The Jewish poet, novelist, and playwright Isaac Loeb Peretz (1851-1915) was the leader of Yiddishism, a cultural movement dedicated to making Yiddish the national language of Jewish people throughout the world.
Isaac Peretz was born in Zamość, Poland. Early Hasidic influences were counteracted by the progressive atmosphere in his native town. Peretz's first linguistic affiliation was with Hebrew, and although he later became the leader of Yiddishism, his devotion to Hebrew remained unchanged.
At the age of 3 Peretz studied the Bible in Hebrew, and at the age of 6 he studied the Talmud. In his youth he read widely in Polish literature. At an early age Peretz married the daughter of a man who dabbled in Hebrew poetry, and he settled in a little town where he became a partner in a brewery business. Peretz subsequently divorced his wife and spent the years 1876-1877 in Warsaw, where he made his living as a Hebrew teacher. At that time he began his literary activities. His first poem, written in Hebrew, was published in Hashahar in 1877.
Peretz then returned to Zamość, where he married again and intended to found a Hebrew school. However, he entered a partnership in a flour-milling business. Soon afterward a new Russian legal code was adopted, and Peretz decided to become a lawyer. He passed the district court law examinations, and for the next 10 years Peretz practiced law successfully. During these years he wrote Hebrew and Yiddish poems, but he did not publish them. By this time Peretz was also interested in Jewish social problems. Because of the interest he took in the poor, Peretz was later considered a Socialist, and this may have been the reason why his license to practice law was revoked. In 1886 Peretz returned to Warsaw. There he worked as a lawyer, but later he undertook a tour through certain parts of Russia and Poland in order to gather statistics for an economic survey. This tour also gave Peretz material on and insight into Jewish life for his stories and poems, as exemplified in his Pictures from a Journey through the Country. In 1887 the poem "Monish, " which marked Peretz's future importance to Yiddish literature, appeared in Sholem Aleichem's Die Yiddishe Folksbibliotek (The Jewish Popular Library). Later, as editor of the annual Yiddishe Bibliotek, Peretz published articles on chemistry, physics, economy, and other subjects. His poems "Melodies of the Time" and "The Little Town" greatly impressed critics and readers alike.
At that time Peretz also expressed in his larger literary works his profound appreciation of Hasidic life. In 1889 an informer reported to the authorities that he was a revolutionary, and Peretz was deprived of his license to practice law. With the support of his friends he soon obtained a post as secretary of the Jewish Community of Warsaw and remained its employee in increasingly important capacities until his death.
In 1890 Peretz's first book—a collection of stories—was published under the title Familiar Pictures. With the help of other men of letters he began editing The Jewish Library—a series of publications dealing with literature and social problems. These publications became the focal and rallying point of burgeoning Yiddish literature and literary talent. Peretz was not permitted to publish a Yiddish daily; but he published occasional "Holiday Pages, " which greatly contributed to the promotion of Yiddish literature. In 1894 he published an impressive book of Hebrew love poems and short stories. In his drama Die goldene Kait (The Golden Chain) and in such other Hasidic treatments as By Night at the Old Market Peretz expressed appreciation of the Jewish spiritual tradition. He spoke the language of the common man and expressed the pain, idealism, and messianic hope that lodged in Jewish hearts.
In 1899 Peretz was arrested as a Socialist and spent 2 months in prison. In his enthusiasm for the labor movement he belittled the Lovers of Zion and the Zionist movement, although he clearly stated that in principle he was no opponent of these national movements.
Peretz's many hardships affected his health, and on April 3, 1915, he suddenly succumbed to a heart attack.
An anthology in English of Peretz's work is In This World and the Next: Selected Writings, translated by Moshe Spiegel (1958). Maurice Samuel, Prince of the Ghetto (1948), is a biographical account. Peretz is discussed in Charles A. Madison, Yiddish Literature: Its Scope and Major Writers (1968).