I.L. Peretz's "If Not Higher!"

Resource Kit by
Mikhl Yashinsky

Module Content



The enormously influential Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz was born in 1852 to an Orthodox Jewish family in the Polish city of Zamość, an exceptional place where several different ideologies that dominated Jewish Eastern Europe at the time intersected. Peretz’s short stories often draw on the intersection of attitudes and beliefs that he was exposed to in his childhood.

In “Oyb nisht nokh hekher!” (“If Not Higher!”), a community of Hasidim, followers of dynastic leaders called rebbes who emphasized prayer and spiritual ecstasy, reckons with a “Litvak,” that is, a “Lithuanian” Jew, stereotyped as cerebral and hyper-rational, and an opponent to the Hasidism which held sway farther south. Peretz views this conflict of Orthodox ideologies through the lens of the secular Haskole, or Jewish Enlightenment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to which he was a major cultural contributor.

In stories like “If Not Higher!”, Peretz draws on the formula of Hasidic folktales, with all their reverence for rebbes and wonder-working, but casts on them his distinctly modern and secular glance. The Hasidim of “If Not Higher!” believe their rebbe ascends to Heaven during the Penitential Prayers of the High Holy Days, and though a visiting Litvakan addition to the Hasidic tale formula that is Peretz’s own modern inventionseeks to disprove their belief, he ends up asserting that the rebbe’s generous deeds elevate him even “higher.” Peretz stands out among writers of the Haskole for the high degree of respect he shows for the Hasidic tradition and for the rebbe as moral and spiritual leader. In “If Not Higher!,” he uses this figure to make a case for ethical action that might appeal to both religious and secular Jews.

This guide provides text and audio excerpts from “If Not Higher!” and works adapted from or related to it, which are intended to give students perspective on the story and provide context for examining its distinct worldview.

Cover image: Лесоруб (“Lesorub,” “woodcutter”), a 1912 painting by Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich. Held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.