By I. L. Peretz
From Di verk fun Yitshak Leybush Peretz
(The Works of Isaac Leibush Peretz)
Edited by David Pinsky
New York: Jewish Book Agency, 1920
Volume 10, Pages 132-139
(Yiddish original available at Archive.org as part of the Yiddish Book Center’s Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library)
(Originally published in 1903
in honor of Jacob Dinezon’s 25th Jubilee)
Translated from the Yiddish by
Jacob Dinezon is more a moralist, an ethics-teacher, than an artist. Or, at the very least, one could say the artist in him got down on his knees before the liberal ethics-teacher and submitted—and gave way, it seems, for a whole lifetime!
That means: first be liberal, good, and honest; only after that be beautiful.
A picture, a scene, the bit of painted life, these cannot be an end in themselves. Life has perhaps in itself no purpose! The artist must consequently show at least: that one person should love another; that one sex should not oppress the other; that falseness, intrigue, fanaticism, and other evil qualities do not lead to good; that “Jewishness” is not the superstitious belief in rebbes with their miracles . . . and the like. Does this diminish Dinezon’s worth?
Certainly not. One need only look back at Jewish life before these most recent times . . . one need only remember and imagine those legendary muddy, impoverished shtetls, the whole chaos of old Jewish cities and towns.
Before a more or less organized world could work itself up out of the Chaos—but with all kinds of different national, class, and human interests, or perceptions of the same; before the waters could part on the surface and below; before the sky above filled with stars and the earth below became fertile—while the “young folk”—the name of the new-rising world—had rotted, despairing and weary, had simply faded into fanatic-oppressed darkness—somebody had to come and say: “Let there be light!”—had to throw a lightly warm beam over the “darkness on the face of the abyss.” First, there must be light, and afterwards one will be able to see what to do.
And perhaps the failure lies only in the language. If the language—and at the time of Dinezon’s appearance no one doubted it—if the language is no goal in itself, because it has no future—her literatures must also exist not for itself alone, but to serve someone or something, be for the sake of someone or something.
As it happened, it was Dinezon who said, “Let there be light.”
If you will, Dinezon is no sun, no moon and no stars. They, perhaps, have yet to come . . . he is however no false flame which rises up and trembles over the marsh, leading the wanderer away from his path . . . he’s also no low-flying glow-worm! and also no spark among the loose sparks which rise up and fly, supposedly, over a smithy, and give a lovely moment to the eye, but never to the heart. And also not one of the sparks which the constantly-running locomotive throws under itself, unconcerned with them or their burial . . .
If you will, Dinezon is no eagle. He doesn’t fly so high, he doesn’t have such strong wings and also no sharp eagle’s eye, to take in the far horizons . . . but he is also no night bird which flies away before the first sunbeam of the day, and also no parrot mimicking the words of other lands . . .
Dinezon is an honest, faithful swallow, an honest faithful swallow ready at any moment to tear the feathers from his breast, to the last feather, to line the nest of the youngster, to make his nest warm . . . ready to do what is fitting every moment, to tear open his breast and nourish a young one with his own warm blood . . .
No sun, no moon, no stars, only a truly pure light to the soul which has placed itself in the darkened holy ark from which the holy books have already been removed and nothing more remains than the empty Kiddush and Havdalah flasks . . . one truly pure light to the soul, with which he went down into the deepest abyss, where the seeds of new life had rotted, and he woke it to rebirth, to blooming and blossoming out over the Chaos.
Over the course of his 25 literary years, Dinezon didn’t give the Jewish reader many titles: The Dark Young Man, A Stone in the Road, Hershele, and Yosele, and a few small works. But the Folk took those that he did give and read them over and over. They felt this was “flesh of their flesh, bone of their bones,” it melted into their blood like salt in water. Anything stronger, the Folk could not digest; anything greater, their mouth could not take in. And no tragedy had extracted so many tears, torn so many hearts and made them tremble, as the poor beaten-down Yosele, who called himself thief.
And never had such a righteous hatred flamed over all that’s bad and evil, as over the Dark Young Man who with his intrigues annihilated a family of blameless souls. And to this very day, the reader can’t be calm, not knowing what truly became of the beautiful-singing beloved Hershele who was driven by convoy from the town, one doesn’t know whence, or if he still lives, and if so—how.
Dinezon is a moralist. He wants to make the reader good and honest, to wash his soul clean, make his head clever and clear. The artist submitted to the ethics-teacher and suffered his heroes to declare to their loved ones—in order that the Jewish reader hear—what true Jewishness is, what is good and religious. And also: where rain and snow fall from, what clouds are, why part of the sky is sometimes red . . . But he doesn’t come to the people Israel with the whip, as did the old maskil, and not swishing it over the shoulders . . . he is no “cruel teacher” and also no “old heretic” with wanton laughter. And also no prosecuting attorney who enumerates for the guilty ones the Al Khet, a litany of their sins, with a proud triumph or bitter small-heartedness.
He speaks as a brother to a brother, very often as a mother to a beloved child—from heart to heart, with a loving-hearted sadness, with a sad loving-heartedness . . .
The way one ought to have spoken to the sick ghetto-children . . . the artist in him kneels before the moralist, gives way, is abandoned . . . but not bound and as a sacrifice burnt on his altar. He lives and breathes. We feel his breath, we hear his pulse everywhere . . .
Weaker in the exalted personages (the heroes the moralist calls upon to do his will and float around in the air without flesh and bones, and speak about Enlightenment, wisdom, Jewishness, Judaism, and uprightness) . . . stronger in the secondary characters, in the little people from whom the moralist very often turns away his eye, forgets about them, letting them bloom and grow in the finest artistry . . . in The Dark Young Man, found in the communal aunt, a Kabbalist, Shmieh the Batlen, Piskalnik the teacher . . . the old serving maid in Stone in the Road. Scenes from Chasidic life, images from the study-house, the leading of a sinful maiden around the market, and similar characters that tear themselves out of Dinezon’s hand and live their various individual lives in spite of the moralist.
After twenty-five years, Dinezon’s soul received a new spring, bloomed again in the newspaper, Fraynd (Friend). A new novel, Alteril, a great many sketches, novellas, holiday tale. Thinking over Dinezon’s new works, as with his old, it’s patently obvious: he is the most read, the most known of all; it’s hard to imagine a Jewish reader who doesn’t know Dinezon’s works.
One other question can torment us.
Dinezon is writing his latest works even now! Today, when a Jewish world has already emerged from the Chaos, when a new life blooms with burning new questions. Is Dinezon coming along with this trend?
No! He has only gone deeper, from where the old “Chaos” is not yet gone; deeper, to the lowest sphere and strata of people who can’t be freed or redeemed from the damp, rotted darkness! And down there the masses still remain, the majority of the Folk . . . the thousands, the tens of thousands of souls who beg for improvement.
A Rebbe once told how he wandered between the Dark Mountains, where the people had almost lost their eyes in the eternal darkness because they hadn’t any use for them, because they didn’t know how to use them; and what has no use, isn’t nourished and passes away in time . . . and the people, who had for a long time not known how to use their eyes, lived by their ears like rabbits; with their sense of smell, like dogs; and clambered about in the darkness from one life-branch to the next, like sloths. And if somebody told that he’d heard from his great-great grandfather—from the time before the exile to the Dark Mountains—a legend about light days, or a dream about a light-filled paradise, people laughed or said: “There must once have been such a sickness, such an epidemic, perhaps such a mania-caprice!”
And the chosen few who still had a remembrance of the good old times were silenced, and their belief in light and in dreams of a light-filled paradise hid still deeper in their hearts. And while the Rebbe wandered lost, he found those few, called them together, and said: “Come, together we will get out of the darkness, and go towards a light day, to the bright paradise.” And some, in whom belief resolutely lived, obeyed and went with the Rebbe. They went and went, over valleys and mountains, through fields and forests. Without light, without a path. Over stones and thorns and among wild animals . . .
And on the way some of the few fell, tired and weak, with wounded feet. They let themselves fall on the earth, and said: “We go no further! We won’t survive this, here we will die, because the end of human life is closer than the end of the darkness!” Others cursed in rage, and in rage denied the bright light of paradise. Still others asked: “Who will be our leader, who will lead us back?”
And many fewer continued on; groaning, full of doubt and sadness . . . but one of them, the eldest, had stayed close by the Rebbe the whole time, holding his sash, going forward step by step, and hadn’t doubted for one second, not become angry for a second, never said one angry word on the way. He went forward on wounded feet, and in the darkness smiled at the light ahead . . .
But later, when the light showed itself . . .
When one saw from afar a silver fog . . . and in the middle of the fog a big, bright lightness; and in the middle of the lightness, a snow white table set with golden chairs; with tzadikim (holy ones), shining like the sun, around the table; with crowns on the holy men’s heads . . .
Then they—who had earlier cursed, doubted, hesitated, laid down and died in the darkness—began to dance and sing, and dancing and singing they ran toward the light, to the golden, revealed paradise . . .
The Rebbe sighed, “They should have begun to fly, but they had no wings, so they ran . . .”
But the old one, the always-satisfied, faithful-hearted one—the one who had, through the whole time of darkness, smiled toward the light—suddenly let go of the Rebbe’s sash and stopped.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked the Rebbe. “Now, you really have paradise revealed before your eyes.”
“True,” the old one said, “but what will become of the others?”
And he turned around and pointed to the Dark Mountains . . . he won’t go any further without them, he can’t go without them, he must go back and tell them what he has seen . . . they’ll believe him . . . he’ll come together with them! . . . He’ll come with the very last ones . . .
And he went back to the Dark Mountains . . .
“And there goes,” the Rebbe said, “if not the greatest, at least the best of all . . . the rest might have never found their way . . .”