SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. Of Yiddish and American writers
About a month ago I did a post on the great Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz and his Sephardic heritage.
When I posted it on one of the many Hebrew message boards I frequent, I was immediately "assaulted". Some posters thought it asinine and unimportant to bring up his background being that there is little difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Another poster began to argue that he was not Sephardic at all and the surname "Peretz" is not even Hebrew in origin but rather comes from the Russian word for pepper.....
Now I know that unfortunately in Israel the Sephardi/Ashkenazi "divide" is unfortunately more sharply delineated than almost anywhere else and this may be nothing more than an attempt by what many Israelis affectionately (or not so affectionately) call "polanim" (the Israeli elite-Ashkenazim of Polish descent) to hold onto one of their own. (not to draw any comparisons here but this reminds me of recent Jewish-particularly Israeli- attempts to "reclaim" the great poet Heinrich Heine who was a convert to Christianity).
There is also an uneasiness and unwillingness among many dyed in the blood Asheknazi families to acknowledge their Sephardic background, particularly in contemporary Israeli society where the terms Sephardi and Mizrachi are (mistakenly) interchangable.
After doing a bit more research on the subject, I made a surprising discovery. Apparently none other than Martin Peretz (pictured), Editor-In-Chief of The New Republic is a direct descendant of our Peretz. After doing some more searching online, I came across an article (out of several)by Mr. Peretz where he speaks of his illustrious ancestor and his Sephardic background (albeit in passing):
"John's family history is, as I've suggested, paradigmatically American. (My children's story, too: from rabbis in Spain and Poland, with a great Yiddish writer, besides.."
There are also contributions by him to the recently published The I. L. Peretz Reader which I have yet to read.
Another book which I put on top of my list of books to read is Peretz's own memoirs published in Yiddish in serialized form 1913-1914 in Warsaw as מיינע זכרונות. It was later translated into English and published in 1964 as My Memoirs by Citadel Press, NY (there were several other translations as well). In the introduction to the latter edition, his Iberian heritage is mentioned. See also here
Also interesting is a Jan 24, 2007 article in The Forward Newspaper, which seems to confirm what I have written so far.
"Emanuel Goldsmith, professor of Yiddish and Hebrew literature at Queens, flashed back to the Pavillion of Judaism at Montreal’s 1967 Expo. One wall had inscribed on it the Sh’ma; the second, the prayer Ma Tovu; the third, a passage from Pirkei Avot, the Mishnaic Ethics of the Fathers; and the fourth wall contained the Yiddish phrase “der tzil iz der mentsh” — the objective is humanity. Goldsmith said, “The words were the epitome of the… sentiments of Yitzkhok Leybush Peretz, the poet and visionary of the Jewish rebirth in Eastern Europe… the founding father of modern Yiddish literature.” Although Peretz was descended from Sephardic Jews, Goldsmith noted, “More than any other Yiddish or Hebrew writer, Peretz conveyed the essence of the thousand year old Ashkenazic branch of Jewish civilization”.