Seven Good Years
And Other Good Stories of I.L. Peretz
Translated by Esther Hautzig
Illustrated by Deborah K. Ray
Jewish Publication Society, 2004, 94 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 22, 2010
Everyone who enjoys short stories has his and her favorites. I have three: two by the Jewish Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz and one by the Christian Argentinean writer Jorge Borges. The two Peretz tales are in this volume Bontche Schweig and If Not Higher, along with eight others. The Borges tale is The Aleph.
While the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem, known for Fiddler on the Roof, captured the humor and pathos of the Jews living in small towns in horrible discriminatory circumstances, Peretz's stories are on the whole critical of the way people behave and mock what he saw as God's treatment of humanity.
If Not Higher is critical of the way people think. Peretz's sharp pen ridicules the piety of the town's Chassidim who foolishly and superstitiously suppose that their rabbi is so holy that during the days before the high Holidays, when the rabbi disappears from town, he goes up to heaven to intercede for the wrongs committed by his congregants. The man decides to follow the rabbi and see what he actually does during his disappearance. Does he really go to heaven and, if not, where?
Bontche Schweig, which some translators render Bontche the Silent, focuses on God. Peretz tells how the angels in heaven were embarrassed by how Bontche was treated on earth during his life. The story begins:
Here in this world, the death of Bontche made no impression on anyone at all. No one knew who Bontche was, how he lived, of what he died. No one cared whether his heart had burst, or his strength had given out, or whether he had died of hunger.
Later, the story continues:
But it was not so in the next world. There Bontche's death was known to all. The Messianic horn resounded in all the seven heavens. In paradise there was a joyous tumult: "Bontche Schweig is dead! Bontche has left the earth!"
Young angels with sparkling eyes, gold filigree wings, and silver slippers ran around joyfully and told one another: "Bontche Schweig is coming! Just imagine!"
But the angels in heaven did not understand the world as I. L. Peretz did, and with wit and skill and biting memorable irony, he makes this crystal clear in this his best story.