1: Short story excerpt, I. L. Peretz’s “If Not Higher!,” 1900, English translation by Ken Frieden, 2011, and reading in Yiddish by Leib Tencer, ca. 1990.
The Yiddish text here is taken from the story’s original appearance in the pioneering Yiddish weekly Der yud (the masthead and article title have been juxtaposed directly above this excerpt, though they do not appear thus in the original). Here, Peretz’s Litvak protagonist hides under the bed of the rebbe to see whether or not he really does ascend to Heaven in the morning at the time of slikhes, the “Penitential Prayers” recited by Jews in the days leading up to the Jewish New Year, a period of atonement. As Peretz’s literary conceit here is that his story is a “khsidishe ertsehlung” (“a Hasidic tale”), a claim asserted by the subtitle, we find here some gentle mocking at the Litvak’s expense.
Suggested Activity: Play the recording of native Yiddish speaker Leib Tencer reading the excerpt and have students follow along in English or Yiddish (or both). First ask students to describe Tencer’s style of reading. How would they characterize it? Humorous, conversational, mocking? Does hearing it aloud change their perception of the story at all, after having read the whole text?
Now have the class examine the figure of the Litvak in the excerpt. Is this an entirely mocking characterization of the Litvak, or is there some subtle signaling of his virtues? Remember that though his methods may seem ridiculous here, by the end of the story, he receives a heightened knowledge and understanding of the rebbe’s practices, and so perhaps an even greater appreciation for the rebbe than the spiritual leader’s own devoted Hasidim.
Ask students to list as many stereotypes of the Litvak’s personality and priorities as they can find in this short excerpt. Then ask them to consider: how might these negative stereotypes in fact be advantages? How might Peretz’s message, at story’s end, be in fact a synthesis of both the Hasidic and the Litvish points of view, in favor of what Peretz may see as a “higher” or more enlightened and modern Judaism?
Sources: I. L. Peretz, “Oyb nisht nokh hekher! A khsidishe ertsehlung” (“If Not Even Higher! A Hasidic Tale”), in Der yud (The Jew) 2:1 (Krakow and Warsaw: January 11, 1900), 12, http://jpress.org.il/Olive/APA/NLI/?action=tab&tab=browse&pub=DJD&_ga=2...., accessed January 20, 2020.
I. L. Peretz, “If Not Higher!”, trans. Ken Frieden, in Classic Yiddish Stories of S. Y. Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, ed. Frieden (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011), 164.
I. L. Peretz, “Oyb nisht nokh hekher!”, read by Leib Tencer from Peretz’s book Khsidish (Hasidic) (Montreal, QC: Jewish Public Library, 1980s–90s), track 14, Yiddish Book Center’s Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books, https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/collections/audio-books/smr-276I.L.Per..., accessed January 20, 2020.