I.L. Peretz (1851-1915) lived most of his life in Warsaw, Poland. He wrote in Yiddish. His fiction was instrumental in creating
a more aesthetically sophisticated Yiddish literature, as opposed to one aimed primarily at popular entertainment. Peretz
questioned Jewish traditions and superstitions in the light of modernity. Educator, supporter of the labor movement, humanist,
Peretz looks forward to such fine contemorary Jewish writers as I.B. Singer and Saul Bellow.
"If Not Higher"
by I.L. Peretz
Early every Friday morning, at the time of the Penitential Prayers,
the Rabbi of Nemirov would vanish.
He was nowhere to be seen--neither in the synagogue nor in the two Houses of Study
nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. His door stood open; whoever wished could go in and out; no one would
steal from the rabbi. But not living creature was within.
Where could the rabbi be? Where should he be? In heaven,
no doubt. A rabbi has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe. Jews, God bless them, need livelihood,
peace, health, and good matches. They want to be pious and good, but our sins are so great, and Satan of the thousand eyes
watches the whole earth from one end to the other. What he sees he reports; he denouneces, informs. Who can help us if not
That's what the people thought.
But once a Litvak came, and he laughed. You know the Litvaks.
They think little of the Holy Books but stuff themselves with Talumud and law. So this Litvak points to a passasge in the
Gemarah--it sticks in your eyes--where it is written that even Moses, our Teacher, did not ascend to heaven during his lifetime
but remained suspended two and a half feet below. Go argue with a Litvak!
So where can the rabbi be?
not my business," said the Litvak, shrugging. Yet all the while--what a Litvak can do!--he is scheming to find out.
That same night, right after the evening prayers, the Litvak steals into the rabbi's room, slides under the rabbi's
bed, and waits. He'll watch all night and discover where the rabbi vanishes and what he does during the Penitential Prayers.
Someone else might have got drowsy and fallen asleep, but a Litvak is never at a loss; he recites a whole tractate
of the Talmud by heart.
At dawn he hears the call to prayers.
The rabbi has already been awake for a long
time. The Litvak has heard him groaning for a while hour.
Whoever has heard the Rabbi of Nemirov groan knows how
much sorrow for all Isreal, how much suffering, lies in each groan. A man's heart might break, hearing it. But a Litvak
is make of iron; he listens and remains where he is. The rabbi, long life to him, lies on the bed, and the Litvak under the
Then the Litvak hears the beds in the house begin to creak; he hears people jumping out of their beds, mumbling
a few Jewish words, pouring water on their fingernails, banging doors. Everyone has left. It is again quiet and dark; a
bit of light from the moon shines through the shutters.
(Afterward the Litvak admitted that when he found himself
alone with the rabbi a great fear took hold of him. Goose pimples spread across his skin, and the root his earlocks pricked
him like needles. A trifle: to be alone with the rabbi at the time of the Penitential Prayers! But a Litvak is stubborn.
So he quivered like a fish in water and remained where he was.)
Finally the rabbi, long life to him, arises. First
he does what befits a Jew. Then he goes to the clothes closet and takes out a bundle of peasant clothes: linen trousers,
high boots, a coat, a big felt hat, and a long wide leather belt studded with brass nails. The rabbi gets dressed. From
his coat pocket dangles the end of a heavy peasant rope.
The rabbi goes out, and the Litvak follows him.
the way, the rabbi stops in the kitchen, bends down, takes an ax from under the bed, puts it in his belt, and leaves the house.
The Litvak trembles but continues to follow.