Y.L. Peretz was born in 1852 in southeast Poland, where he would train as a lawyer and practice for ten years before being denounced by tsarist authorities for supporting Polish nationalism and socialism. He took up writing instead, crafting memorable plays, poems, and folk tales, through which, as Goldie Morgentaler notes, he strove to “hold up a mirror to a dispirited and persecuted people in which they might see the beauty and wisdom of their own collective soul.”
Peretz’s preferred method in his best stories—he wrote only stories, as well as plays and poetry, but no novels—is to take a set of opposites: the sinner and the saint, the body and the soul, the virtuous woman and the lustful one, this world and the next, and to allow them to play themselves out, initially in accord with the reader’s expectations. Then he pulls the rug out from under those expectations, sometimes by reversing them, sometimes by the use of only one word or phrase that devastatingly turns the story on its head. The saint ends up in hell; the woman who spent a lifetime lusting in her heart after non-Jewish men is revered for her virtue after her death; the three emblems of Jewish self-sacrifice and martyrdom that the wandering soul presents to the Gate Keeper in “The Three Presents” as the price of admission into heaven are pronounced as beautiful—beautiful, but useless.
Peretz’s most famous story, “Bontshe Shvayg,” (Bontshe the Silent) is arguably also his most cynical. . . . On earth, Bontshe is a nobody and no one notices his passing. But in heaven there is a joyous to-do when Bontshe’s soul ascends after his death, because here is that rare thing, a genuinely saintly, meek soul, untarnished by even the slightest moral blemish. . . . The Voice of God therefore decrees that Bontshe’s soul should have whatever it desires; he has only to ask and it shall be given. With all the vast resources of heaven his for the asking, what is Bontshe’s request? Only a roll with butter to eat every morning. The story ends with the Heavenly Prosecutor laughing.
Clearly, this story is a parable. But a parable of what? Is it a call to arms to the disenfranchised Jewish working class, a criticism of Jewish passivity in the face of anti-Semitism, an idealization of the humility required of the religious Jew, or a critique of the meekness that never complains about abuse? Is the story a criticism of the religious assumption that the submissive life lived without complaint will be rewarded after death in heaven?