To the Editor:
I should begin by pointing out that I translated two of the pieces for Isaiah Sheffer’s production, “The Theatre of Peretz,” which Irving Howe so thoroughly roasts [“Peretz Off-Broadway,” January], and that therefore the remarks which follow are made from an utterly partisan point of view. On the other hand, I have been far from New York since well before the Gate Theatre production went on the boards, so that what I have to say here is entirely my own and unsolicited. My knowledge of the production is based on several tryouts that were held last spring.
Mr. Howe seeks grounds for his critique of what he sees as excessive sentimentality in the production by stressing that Peretz was an ironic and sophisticated writer. Indeed, this is true, and some of the bitterer aspects of Peretz’s irony were well represented in this production, in several sketches that Howe does not take the trouble to mention, evidently because he would then be forced to tone down his diatribe. On the other hand, Peretz is the author of Shulim Bayyis, which also has its ironies, but which ends nevertheless on a note as unequivocally sentimental as ever drove a Jewish grandmother to tears in a New York theater. In addition, this sentimentality works, a fact which represents a quality of Yiddish literature not readily to be found elsewhere, as Mr. Howe well knows; and which furthermore suggests that Peretz and Howe, for all the capacity for irony that they might share, do not see the world in precisely the same way. Howe’s interpretation of “If Not Higher” is certainly a valid possibility; meanwhile, would the fact of its being ironic in conception mean that any of the characters in the story are seeing their situation ironically? Would the Litvak’s conclusion that the rabbi, because he turns out to have been helping the poor, and the goyishe poor at that, is therefore holier than he or anyone had imagined, necessarily be a consciously ironic realization? Even then, possibly, but only possibly, and if valid, this interpretation would certainly help us to see Peretz as something more like a New York intellectual of the 1960’s. But since Peretz was not that, but rather a pre-1914 European who believed sentimentally in socialism, it seems to me quite valid to suggest that Peretz even felt, and thus also the Litvak of his story, that the rabbi had achieved true holiness. In any case, Howe has not sufficient grounds for viewing Shelter’s interpretation as some kind of sin.
Since Mr. Howe’s nastiness is really quite disproportionate, and since he really does not seem to address himself honestly to all the elements in this particular production, one is led to wonder what he is up to. He is apparently attacking something more general than this dramatization seems to him to represent. Why, for example, if he is angry at its sentimentality, does he pass so lightly over Zvee Scooler, the central actor of the production, and the chief perpetrator of the sentimentality that is in it? We are to gather that Scooler, being of the authentic Yiddish-speaking generation, is entitled to its faults. Indeed, Howe, who sometimes argues like a member of some kind of Yiddishist high priesthood, would best not try to quarrel with a man whose credentials for membership are better than his own. Rather, he directs his shafts against the other two members of the troupe, the young, two-hundred-per-cent Americans who are forced to make an effort if they are to find some kind of Yiddish-like idiom for themselves. That this is a difficult task is obvious, and that the results had faults is to be expected, but Howe once again treats this as some kind of sin that should never have been perpetrated. I am reminded of the remarks made by some of the authentic old Yiddishists who were present at the first try-out of this production, last spring at the YMHA. In effect they said, not bad, but why didn’t you do it in Yiddish? In other words, why do it at all? It is striking how many of the Yiddishists of America would rather see everything that is precious about the tradition they uphold go down ultimately and completely to its grave, than have some of its qualities preserved by being taken out of the exclusive circle of the high priesthood.
The fact is that there are many people who might have been too young to see Paul Muni as Emile Zola but for the repertory cinemas that are now to be found all over the city, who are entitled to the pleasures of whatever glimmerings of the Yiddish tradition can be salvaged and passed on to them, even though they cannot read the language. In the meantime, there are hazards in the task of conveying this tradition to Americans that were evident even before Howe told us about them. For example, the Yiddishe-mamma sentimentality of suburban theater crowds. This is perhaps the greatest hazard, above all because there is something in the texts that readily leads to this kind of thing, though, of course, it took American commercialism to transform this tendency into utter vulgarity. This fact means that all attempts to develop an audience for Yiddish literature must walk a dangerous line, especially in the theater, where immediacy is a major factor. In trying to find an idiom in English for the Yiddish tradition—something that has not been achieved yet because the task has been mainly left to the commercial barbarians of the movies and television—Sheffer’s production had necessarily to walk this line. I think it did so rather successfully, but this, as I have warned above, is a partisan opinion. Meanwhile, I would be interested in hearing Mr. Howe differ with this opinion by discussing what he saw on the stage, rather than by giving vent to some of his favorite stock responses.
To the Editor:
. . . The Rabbi of Nemirov in “If Not Higher” did not disappear “each Sabbath” and the Litvak does not follow the rabbi “one Sabbath,” as Mr. Howe writes. The opening sentence of Peretz’s story reads: “The Rabbi of Nemirov used to disappear every morning during the slichos days.” In fact, the parable of “If Not Higher” that Professor Howe suggests may be a projection of the reviewer’s outlook rather than the intention of the author.
Did Peretz permit the last words of the story, “if not higher” to be an “enigmatic” retort? Are the deeds of the Nemirover “secular saintliness”? It is important to review the internal evidence.
First, the rabbi is a pious Jew. Peretz tells his readers that when the rabbi got up he did “everything a Jew is supposed to do . . .” See Liptzin (ed.), Peretz, p. 177. That is, he performs the rites outlined in the Shulchan Aruch. Later, the rabbi does not neglect prayer when he absents himself from communal worship to bring wood to a sick Jewish widow; he recites the slichos as he lights the oven.
Secondly, the Litvak is not a maskil, a creature of the secular enlightenment. He still has the traditional sidelocks. He is well-educated, but all his learning is traditional too. To keep from dozing during the long wait for the rabbi to stir from his house, the Litvak rattles off “an entire tractate” from the Talmud by heart.
In fine, the ritual always accompanies the deed. Both are equally important. Given the men and the circumstances, they must be. Peretz describes a Sabbath-observing “moral hero.” The Litvak’s “higher” may refer to the Presence of the Almighty in the Seventh Heaven.
In any case, Professor Howe’s “complexity” is not necessarily Peretz’s.
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . I did not see the performance of Peretz which Mr. Howe writes of, but for the sake of argument I am willing to concede that the show was bad. My objection, however, is to the reviewer’s tone, so superior and caustic; it is a tone very easily adopted by people who are in the business of compiling, editing, and criticizing. . . . Rather than blast the company, Mr. Howe should have praised them, if not for the finished product, at least for the effort and love that went into it.
As a member of an amateur theater group connected with the Jewish community center in Cincinnati, I know from my own experience how extraordinarily difficult it is to find decent scripts in English of “Jewish content.” . . . Therefore, when a group makes an effort to do Peretz, it behooves people of Mr. Howe’s ilk to tread softly, to speak kindly, and to quietly pray that the toddling infant will pick himself up and take a few more steps toward the growth of something we someday hope to call “Jewish theater in America.”
To the Editor:
Irving Howe’s article . . . contains a serious error of fact in regard to the story, “If Not Higher.” In the original by Peretz, the rabbi disappears during the Penitential Days (between Rosh Ha-shanna and Yom Kippur); in Mr. Howe’s report this is changed to the Sabbath. Both Hasidic wonder-workers and doubting Litvaks shared the belief that one does not chop wood on the Sabbath. Peretz, who was neither, sounded no such antinomian notes as are implied in the new version. I do not know if the error is that of Mr. Sheffer, who presented the sketch, or of your reporter. In either case it should be corrected.
(Rabbi) Philip Zimmerman
Long Beach, New York
To the Editor:
When I went to see “The Theatre of Peretz” . . . I found myself charmed, grateful to Peretz for having inspired the piece and furnished its substance, and to the players and director for having so tastefully and imaginatively put their talents to work on Peretz (of all possible choices). . . . May it now be that a serious student of Peretz like Irving Howe (author of one of the most illuminating essays on Yiddish literature) comes to a program like this one with a prior interpretation of every story and every line, and is then upset that the music does not sound at all as it did when he played it to himself?
Indeed, the very opposite of Howe’s contention may be closer to the truth—one who is unfamiliar with Peretz, a non-Jew perhaps, may find the evening more rewarding than one who comes to see whether the production is a true rendition of the Peretz he knows.
I found Isaiah Sheffer’s gleanings from the Peretz treasure and his adaptation of them to the American stage a choice bit of kleinkunst, replete with ingenious tricks of stagecraft. Perhaps it brought us a part of the whole Peretz, or one way of reading him, or perhaps it suggests, as Professor Howe does suggest, that there is much, much more of Peretz waiting to be revealed in the magic atmosphere of the playhouse.
The Workmen’s Circle
New York City
Mr. Howe writes:
Let me thank those correspondents who have kindly, and otherwise, noted my error in summarizing “If Not Higher.” That the Rabbi of Nemirov performs his extraordinary deeds during the Penitential Days rather than the Sabbath, does not affect my argument that Peretz is using the Litvak’s relationship to the rabbi as a way of establishing both traditional kinship and ironic distance toward the pieties which the rabbi is supposed to embody. It is a poor service to Yiddish literature to suppose that a writer like Peretz was simply retelling folk tales without adding to them something of his own sophisticated and ironic sensibility.
The rest concerns opinion: and I see no point in repeating here the grounds for judging “The World of Peretz” an artistic failure. The nebbish argument of Mr. Silverman explains why there is so much self-indulgent mediocrity in “American-Jewish culture.” Mr. Sanders deserves to be taken seriously, and I have only the space to remark that if he wishes to know why I thought the play not merely bad but offensive, he can find the reasons in my review. “The World of Peretz” was, with the best of motives, a sugary exploitation of Yiddish literature; and I have no hesitation in saying, as I said in my review, that Mr. Scooler, with his oracular hamminess, contributed mightily to the exploitation.