The World of I.L. Peretz
IT IS customary to speak of three figures-Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz-as the founders of modern Yiddish literature, but for those readers who must encounter them mainly through the rough lens of English translation, they are by no means equally accessible or attractive. Mendele seems permanently locked into his culture, and while translators can give us approximations of his language, they cannot yield enough of his references, allusions, and satiric thrusts to enable an alien reader to understand why he is so highly regarded in the Yiddish world. Sholem Aleichem is a universal genius whose overflow of invention and humor survives almost any translation. But Peretz (1852-1915) presents us with a problem. His name is known and occasionally honored, his work is little read. More “modern” in outlook and sensibility than Mendele or Sholem Aleichem, he is nevertheless the most prominent among those Yiddish writers who turned back for their materials to the half-buried past of East European Jewish life. Deliberately cultivating the legends of the Hasidic rabbis and retelling old stories that had been handed down in the Yiddish oral literature, Peretz submitted his restless mind to the enticements of a religious-folk tradition even as he was rejecting the formal systems of religious belief associated with it.
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