Read Everyday Jews: Scenes From a Vanished Life Online

Authors: Yehoshue Perle

Tags: #Fiction, #Jewish, #Cultural Heritage

Everyday Jews: Scenes From a Vanished Life

Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life

Yehoshue Perle

Edited by David G. Roskies

Translated from Yiddish by Maier Deshell and Margaret Birstein

Yale University Press

New Haven and London

The New Yiddish Library is a joint project of the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center.

Additional support comes from The Kaplen Foundation, the Felix Posen Fund for the Translation of Modern Yiddish Literature, and Ben and Sarah Torchinsky.

Series editor: David G. Roskies


Introduction by David G. Roskies

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three


David G. Roskies

His plan was to write a trilogy that would encompass “more than forty years of Polish Jewish life” and would do for Yiddish letters what Gorky had done for the Russian. Where other writers might have faltered along the way, he brought this hugely ambitious work to completion, even while holding down a full-time job for thirty years. And when a night of terror descended on the world, he evaded death—first under Stalin, then under Hitler—long enough to report on Polish Jewry’s last chapter, as well as to write his own requiem. What survived was a timeless masterpiece, part of a trilogy without a known ending; two ferocious chronicles from out of the whirlwind; and a life story that unfolds as a three-act drama.

Act I sets forth the rise of a poor Jewish lad from the Polish provinces. Yehoshue Perle (pronounced PEHR-leh), known as Shiye, was born in 1888 in Radom, a typical multiethnic Polish town, then still under Russian rule, 43 percent of whose roughly nineteen thousand inhabitants were Yiddish-speaking, observant Jews. Polish Catholics, Protestant Evangelicals, and Eastern Orthodox Ukrainians completed the mosaic. Measured by the three indicia of family pedigree, rabbinic learning, and wealth, which determined one’s standing in Jewish society, the Perle family was deficient on all counts. Home was a wooden hut with an earthen floor near the New Mill, where his father, Leyzer, eked out a living selling hay. On Fridays, in preparation for the Sabbath, the floor was sprinkled with fresh sand bought at Khane-Beyle’s store on Synagogue Street, located in the old part of town.

Both parents had grown children from previous marriages, but Shiye, by most accounts, was the only surviving offspring of their life together. Father expected each child to fend for himself. So when Mother left for Siberia to serve as a nanny for the child of her beautiful daughter Rukhtshe, Shiye was taken out of school and sent to work as a clerk in Yosl Green’s dry goods store, where his tenure was exceedingly brief. Nor did he last very long at his next job, as a locksmith. Thus Shiye’s formal Jewish (and smattering of Russian) education came to an end when he was twelve years old, just shy of his
bar mitzvah

However, his mother, remembering better times, had great ambitions for her young son. After returning home from Siberia, she scraped together enough money to hire a private tutor, with whose help Shiye completed the full four-year curriculum of the local Russian gymnasium in two. On the occasion of the death of the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, the sixteen-year-old extern composed his first poem, in Russian, which he declaimed before a group of bona-fide gymnasium students decked out in their military-style uniforms.

His mother also saw to it that Shiye learn a useful profession to take him out of poverty—accounting.
A year later, the fateful year 1905, when tsarist Russia was torn between anarchy and democracy, hope and fear, the seventeen-year-old Shiye boarded the horse-drawn omnibus bound for the metropolis of Warsaw. (Some say he left home in the wake of a romantic debacle.) There, and for the next thirty years, he would lead a double life, working from nine to five in a starched collar and speaking perfect Polish, first as an assistant bookkeeper in a bank, then as chief accountant in a large mill. As bookkeepers go, he cut an impressive figure, his dark blue eyes framed by steel-rimmed glasses and his mustache neatly trimmed. Accustomed to frugal living, he rented a modest apartment on Orlo Street. Rumor later had it that Perle had vowed not to quit his job at the mill until he reached two “fifties”: fifty years of age and fifty thousand zlotys put away in his savings account.

Then there was the other Perle, jovial and ebullient, salt of the Jewish earth, who spoke his broad, superidiomatic Polish Yiddish for all the world to hear at public readings presided over by the Olympian I. L. Peretz (1852–1915), or at the more intimate literary salon of the ethnographer and cultural activist Noah Prylucki (1887–1941). Peretz, at a rehearsal of the Yiddish Drama Circle, introduced Perle to the beautiful and talented Sarah, the gravedigger’s daughter, and Prylucki launched Perle’s literary career by publishing his first, neo-romantic sketch on the Sabbath, after it was turned down by the editor of the Yiddish daily
for being too “literary.”

Sarah was the love of his life. They married, moved to more spacious quarters on Nowolipie Street, in the heart of the Jewish district, and a son, known as Lolek in Polish and Israel on his birth certificate, was born to them in 1919.

These were heady years both for Poland, recently freed from tsarist domination, and for its Jews, newly liberated from the shtetl. Two of Poland’s native sons, Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1905 and Wladyslaw Reymont in 1924, were awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. By the end of World War I, Warsaw had also become the new center of Yiddish cultural activity; even before Armistice Day in November 1918, the Union of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw had moved into permanent quarters on Tłomackie 13, next door to the Great Synagogue. There, Yehoshue Perle felt very much at home.

Politically, too, Warsaw was a congenial place for a budding Yiddish writer with leftist leanings. Warsaw was fast becoming a bastion of the Jewish Labor Bund of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, which represented the interests of the Jewish working class within the Social Democratic movement. Despite his starched collar and steel-rimmed glasses, Perle shared with the Bund an anti-bourgeois, anti-Zionist, and pro-Yiddish eschatology. He broke ranks with the Left over its radical secularism. Throughout his life, Perle maintained a deep interest in traditional forms of Jewish behavior and remained respectful of them. As a member of the honor guard at the grave of the prominent Yiddish and Hebrew writer Hirsh-Dovid Nomberg (1876–1927), Perle, almost alone among his fellow writers, insisted on wearing a skullcap.

Not surprisingly, romance and lyricism were the stuff of his early writing—a martyrological “Legend,” as retold by a grandmother (1920);
In the Land of the Vistula
(1921), a prose poem about a Jewish beauty seduced by a Polish nobleman; contemporary tales of seduction set among the Polish-speaking, rising middle class, like the novella
(1921); a prose poem about the beautiful “Ruta” (1921); and the collection of short stories provocatively titled
(1923). Perle’s lyricism, unfortunately, marked his work as derivative. “His whole manner of writing,” complained Shmuel Niger, the preeminent Yiddish critic of the day, “is a patchwork: a piece from here, a piece from there.”

Niger expected writers of the postwar generation to speak in the voice of Naturalism, the writing school that laid bare all of life’s passions, mendacity, and social evils. In Polish-Yiddish letters, the particular mode was aggressively promoted by I. M. Weissenberg (1881–1937), who failed to recognize Perle’s talent, even when twenty-five Yiddish prose writers and poets made their collective voice heard in the
Warsaw Almanac
of 1923, with Perle prominently among them. Alongside the critical realism of I. J. Singer (1893–1944), A. M. Fuks (1890–1974), and Leyb Olitsky (1894–1973), Perle’s novella
gave Yiddish readers a slice-of-life portrayal they had never before encountered: the dreary, deracinated life of Polish Jews working in a bank owned by two pfennig-pinching Jewish brothers. At a leisurely pace, Perle takes us through fifteen identical years in the life of Jakub Winkler, a Jewish Bartleby the Scrivener—the exemplar of emptiness, thwarted desire, and total isolation; the modern, marginal man, as suggested by his very name,
meaning “corner.”
Linguistically transparent, the novella might have been written in Polish and is perhaps indebted to the great Polish realist Boleslaw Prus (1847–1912). In that same year of 1923, militant Yiddishists, with Melekh Ravitch (1893–1976) at the helm, took over the Yiddish Writers’ Club, and Perle was elected to the new board.
Economic security, true love, and literary success—by the age of thirty-eight, Perle seemed to be firmly established.

Act II began and ended with catastrophe. One day in 1926, as Melekh Ravitch, his colleague, neighbor, and fellow accountant, would recall, the Warsaw Yiddish literati came running to Perle’s apartment and found him lying on the floor in a paroxysm of grief. In a corner hung the lifeless body of his wife, her long braids askew. Sarah had left no suicide note. For months on end, the bereaved husband would cry out to anyone who listened: “Why did she do it? Why did she do it?”

Following this tragedy, Perle resolved never to remarry and to dedicate his efforts to Lolek. Hoping to augment his income—he would now need a full-time housekeeper for his son—Perle turned to the fastest-growing literary commodity, the market for
, trashy, serialized novels. Writing under the pseudonym of three asterisks, laid out just so—

—Perle began churning out sensational serializations for the Yiddish daily
with such titles as:
Jewish Blood, Downhill, Behind Seven Locks, Reviled and Rebuked, Gold and Bread.
Each installment was avidly awaited by a new mass market of Yiddish readers potentially numbering in the millions, young and old, male and female, pious and freethinking. Perle, of course, was not alone in exploiting this lucrative sideline. Even serious writers of respectable backgrounds, like Yitskhok Bashevis (I. B. Singer; 1904–1991) and Aaron Zeitlin (1889–1973), were guilty of the practice, not to mention Israel Rabon (1900–1942), from the rough-and-tumble city of Lodz, the Manchester of Poland.
For some reason, however, it was Perle who bore the brunt of the acrimony. The “Three Asterisks” became synonymous with the sellout of Yiddish culture to “the bourgeois yellow-sheet press.” Perle was blamed for corrupting the morals of Jewish youth. Itzik Manger even demanded that Perle (and Rabon) be hauled before a literary tribunal,
and Perle was publicly rebuked by Kadia Molodowski at the General Assembly of the Yiddish P.E.N. Club on November 1, 1933.
But the cruelest blow came at a special “Day of Yiddish Literature” in August 1935, observed at the World Gathering of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Over eight hundred people were in attendance at the Vilna Conservatory of Music. When Perle began reading from his work, some younger members of the audience shouted, “Get down from the stage, you pornographer!” Perle was visibly crushed, and the festive day came to an abrupt end.

Other books

Marked by Norah McClintock
Darkness by John Saul
The Girls by Amy Goldman Koss
Breakup by Dana Stabenow
The Apple Tree by Daphne Du Maurier
The Crocodile Nest by Des Hunt
The Duchess Hunt by Jennifer Haymore
Less Than Nothing by R.E. Blake Copyright 2016 - 2022