Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Where is the rabbi? In heaven, no doubt - the neo-Hasidic I. L. Peretz

I. L. Peretz was expert with the sort of story I wrote about yesterday, detailed, small-scale. See not just his stories, but the remarkable Impressions of a Journey through the Tomaszow Region in the Year 1890 (1891), supposedly the record of an actual research expedition on the condition of rural Jews, but who are we kidding.

His signature pieces, though, are a series of neo-Hasidic fables or folk tales. Peretz himself was not a Hasid, and not at all a mystic, and in general the more secular, rationalistic Jews saw the Hasidism as misguided and its followers as superstitious gulls. That's what makes Peretz's fables so surprising. They are not satirical, or not merely so.

In "If Not Higher," all three pages of it, a Hasidic rabbi vanishes every Friday morning. Where is he? "In heaven, no doubt," his followers say.

"But a Litvak came, and he laughed. You know the Litvaks. They think little of the holy books but stuff themselves with Talmud and law. So this Litvak points to a passage in the Gemara - it sticks in your eyes - where it is written that even Moses our Teacher did not ascend to heaven during his lifetime but remained suspended two and a half feet below. Go argue with a Litvak!"

The rationalist outsider, the Litvak, decides to debunk the miracle. He conceals himself and follows the rabbi secretly engages in charitable acts. The Litvak becomes a disciple of the rabbi. Whenever anyone claims that the rabbi ascends to heaven, he no longer laughs, but "only adds quietly, 'if not higher'."

So the Hasidic believers in fact are superstitious and ignorant. Except that they are correct, the rabbi is a miracle worker. Except the miracle is the result of acts, not divine intervention. Except the acts are directed from where, exactly? Who wins the argument, the Hasids or the rationalists?

That's how Peretz's fables work. Ironies follow ironies. Meanings unfold one after the other. The Hasids are fools, but so is the Litvak, so are the secularists. So is Peretz, maybe. That's something else he shares with Chekhov - they're both modest writers, not pronouncers of grand doctrines.

My library has an illustrated, slightly simplified, children's' version of "If Not Higher," as well of a few other Peretz tales. I read the version in The I. L. Peretz Reader, a remarkable book. I think I said that yesterday, too. Don't miss "Yom Kippur in Hell."


  1. I likes. I liked him yesterday too. And during Golem week. So, yeah, on the list.

  2. I expanded my reading of The Yale Digital Yiddish Library to "The Kabbalist" a short story by I L. Peretz set in a small Tslmudic school. I will read more of his work soon, I hope.