Commentary Magazine

Peretz Off-Broadway

In early November “The Theatre of Peretz,” a dramatization of nearly a dozen stories by the classical Yiddish writer, was presented at a small off-Broadway house.1 The production was obviously a labor of love and, one would guess, a defiance of the laws of economics. That a genuine feeling for the theater and an intense devotion to Yiddish culture went into this effort makes it all the harder to say what in honesty must be said: it was all a disaster, from beginning to end. By now this would hardly require any comment, for there is no shortage of bad plays in New York. What prompts me, nevertheless, to turn back to “The World of Peretz” is that seeing the play raised in my mind a number of problems about the whole effort to present Yiddish literary works in English.

A table, two or three chairs, a large board with pegs on which there hung shawls and hats: that was the simple but effective setting. Three actors appear on the stage, one of them declaiming a bit of information about Peretz as the others change costumes in the darkened but visible background. Then all come forward, acting out versions of the Peretz stories that have been stripped to their anecdotal core, so that little pretense is made that they are being rendered with any fullness of characterization. This is a stage technique that invites intellectual assent rather than dramatic illusion; we are to respond not so much to the skits themselves as to the ideas and attitudes of Peretz which they are meant to illustrate. Mr. Isaiah Sheffer, who did the adaptations, chose to concentrate on Peretz’s Hasidic and folkstimliche tales, a choice, one might suppose, which would in itself provide continuity and coherence.

But in fact there was neither continuity nor coherence. It was impossible to discern any principle of sequence or development in the presentation of the sketches, for there was no guiding idea behind them other than the impulse, so unhappily characteristic of middle-brow exploitation of Yiddish, to show Peretz in his “warmth.” (That Peretz wasn’t really so “warm” a writer, that a good many Yiddish writers aren’t so “warm” either, is a heresy that can be appreciated only by those who actually read Yiddish.) A number of the pieces chosen by Mr. Sheffer are among Peretz’s weakest, and as they were adapted for the stage—which is to say, as they were further softened—it became impossible to gather from them what it was that Peretz thought or felt or stood for. Fundamentally the production was parasitic: to make any sense of it you had to bring to the theater your own idea of Peretz, just as to make sense of the movie Lawrence of Arabia you have to bring your own idea of T. E. Lawrence.

Each of the actors performed in a sharply different style, as if to illustrate the clash in current assumptions on how the Yiddish past can be confronted. Zvee Scooler, a veteran Yiddish actor in whom the corn runs native, did Peretz in a style reminiscent of Paul Muni playing Zola: rich with twinkling warmth and wisdom, for which, it must be said, there is plenty of warrant in the tradition of the Yiddish theater. Mr. Scooler was trying, at the same time, to be restrained: he had to consider the young Americans with whom he shared the stage. But he is what he is, or rather, he is a worn version of what he once was. Opposite him, as narrator and foil, was Mr. Sheffer, much younger and very self-conscious, reciting in the rhythms of Talmud Torah eloquence. And finally there was Miss Nancy Franklin, a lovely girl clean out of Actor’s Studio, who played with lilting embarrassment and antiseptic sweetness. It was almost as if three generations had been put on display, each revealing the troubledness of its response to the idea of Yiddish, the cultural past they were supposed to admire but about which they could project no impression other than its supposed “warmth.” Dramatically a mish-mash, these juxtapositions of style did lend a kind of cautionary moral to Mr. Sheffer’s attempt to “transplant” Peretz into English.

I say “transplant” rather than “translate” because “The World of Peretz” cannot be called a genuine translation. An English version of a Yiddish play or story, like an English version of a literary work from any language, ought to be self-sufficient and intelligible in its own right; it ought to command the attention of a cultivated non-Jewish audience without the aid of glossaries, friends, and winks. This “The World of Peretz” did not even try to do: its effects depended crucially on tapping the ready sentimentalism of American Jews who nourish a few memories of Yiddish and precisely to the extent that they have forgotten the language find themselves growing fonder of it.

The actors spoke their lines in heavy sing-song, what is commonly accepted as a Yiddish intonation; and I found it offensive. Mr. Scooler’s accent did not trouble me at all: it is his, and it is genuine. But when Miss Franklin tried to imitate the speech rhythms of a Jewish mother, she was utterly false, from the top of her pretty head straight down to her toes. For a Yiddish intonation is appropriate only to Yiddish speech; and most of what is these days regarded as Yiddish intonation has little to do with the ways in which Jews have spoken or speak the language, but is, I would insist, a stylized corruption stemming from American mass culture. To transpose this intonation to English is to create a mode of speech neither Yiddish nor English nor even immigrant Jewish-English. Artistically, it is about as valid as doing a production of Phèdre in which the leading actress speaks English with a comedy-French accent.

What emerged, then, in “The World of Peretz” was a hybrid such as has never been heard on sea, land, or Second Avenue. No matter how good Mr. Sheffer’s intentions, his play was a sustained exploitation of nostalgia and as such, a debasement of the Yiddish tradition. That many institutions in the American Jewish world, not least of all the Yiddish press, lend support to such debasements may be true; but it is no excuse.

And a debasement not only in style, but also in content. Peretz’s stories are not dramatic: they depend very little on visible events, they create no complex or memorable figures, and they seldom generate obvious excitements. Most of his stories are in the tradition of chochmah, cleverness and wisdom. Everything depends, particularly in his fragile retellings of Hasidic and folk tales, on a sly twist of phrase, a clever turning of incident by means of which Peretz renders problematic—or as the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein has brilliantly remarked, by means of which he brings into the 19th century—materials that were originally untouched by the modern sensibility. Peretz reworks folk and Hasidic themes in a way that appears to be folk-like but is actually the outcome of a sophisticated literary intelligence. Peretz the modern intellectual, the man who measures the distance between himself and the pieties to which he returns, is always in sight. As the late Isaac Rosenfeld has written:

The pragmatic stamp is on every word. The tone of wonder is given by the intelligence and not by the Hasidic awe it represents. Peretz shares the faith of which he writes but at a considerable remove, and it does not rest for him in the objects or efficacies of the Hasidic mystique, nor does it express a natural piety of utterance, as with prayer; his is a borrowed piety, taken from the intelligence, adept at translating one mode into another.

In the end Peretz must always part company with the Hasidic wonder-workers, for he cannot really share their oneness of vision. They tell stories, he retells them: it is a world of difference. Consider, for example, the first sketch used by Mr. Sheffer, “If Not Higher.” This famous piece concerns a skeptical Litvak who sneers at reports that the Rabbi of Nemirov ascends to heaven each Sabbath. To find out for himself, the Litvak follows the Rabbi one Sabbath and discovers that what he actually does is to disguise himself in peasant clothing and chop firewood for poor women. The Litvak becomes “converted” and now, when he hears the Rabbi’s disciples claim that their master enters heaven on the Sabbath, he adds the enigmatic phrase “if not higher.”

The story can be read as a parable of Peretz’s own literary situation: the skeptical Litvak recognizes the saintliness of the rabbi, but sees it as a pragmatic or secular saintliness; he adores the rabbi as a moral hero rather than an accomplice of God; and the rabbi, in turn, would probably refuse to accept the Litvak’s mode of discipleship, for he could not recognize the possibility of anything “higher” than heaven.

Almost nothing of this came through in “The World of Peretz,” where the sketch was played for sweetness and piety, and Mr. Sheffer spoke its concluding line with a neutrality of stress which suggested he had no clear idea as to what Peretz was doing.

But come to think of it: does one really have to know what Yiddish writers are doing? Can’t one just assume they are all “warm” and “humane” and enamoured of “the little man?” That they are all haimish and quaint (haimish for the older folks, quaint for the younger . . .)? In this way one can approach Peretz with an amiable lack of discrimination, a good-hearted condescension, so that what emerges in Mr. Sheffer’s adaptation is not Peretz’s stories as molded by his fine intelligence, but the stories as they might have been before he touched them.

Yet some uneasiness remains. Suppose Mr. Sheffer had truly grasped the complexity and ambiguousness of Peretz’s vision. Suppose he had seen that in Peretz we have a writer who is, paradoxically, both a Jewish culture-hero and a modern alienated artist. Would he then have been able to dramatize Peretz’s work in a way that would satisfy a serious audience? The answer is not at all clear to me, for I am increasingly disposed to accept the view of Maurice Samuel, as expressed in his Prince of the Ghetto, that the work of a writer like Peretz is so interwoven with subtle and half-lost cultural references that it cannot be translated at all but must be “retold” with the aid of commentary and exegesis. And this may be more than the stage can handle.

“The World of Peretz” did not even approach these problems—that is the main complaint to be made against it. And the result is that the true afficionado of Yiddish must turn away in embarrassment, while the intelligent outsider has little choice but to conclude that the critics who praise Yiddish literature are guilty of a parochial enthusiasm.

In the last few years, things “Jewish” have suddenly become very popular in America, and among the more thoughtless journalists in the Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish press this has led to bouts of celebration. But those who care about Yiddish and have some sense of both its possibilities and limitations, may yet have to conclude that while the death of a culture is a tragic prospect, there are certain kinds of survival that might be even worse.




1 “The Theatre of Peretz,” presented by YAL Company at the Gate Theatre. Adapted and staged by Isaiah Sheffer.

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