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One of the founders of modern Yiddish literature, Peretz was at first published in Sholem Aleichem's miscellany, Di Yidishe Folks-Biblyotek, but disagreed with the Master about what Yiddish literature should become. Peretz is less of a vivid storyteller and social portraitist of shtetl folk, and more the moralist than Aleichem. Within the folklore framework of these neobiblical tales runs a vein of skepticism, a rage against the ""scales of justice"" that machinate against the ""unending meekness"" of the poor. ""The law, shmaw!"" shouts the protagonist of ""Berl the Tailor"" when his God denies his simple livelihood: ""I will not serve the Lord again until He agrees, this year, to forgive the sins of man against man."" The saints of Peretz's world serve a power higher than heaven. The Hasid rebbe of ""Between Two Peaks"" defends his heretical pietism to his orthodox rov: ""Because your Torah, teacher, is a matter of rules. It is without compassion. No spark of charity! . . . Teacher, what do you give to those who are not scholars?"" But the vision of exaltation and tenderness he reveals to the rov vanishes with one lofty command of the scholar. When ""Three Gifts"" of martyred souls are delivered to heaven as the price of entry, the Eternal Voice condescends, ""Truly beautiful gifts, unusually beautiful. . . . They have no practical value, no use at all, but as far as beauty is concerned -- unusual."" Even at their best, when the traditional authorities take notice of their servants, they have no sense of proportion. In ""Joy Beyond Measure,"" the Lord of the Universe ""buys"" the soul of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhok -- but was it equal to his ransom of the whole world? Moral ambivalence is the touchstone of this welcome addition to the Yiddish canon in translation.

Pub Date: June 24th, 1974
Publisher: Schocken