Thanks to a very generous gift from Yale University Press I have begun another permanent long term Reading Life Project, Yiddish Literature. My prior posts have some back ground information on the culture from which Yiddish literature came. I am also on the opening stages of another new long term project, The Literature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and I feel these two projects should be mutually illuminating. Both of these cultures were deeply into the reading life and essentially similar forces doomed them both. (All old projects continue on.). The literature of these societies were produced by and large by deeply cultured men. If there are any high status Yiddish female writers translated into English, please let me know.
"What is the Soul" is a kind of coming of age story of a young student at a rabbinical school. It reflects the deep reference those in this tradition had for scholars and learning. The student, a young man, is preoccupied with concerns about the nature of the soul. He asks his teachers if Goys have souls, if animals do, if it is corporeal and how it survives death. He gets many different answers. You can see in this story how the Yiddish community defined itself through a contrast with Christians (Goys) and to a lesser extent fully European Jews. (In works by Viennese Jewish writers you will hear Jews calling others Jews "Yids" in derision.) We see the student begin to realize his teachers may not know.
"What is the Soul" is very much reading and gives us a look into a lost world.
Isaac Leybush Peretz (1852–1915) is one of the most influential figures of modern Jewish culture. Born in Poland and dedicated to Yiddish culture, he recognized that Jews needed to adapt to their times while preserving their cultural heritage, and his captivating and beautiful writings explore the complexities inherent in the struggle between tradition and the desire for progress. This book, which presents a memoir, poem, travelogue, and twenty-six stories by Peretz, also provides a detailed essay about Peretz’s life by Ruth R. Wisse. This edition of the book includes as well Peretz’s great visionary drama A Night in the Old Marketplace, in a rhymed, performable translation by Hillel Halkin.
“If you want to discover the beauty, the depth, the unique wonder of Yiddish literature—read this volume by its Master.”—Elie Wiesel
(From Yale University Press)