6: Another antecedent: Excerpt from I. L. Peretz’s, “My Memoirs,” 1913-15, trans. Seymour Levitan.
I. L. Peretz (1852-1915) is considered one of the founding and most important writers of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature. As a child in Poland, he was raised in an Orthodox home and received a private education in Talmud and commentaries. As a young man, he turned toward the Jewish Enlightenment, educating himself in on secular topics and Enlightenment literature. In this excerpt from his memoir he describes the moment when he expanded his reading beyond Jewish sources into what he describes as “their” besmedresh, the study house of the gentiles. As he describes it, a book dealer learned of his exceptional scholarship and offered young Peretz the keys to his library. In the excerpt, Peretz describes his feelings on entering the library for the first time.
Suggested Activities: Have your students discuss the following questions: What are the stages that Peretz goes through as he develops intellectually beyond traditional Jewish thought and knowledge? Why does he describe the physical space where he studied non-Jewish texts in such detail – what is the relationship between non-Jewish spaces and non-Jewish knowledge for him? Why do you think he quotes “Those who enter will never return” (Proverbs 2:19)? This is the same passage that Shulem Deen chose for the title of his memoir. Why do you think each author chose this passage, and does it mean the same thing to each of them? What is the boundary line in each author's imagination which, once crossed, can never be retraced?
Source: I. L. Peretz, “My Memoirs,” trans. Seymour Levitan in The I. L. Peretz Reader, edited by Ruth R. Wisse. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 343.