The Kennedy Center

Yiddish poetry

About the Work

Isaac Leybush Peretz Composer: Isaac Leybush Peretz
© James Loeffler

Mayn muze (My Muse)

A teater iz di velt (The World is a Theater)

Meyn nisht (Don't Think)

Di tsayt (Time)

Hof un gleyb (Hope and Faith)

Dos yor (The Year)

Amol (Once)

Zay mir gut (Be Good to Me)

Perhaps more than any other single individual in late nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, Isaac Leybush Peretz ushered Yiddish culture into the modern age. Like Bialik, Peretz saw literature as the key to national revival for Jews in Eastern Europe. Rather than be seduced by Western culture, Jews needed to forge their own art in their own languages, Hebrew and Yiddish. But this art could only succeed in the context of a larger Jewish cultural renaissance that included music, theater, and art grounded in traditional Jewish religious sources.

Peretz grew up in a prominent family that provided him with tutors to accommodate his prodigious intellect. Along with Talmud, he imbibed the literature of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), European literature and thought, and several European languages. He spent a decade working successfully as a lawyer in Zamoshtsh before a mysterious political denunciation led to the loss of his professional license. Relocating to Warsaw, he found work as a clerk for the Jewish community council. In his spare time, he began to write. Soon a whole wave of works poured forth from his pen. By the mid-1890s, he had established himself as a major writer and editor in the world of Yiddish letters. Thereafter, he went on to mentor a whole generation of younger writers even as he continued to rise to the fore of modern Yiddish literature.

Like Bialik, Peretz's poetry mixed a distinctly modern introspective voice with social criticism and political exhortation. Inspired by the Polish positivist writers, who had responded to their political powerlessness with a turn to cultural nationalism, Peretz urged his fellow Jews to focus on building up their own cultural autonomy in Eastern Europe. Instead of emigration to America or Palestine, he emphasized that the Jews could and should build a modern presence within a multi-ethnic Polish society. Before this could happen, though, Jews would need to undergo an intense process of moral renewal.

This regeneration needed to begin with the liberation of the Jewish individual from the clutches of obscurantist religion and reactionary traditionalism. Though he drew inspiration from Hasidic life and thought, Peretz felt it imperative to recognize the yearning for personal freedom and fulfillment that was a universal feature of modern society. The most powerful expressions of this theme came out in his many eloquent lyric poems. These verses speak in startlingly fresh terms of the emotional pangs of unrequited love. In "Beynkenish un troyer (Longing and Sadness)," for instance, the poet invokes nature to convey his desperate longing for his beloved: "I long for you, like the scorched earth craves the first drops of a freshly-caught bird in a cage longs for the green a fish tossed onto the hot sand longs for the first green wave that will free it from death."

Along with individual freedom, the imperative to address social injustice and human suffering frequently take center stage in many of Peretz's poems. In "Meyn nisht" (Don't Think), for example, he lambasts those who assume the world is a tavern where they can "guzzle and swill at will" while the hungry look on with "stomach cramps of hunger and dried saliva in their mouths." Nor is the world a stock exchange ripe for easy material plunder at the same time as Jewish mothers must "sell the milk of their breasts" and "young Jewish girls must sell their honor" merely to survive. Peretz closes this jeremiad with a classic line from rabbinic tradition, quoted in the Aramaic original of the Talmud: "Meyn nisht, leit din ve-leit dayan." "Don't ever think that there is no Judge and no Judgment!" The traditional Jewish belief in reward and punishment is thus transmuted into a social critique for a secularizing age.

The flip side of such harsh invective was Peretz's deeply felt yearnings for a better world. This sometimes took the form of socialist aspirations, though he ultimately stressed Jewish national unity over the divisiveness of class conflict. Like Bialik, nature beckoned as symbol of optimism. "In Hof un gleyb" (Hope and Faith), he calls on Jews to "have faith, for spring is not far off." Nature will renew itself, bringing "new roses, new flowers," blue skies, "new stars and new suns."

Beyond his poetry, Peretz was one of the most passionate advocates for the Jewish musical renaissance that began in his day. He saw in Yiddish folk songs a precious cultural resource already in danger of disappearing in his day. Peretz's response was to encourage the Jewish intelligentsia to collect folk songs. He created a popular amateur chorus to spread musicmaking as a participatory ideal in urban Jewish society. On the Jewish Sabbath, he would gather his disciples at his house for informal secular sing-alongs. He went on to become a supporter of composers such as Milner and Krein. In turn, they returned the favor, setting many of his poems to song. In Peretz's vision, modern Jewish culture would only ultimately work as an organic whole, in which song, text, ritual, and community came together in a holistic Jewish experience.