I. L. Peretz

The I. L. Peretz Reader, edited and with an introduction by Ruth R. Wisse (White Goat Press, 2023)

[Peretz’s] works stand in brilliantly evocative tribute to a bygone era.
Publishers Weekly

Isaac Leybush Peretz (1852–1915) is one of the most influential figures of modern Jewish culture. Born in Poland and dedicated to Yiddish culture, he recognized that Jews needed to adapt to their times while preserving their cultural heritage, and his captivating and beautiful writings explore the complexities inherent in the struggle between tradition and the desire for progress. This book, which presents a memoir, poem, travelogue, and twenty-six stories by Peretz, also provides a detailed essay about Peretz’s life by Ruth R. Wisse. This edition of the book includes as well Peretz’s great visionary drama A Night in the Old Marketplace, in a rhymed, performable translation by Hillel Halkin.

What the Critics Say

“If you want to discover the beauty, the depth, the unique wonder of Yiddish literature—read this volume by its Master.”—Elie Wiesel

“For any American reader, this will be a handy and skillfully edited selection of the most representative writings of one of the masters of world literature. For any Jewish American reader, it will also be a monument in commemoration of . . . a writer who . . . laid the foundations for the modern Yiddish literary tradition.”—Stanislaw Baranczak, The New Republic

“The tales, which occupy most of the book, vary widely. Some have the form and tone of simple folk tales. Others suggest a Hasidic-like mysticism, sometimes approaching the surreal. The best, I think combine both a sympathy for the values of the shtetl and a note of irony.”—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Peretz’s] works stand in brilliantly evocative tribute to a bygone era.”—Publishers Weekly

About the Author

"I. L. Peretz, (born May 18, 1852, Zamość, Poland, Russian Empire—died April 3, 1915, Warsaw), prolific writer of poems, short stories, drama, humorous sketches, and satire who was instrumental in raising the standard of Yiddish literature to a high level. Peretz began writing in Hebrew but soon turned to Yiddish. For his tales, he drew material from the lives of impoverished Jews of eastern Europe. Critical of their humility and resignation, he urged them to consider their temporal needs while retaining the spiritual grandeur for which he esteemed them. Influenced by Polish Neoromantic and Symbolist writings, Peretz lent new expressive force to the Yiddish language in numerous stories.

"Peretz effectively ushered Yiddish literature into the modern era by exposing it to contemporary trends in western European art and literature. In his stories he viewed Hasidic material obliquely from the standpoint of a secular literary intellect, and with this unique perspective the stories became the vehicle for an elegiac contemplation of traditional Jewish values.

"The Peretz home in Warsaw was a gathering place for young Jewish writers, who called him the 'father of modern Yiddish literature.' During the last 10 years of his life, Peretz became the recognized leader of the Yiddishist movement, whose aim—in opposition to the Zionists—was to create a complete cultural and national life for Jewry within the Diaspora with Yiddish as its language. He played an important moderating role as deputy chairman at the Yiddish Conference that assembled in 1908 at Czernowitz, Austria-Hungary (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), to promote the status of the language and its culture."

About the Editor

"Ruth R. Wisse has made major contributions to Yiddish literature as both a scholar and an editor. Wisse earned an MA at Columbia with an award-winning thesis on Abraham Sutzkever’s poem 'Green Aquarium,' before going on to a PhD at McGill with what became her first book. Wisse began teaching at McGill in 1968 and helped found the university’s pioneering department of Jewish studies. Wisse was the first editor-in-chief of the Library of Yiddish Classics and published a number of anthologies of Yiddish literature. She also wrote literary histories and political commentaries, most famously If I Am Not for Myself...: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews. In 2000, she won the National Jewish Book Award for The Modern Jewish Canon. As a scholar and a literary and social critic, Ruth R. Wisse is a unique figure in American Jewish letters. She bridges the worlds of Yiddish and American culture, of literature and politics, and of Israel and the diaspora.

"Wisse is best known in literary circles for her collaborative anthologies with Irving Howe: The Best of Sholom Aleichem (1979) and, together with Khone Shmeruk, The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (1987). Her most sustained works of literary history are A Little Love in Big Manhattan: Two Yiddish Poets (1988) and her monographic study I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (1991). She was also the first editor-in-chief of the Library of Yiddish Classics ...and] her political essays [...] appear regularly in Commentary, The New Republic, and The Jerusalem Report."