The classic Yiddish writer Yitzkhok Leibush Peretz died on this date in 1915 at the age of 62. A son of the Jewish enlightenment (Haskole), he nevertheless remained romantically attached to the Judaism of his youth (he was raised in an Orthodox family) and incorporated religious folklore into his deeply humanistic writings. With Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Sforim (Mendele the Bookseller), Peretz turned Yiddish into a rich literary language and brought it onto the world stage. His two most famous stories were “If Not Higher,” about a hasidic rebbe who performs manual labor incognito on the high holy days, when his followers believe he’s in the heavens negotiating on their behalf, and “Bontshe the Silent,” about a downtrodden man of piety and poverty who is too meek even to claim his reward in heaven. Peretz also wrote poetry and works for the stage and helped other Yiddish writers advance their careers. He worked as a lawyer and an official of the Jewish community in Warsaw, where he died.
“If we [Jews] wish to be true to ourselves, the vital questions are: conscience, freedom, culture, ethics.” — Y.L. Peretz
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.