Sholom Secunda’s If Not Higher is a musical dramatization of one of Isaac Leyb Peretz’s most famous short stories, “Oyb nit nokh hekher.” This story also forms the basis for an otherwise unrelated cantata in Yiddish by Maurice Rauch, which appears in its entirety in Volume 12.
Isaac Leyb [Yitskhoh Leyb/Leybush] Peretz (1852–1915), a Hebrew as well as Yiddish poet, prose writer, essayist, editor, and (secondarily and mostly in the last decade of his life) dramatist, is regarded universally as the actuator of modernism in Yiddish literature and as the architect of a modern Yiddish literary tradition. He is also viewed as one of a triumvirate of classical Yiddish writers who laid the cornerstone and ensured the vitality and progress of Yiddish literary culture—the other two of whom were Mendele Moykher Sforim [Sholem Yankev Abramovitch] and Sholem Secunda. Ultimately, however, Peretz’s path diverged from theirs. They were more absorbed with Yiddish as a folk language of the Jewish past that must be preserved and perpetuated, whereas Peretz employed and championed Yiddish as the foundation for a manifestly modern Jewish life and society—one that in retrospect might even be characterized as a “secular Judaism” (though neither he nor anyone of his generation would have invoked that term). For him, Yiddish would not only preserve the past as a foundational source for a revitalized Jewish consciousness, it would be the engine of Jewish existential continuity and identity.
Peretz’s injection into his writings of the psychological, social, and rational parameters of modernism—with his exploration of the issues, dilemmas, and conflicts they posed to characters and situations—thus diverged from the more conservative primary roles of Yiddish language and literature that other writers invoked as nostalgic expressions of traditional Jewish life. He also stood out from that trio, and from other Hebrew and Yiddish writers, by virtue of his relationship with Polish intellectuals and his specific connection to Polish culture—more so than to the Russian cultural influence at play among Haskala-affected Jewry and its writers in other parts of the Czarist Empire. In promoting Jewish culture in place of insular religious life as the prime force of modern Jewish peoplehood and as the ensurer of a viable post-Emancipation Jewish existence, he continued at the same time to identify on certain levels with—and even model some of his ideals on—Polish struggles for national and cultural-national identity and preservation that had served as alternatives to political independence or sovereignty.
Peretz was born to a prominent, sufficiently prosperous, and traditionally religious yet modern middle-class family in Zamość, a small but relatively cosmopolitan city in Russian Poland. The religious circles of its Haskala-infused Jewish population had been, historically, on the side of rationally based opposition to Hassidism. Though not free of a history of antisemitism, which had included violent incidents, Zamość was, on balance, hospitable to Jews during Peretz’s time. His education, which included solid exposure to traditional Judaic learning in his youth—as well as to secular subjects, modern scientific reasoning, and Western knowledge—was mostly private. Through his own voracious reading, he went on to familiarize himself with rational dimensions of Judaic philosophy and to become conversant in the classics of Western civilization and the Western canon (extending to Polish literature)—often in their original languages, in which he was both tutored and self-taught. Until he was in effect disbarred by the Russian governmental authorities—for reasons that remain unclear, but which seem to have arisen out of unfounded denouncements or suspicions concerning support for Polish socialist or nationalist activity—he practiced law successfully for a decade in Zamość while continuing his literary pursuits.
Peretz’s earliest extant poems were written in Polish at the age of twenty-two. Turning to Hebrew and Yiddish writing, he eventually and increasingly fixed his focus on the latter as the language of a rapidly expanding secular Jewish readership. He never abandoned his concern for and attachment to modern Hebrew language and literature as simultaneously valued, indispensable linchpins of Jewish culture in its entirety. (Yet he was sharply critical of the dated, stilted neo-biblical Hebrew, melitza, born of earlier Haskala endeavors; see references in Volume 18). It was in Yiddish, however, that he came to intuit the most representative and the most effective voice of the totality of Jewish experience—not only because of its creative possibilities and emotional pull, but also (and hardly least) because of its practical value as the language of the Jewish masses.
In Warsaw, where he lived periodically and then permanently after the loss of his law license, Peretz began to publish Hebrew poetry in a number of important literary periodicals and collections. It was not until 1886 that he published his first prose. Two years later he contributed his now celebrated Yiddish ballad, “Monish,”to Sholem Aleichem’s anthology, Di Yudishe Folksbibliotek (The Jewish Popular Library), and he furnished a number of stories to be included in its second volume in 1889. Although he continued with Yiddish poetry, the major efforts for which he is best remembered are prose: much fiction (both original and recast folktales) along with political and literary essays for periodicals. He also edited and coedited numerous Yiddish literary journals and anthologies, often contributing his own writings. His first Yiddish book was a collection of his own stories published in 1890: Bakante bilder (Familiar Scenes).
In 1890, unemployed after the abrupt end of his law career, Peretz found temporary subsistence by participating in an expedition to gather statistical data about Jews and Jewish life in outlying Polish towns and villages. As a beneficial by-product, those travels and contacts provided him with a new fund of folk and other source materials for future writing, and he gained fresh perspectives on aspects and elements of Jewish societies that had been little transformed by modernity. Thereafter, he was relegated to employment within the bureaucracy of the Jewish communal structure in Warsaw. Apart from the material reduction in his living standards from his more comfortable situation as a lawyer, that new life also had its fringe benefits. In addition to a work schedule that afforded him much more time to write and to advocate on behalf of a Jewish culture movement, he dealt directly with the full spectrum of Warsaw Jewry. Like the expedition, that experience offered yet another array of sources for subject matter, characterizations, and psychological forays that found their way into his work.
Peretz went through a period of reassessment during which he appears to have revisited some of his assumptions about stubborn folkways and his attitudes toward folk wisdom, Hassidic sensibilities and values, some Hassidic leadership, and even Hassidism itself. Especially after his period of imprisonment in 1899 (ostensibly for perceived socialist sympathies or for aiding socialist activity, although he was not an uncritically committed socialist), he wrote neo-Romantic folk and Hassidic stories that embraced original material as well as recast versions of traditional tales in new illuminations. At his hand, these were not necessarily without deeper symbolic layers, metaphorical assignments, or camouflaged significance. He altered some of his attitudes, without reversing them altogether. Peretz did not diminish his condemnation of the corruption, ignorance, and perpetuated superstitions of Hassidism, but he found a nuanced way to use Hassidic and other Jewish folk environments and incidents to reexamine their merits on moral and ethical planes and to serve as a collective backdrop against which he could portray some of the diversity and mystery of an aggregate Jewish culture. Moreover, he came to appreciate some of the moral values and lessons underlying (even buried beneath) Hassidic practices, lifestyles, and beliefs. In a characteristically complex approach, he was able to separate these values from the religious dogma, for which he had no use, and from the systems of theological reliance and irrational faith that he believed modern Jewry must eventually relinquish.
To probe beneath the veneer of some of his stories, one must understand Peretz’s often complex and undulating attitudes toward socialism and the Jewish labor movement. Though he should not be labeled a socialist per se, especially in the sense of the full range of socialism’s ramifications or in terms of party allegiance, he nonetheless had socialist involvements—at times tangentially, at times more directly. In common with socialist and labor movements of his time in Poland were his commitment to social justice and his denunciation of economic exploitation—positions that he interpreted as inextricable from the values celebrated by Jewish culture and as the historical moral legacy of Judaism’s religious foundations. A number of his stories and essays reflect that conviction. He had serious reservations, however, about the materialistic emphasis of socialism, which he feared could mask—if not negate—equally important spiritual and creative issues in its implied priority of collective welfare over the worth of the individual. He was particularly disaffected by the calls from socialism’s more radical wings for class consciousness and class struggle, which stood in direct opposition to his concept of the strengthening of a cohesive, distinct Jewish peoplehood, or “folk,” which itself might be seen as a cultural-national consciousness. In that concern he turned out to have been prescient about the potential of populist oppression—a tyranny of the masses in structured form that could suffocate individualism and creative freedom. “I fear that, as the victorious ones, you might become the [former Czarist] bureaucracy,” he wrote following the 1905 Revolution.
In his optimism about the possibility of peaceful, even amicable coexistence of peoples and their individual cultures and languages in shared geographical boundaries and governments, Peretz was not so much an anti-Zionist as a non-Zionist. Just as he repudiated assimilation and dissolution of Jewish distinctness as solutions to Jewish survival, he also rejected systematized emigration—whether to supposedly liberal-democratic host nations in Western Europe or the New World, or to a Jewish national home in Palestine or elsewhere. He thought that a revitalized Jewish culture, reborn in part through its languages, would actually enable Jewry to hold its own alongside neighbor cultures in Europe. In a culturally pluralistic but politically unified Polish society, for example, both Yiddish and Polish—and among well-educated Jewish and non-Jewish circles, perhaps also German and Russian—would coexist, ideally in fruitful and intellectually stimulating synergies. For modernizing or secular Jews, he believed that neither Hebrew nor Yiddish should be discarded. Rather, they should be preserved by Jews in tandem with Polish and Russian—or, by extension, with the particular languages of other countries of which Jews were a part. For Peretz, Zionism was but one of the various Jewish political movements to which a fortified Jewish culture in its own languages could be a preferable alternative and better serve the Jewish future. The reinforced Jewish “folk” would then render Zionist ideologies unnecessary. The “folk” would be unified, identified, and perpetually vitalized by the totality of its culture rather than by political affiliation or geo-national goals.
Peretz assumed that culture, as the accumulation of Jewish experience, would eventually have to replace religion (at least in its conventional sense) as the driving force of an inevitably modernized Jewry; and he viewed Yiddish literature as basic to that culture. But he went further to propose that the Jewish cultural doyens and deans would come to replace the rabbinical establishment as a new type of secular spiritual leadership.
Determined in his conviction that Yiddish must forgo its provincial state, he insisted that it must become recognized as a universal and modern language of serious literature and discourse. At the 1908 conference in Czernowitz (Bukovina; then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but now in Ukraine), which was organized to establish the official status of Yiddish as a modern national language on a par with any other, Peretz’s role in the proceedings was paramount. That was ultimately the position that was adopted. Yet he successfully opposed an effort by some to declare Yiddish, not Hebrew, the sole Jewish national language. Though his primary concern was the defense of Yiddish and its core legitimacy, he could not sanction discarding Hebrew from its vital place in Jewish history and culture. By that time he had become the towering figure in modern Yiddish culture, for which he would be remembered in perpetuity.
“Oyb nit nokh hekher” (If Not Higher) is Peretz’s best-known Hassidic or neo-Hassidic tale. It takes place in the Polish town of Nemirov, where it pits a Hassidic rebbe and his devoted flock against a quintessential litvak (lit., a Lithuanian Jew, but also a designation in folk parlance for a rational, legalistically oriented Talmudist, a skeptic lacking in some of the emotional dimensions of faith, and an opponent of Hassidism—or at least of its superstitious folkways and beliefs and their distinctive mystical sacred texts.)
On Friday mornings during “s’likhes [s’liḥot] time”—the penitential season leading up to the High Holy Days, when a liturgy of penitential supplications is recited prior to the weekday morning service (see the notes to The First S’liḥot)—the rebbe vanishes, nowhere to be found. His Hassidim,or flock of followers, explain with certainty to the visiting litvak that they know where their rebbe goes: to heaven, to plead and negotiate with the Almighty on their behalf as the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashana, or yom hadin) approaches. They have never been told any such thing, of course, by their rebbe, who keeps his whereabouts a mystery. This is their own conclusion. (“That’s what the people thought.”) As expected, the litvak laughs and ridicules them. Almost spitefully, he determines to disprove their belief by following the rebbe. Having hidden under his bed all night, the litvak, unnoticed, observes early Friday morning that the rebbe disguises himself in the outfit of a Polish peasant worker, complete with an ax, and steals away past the town’s outskirts into the surrounding woods—all the while shadowed by the litvak. He watches as the rebbe fells a tree, chops it into firewood, and returns to town to offer it for sale cheaply to a poor, elderly, bedridden Jewish widow. She has no money; he will lend it to her, he insists. When she still declines out of fear that she would never be able to repay even so small a loan, he reproaches her—as a Pole or Russian speaking to a Jew: “Foolish lady! Look, you are a poor, ill Jew, and I have no problem with trusting you with a bit of wood. I know you’ll repay me. But you who have so great and mighty a God won’t trust Him for a few cents worth of wood.” She remonstrates no further. In the guise of a non-Jew gently shaming a Jew to trust in Judaic assurances, the rebbe apparently has succeeded in reminding her simply to have faith that God—whom Jews acknowledge daily in their prayers as the ultimate provider (m’khalkel hayyim b’hesed)—will indeed provide her some way to resolve so small a matter. Obviously, the woodcutter-rebbe did not actually expect any repayment, nor would he have accepted any; but by letting his gift appear to be a loan, he has left the indigent woman with her dignity intact.
The rebbe proceeds to kindle the fire for the woman, while he recites the s’liḥot liturgy out of her hearing. Peretz tells us that he recites the first portion of that liturgy with a groan, but he continues with the second portion in a more joyous mood. All this the litvak witnesses in amazement, and he is instantly persuaded: from then on, he is a “disciple of the rebbe.” Thereafter, whenever any of the Nemirover Hassidimtold of their rebbe’s weekly ascension to heaven, the litvak would add, simply and quietly, “If not higher.” But he never told them what he witnessed; he never told them the simple truth. Perhaps what he had seen and heard was a higher truth; perhaps he knew instinctively that the people would be crestfallen—unable to grasp the “heavenly” significance of their rebbe’s deeds. In any case, he no longer felt impelled to deprive the folk of their cherished, harmless belief.
There are those who have read this story simply or principally as Peretz’s mockery of Hassidim, an indictment of Hassidic foolishness and backward superstitious beliefs, and even a warning of the danger of its ability to convert a committed, rational skeptic. But they have probably missed the point, the more so in the absence of knowledge about Peretz’s own reconsiderations at the time he published the story. Despite his undiluted distaste for some of the narrowness and abuses embedded in Hassidism, notwithstanding his undiminished commitment to modernity and culture over uncritical religion, he had come by then to recognize that traditional Judaism (including its Hassidic paths) had given birth to unimpeachable and perpetually relevant moral and ethical values. Among the values at the core of that system, applicable no less to modern than to traditional sensibilities, were kindness, anonymous charity, concern for the less fortunate, and individual dignity. If those values could be extracted to become encompassed instead by modern, nonreligious Jewish culture, their religious origin could still be acknowledged. Also, without jeopardy to their principles, even secular humanists could accept the possibility that—without the original catalyst of religious doctrine, sacred texts, and theological precursors—rational philosophy and scientific enquiry might not have arrived on their own at so morally sophisticated a human value system. Meanwhile, if there were those who needed for a while longer to retain their religious beliefs—even if the overall pace of social progress would thereby be slowed—it might be best to leave them alone for the time being.
Other questions remain. Has Peretz decided that knowledge produced by modern enquiry and traditional folk wisdom are not necessarily mutually exclusive? Is one not necessarily superior to the other? Do they each have a legitimate place in Jewish experience? Or, can traditional faith even have a rational purpose?
One might also read in this a story a moderate revision of Peretz’s not unfounded revulsion at Hassidic leadership as a monolithic establishment. Although some rebbes have indeed been corrupt in their exploitations of their followers’ naïveté, at least there were others—such as the Nemirover rebbe—who were genuine in their humanistic priorities. First, the rebbe here fulfills the mitzvot of charity and kindness. Only then does he proceed with ritual concerns in his recitation of the liturgy.
During the four decades following the publication of this story in 1900, it appears to have been widely known in Europe among various groups of Hassidim who, in their insularity, would neither have read nor have been permitted to read Peretz or any other modern Jewish literature; nor would they even have known his name. The process of oral transmission of folklore, however, is complex. It can include a phenomenon known to ethnologists as folklorization, whereby entirely original stories, poems, songs, and instrumental melodies, whose authorship can be identified, are spread nonetheless by oral transmission. In that process, they become part of a folk culture in which knowledge of authorship has evaporated. Though Oyb nit nokh hekher is usually assumed to be a retold Hassidic tale, creatively expressed and perhaps amplified from modern perspectives, the degree of Peretz’s originality and literary imagination is uncertain. His fame was such that some of his work could easily have transcended his identity beyond the confines of modern Yiddish readership of that time. On the other hand, he might have known an earlier version of the story. One of his letters suggests that he first “told” the story to Mordecai Spector—a cellmate during his imprisonment in 1899—who insisted that he record it in writing. But what “telling” a story means in this case is not clear. Original authorship of stories, just as original composition of tunes, can be accomplished initially in unwritten form. If, however, Peretz’s publication of the storyrepresents his reshaping of a traditional tale, the extent of his modifications—apart from the obvious literary creativity in its details, language, and imagery—remains clouded.
Secunda’s librettist for his English adaptation of “Oyb nit nokh hekher” was Samuel Rosenbaum. It was one of two Secunda cantatas in which the principal solo part was sung in public performances and broadcasts by Metropolitan Opera star tenor and virtuoso hazzan Richard Tucker.
If Not Higher was composed in 1964 during the period when Secunda was turning his attention from Second Avenue Yiddish theater and other popular Jewish songwriting to more classically oriented endeavors. The premiere occurred that same year in Rochester, New York, with Tucker in the lead role. It was followed by a performance in 1966 in Cleveland, with the Robert Shaw Chorale, and another in 1967 in Atlanta. There ensued a number of performances in several cities and a CBS broadcast on Lamp Unto My Feet.
Because Secunda wrote the cantata with Tucker specifically in mind, it provides for highly dramatic operatic vocal lines. At the same time, it echoes perceived Hassidic flavors, beginning with its opening passages. The choral writing and the orchestration, however, are classical in style. Secunda took great pride in the work, expressing the hope that he would be remembered for it more so than for his decades of songwriting and composing for the Yiddish theatre.
An unpublished Yiddish version of the cantata was made in South America by Abel Eisenberg, who translated Rosenbaum’s text.
Text by Samuel Rosenbaum
Based on a story by Yitzhak Leib Peretz
Of a rabbi who went to Heaven
And a Litvak who would not believe it.
The time is long ago;
The bittersweet past; alas, the dead past.
An artless time,
A time of woe, but a time of faith.
A time of heart over mind.
Now, the rabbi, the rabbi was
A man of his time.
Righteous, wise, and learned,
Ripe with knowledge and wisdom,
Rich in his deeds.
His heart beat in cadence with the pain of all men,
The humble, the simple, the poor, the persecuted.
Serving the lowly, he celebrated his Maker,
Offering his litany with joy.
And the fire of his joy
Spread like a golden dawn
Fusing soul to soul into one soul:
Joy to joy into one joy,
Diminishing sorrow and suffering before it.
And the rabbi lived in Nemirov
A yawn of a shtetl,
An atom of the Exile,
A grain of sand
Burnished by the grace of him of Nemirov
To glitter as a jewel
In the Crown of the Almighty.
He was something else.
A man of the mind, a man of the book.
Logical, rational, calculating, and correct,
Stuffed with knowledge,
Bursting with Chapter and Verse.
He could argue a text with either thumb,
Relishing the contest above the issue.
Shrewd, stubborn, and sly.
Now to the tale.
It was Slikhos time,
The week before Rosh Hashanah.
Impending judgment hung suspended
Mistlike in the air.
Soon, soon the Jews of Nemirov
Would stand swaying before their Creator
And soon, soon His judgment would be inscribed:
Who for life and who for death;
Who for good and who for ill.
BARITONE and CHORUS:
But while the month of Elul died in death,
And the moon of Tishre ached to be born,
There was yet hope—
To avert the severe decree.
And so the Jews of Nemirov,
As they had done since before they could remember,
Rose in the night
To entreat, to petition,
The Holy One, they say,
Receives with singular love
Prayer in the night.
In the night, they say,
The fall of the temple,
The Exile of Israel among the nations.
And his tears flow,
Bathing the prayers ascending in the night
In mercy and love.
Tenderly He receives the prayers
Moist with His tears
And He has compassion.
So the rabbi's Jews
Gathered in the moonless autumn gloom
To beg the mercy of the All-Merciful One.
TENOR and CHORUS:
But not the rabbi!
He was not to be found.
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