze (Yiddish, Pictures from Travels through the Provinces). From these titles, it is apparent that Peretz was using his experience and knowledge in his literary works, providing his own commentaries.

In 1890, he took a clerical position in the Community government in Warsaw, a job that he kept until the end of his life. This gave him the stability he desired.

He published numerous articles dealing with anti-Semitism, as well as fanaticism and intolerance within Jewish society itself. He also wrote about the difficult situation of Jewish women. In his poetry, he presented his social ideals.

After being arrested by the tsarist police for participating in illegal gatherings, he was deported for four months. In 1909, he published a play presenting an idealistic vision of Jewish spirituality, The Golden Chain. It was staged by the Kaminskis in Warsaw, where it was enthusiastically received by the public.

Peretz translated his own works from Hebrew into Yiddish and vice versa, and adapted many of his earlier stories for the stage. During the First World War, he helped Jews who had lost their homes. He died of a heart attack soon thereafter.

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