Review of Adi Mahalel’s The Radical Isaac: I. L. Peretz and the Rise of Jewish Socialism

Elazar Elhanan

Adi Mahalel. The Rad­i­cal Isaac: I. L. Peretz and the Rise of Jew­ish Social­ism. Albany: SUNY Press, 2023. 332 pp. $36.95

Adi Mahalel’s work, The Radical Isaac: I. L. Peretz and the Rise of Jewish Socialism, is an exploration of the intersections between literature and political ideology in the oeuvre of Yiddish author I. L. Peretz. This text serves as a “rescue mission,” aiming to liberate Peretz’s work from what Mahalel considers to be its liberal and neoconservative captivity and to recontextualize Peretz himself as a socialist author. The exploration is therefore passionate, though at times uneven. Ultimately, the book delivers a compelling narrative of engaged writing and reading.

Mahalel‘s book meticulously describes the artistic and political evolution of Peretz, highlighting his role in the rise of Jewish socialism and his affiliation with the Bund party. Structured both historically and thematically, Mahalel’s narrative skillfully traces Peretz’s development as a writer and political thinker, revealing how his work mirrored and shaped the societal and political currents of his era.

The narrative commences with Peretz’s revolutionary choice of Yiddish as a medium—as the language of the masses. The book thoroughly investigates Peretz’s literary journey, including his book, “Bilder fun a provints-rayze,” the “Yontef bletlakhs,” Peretz’s varied adventures in Hebrew, his prose and poetry in both languages, and his Hasidic stories. This comprehensive examination aims to illustrate the emergence, persistence, and evolution of socialist ideas in Peretz’s body of work.

One of the book’s central objectives is to challenge the image of Peretz propagated by both Zionist and Soviet critics that interpreted Peretz’s diverse style as indicative of a wavering commitment to revolutionary causes. Mahalel refutes Soviet claims, like those made by Aizik Rozentsvayg in 1934. According to the Soviet readings, the turn from realism to more modernist trends and the interest in folklore indicated that Peretz moved away from the cause of labor. Mahalel provides a more holistic reading that acknowledges contradictions but is also sensitive to the “sincere internal ideological struggle” (xxvi). While he criticizes both traditions, Mahalel specifically and consistently disputes the interpretation put forward by post-war Israeli and American critics like Khone Shmeruk and Ruth Wisse. These critics presented an apologetic, liberal, romantic-psychological reading of Peretz, like that of Shmeruk for example, which portrays Peretz not as a political actor but rather as a romantic “wanderer” longing for the comfort of faith in something, namely the romantic wish to believe as a cure to modernity. Such readings defined Peretz’s worldview as anti-revolutionary and marked by despair and conservatism. In particular, Mahalel is reacting to Ruth Wisse’s depiction of Peretz not only as naive and exploited by Bund propagandists but also as someone who bears some responsibility for the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust – due to his rejection of Zionism and support of diaspora nationalism. 1 1 Ruth R. Wisse, I. L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016 [1991]), 109. Cited by Mahalel, The Radical Isaac, xxvii. Mahalel argues that such portrayals in Israeli and American scholarship are a response to Peretz’s opposition to Zionism, intending to discredit him as melancholic.

The book effectively challenges the aforementioned depoliticized depiction of Peretz, according to which Peretz unsuccessfully attached himself to different political movements and artistic currents in a process of self-discovery that was determined by his psychological state. Mahalel does that by depicting a different Peretz: someone who was deeply engaged with social reality and rigorously analyzed political means and methods until he arrived at a clear concept of socialism. Mahalel explores Peretz’s connection to Polish positivism 2 2 Polish Positivism was a post-insurrectionary political current of thought that originated in Warsaw in the 1860s and became popular for a large part of the Polish intelligentsia, who sought “positive” and scientific assurances for their nationalist aspirations. While initially positivists depicted Jews in negative terms, perceiving them as parasites, they did not believe that Jews were responsible for their condition; furthermore, they claimed that granting Jews economic rights and possibilities would give them a stake in the community. The Polonized, assimilated Jewish intelligentsia adhered to positivism as an economic and ideological project that granted Jews a future in the Polish polity. See Stanislaus A. Blejwas, “Polish Positivism and the Jews,” Jewish Social Studies 46, no. 1 (Winter 1984): 21, 30. and his ties to philanthropist Jan Bloch, painting a portrait of Peretz as a “pro-capital liberal.” He then highlights Peretz’s participation in 1890 in the statistical survey of Polish Jews, which was sponsored by Bloch and was meant to disabuse claims of Jewish unproductivity, and which exposed Peretz to Jewish material reality. He would depict this experience in the book “Bilder fun a provints-rayze in tomashover poviat um 1890 yor” (Impressions of a Journey Through the Tomaszów Region in 1890; 1891). According to Mahalel, this book is evidence of a crisis in representation, in which the urban maskil realizes that he cannot represent Jewish reality to his readers, nor can he relate that representation to the masses. This realization reflects Peretz’s evolving political awareness.

The outcome of this crisis led Peretz to the realization that the maskilic position of the “Watchman onto the house of Israel” – and its implied readership, members of an elite intelligentsia – was politically useless as it created an echo chamber, amplifying a message for like-minded people while the relevant public, the Jewish masses, is excluded from the conversation. It was to this elite intelligentsia that Peretz had aimed his belletristic projects until the 1890s when his radical shift occurred. The book details the shift in Peretz’s voice and presents a different persona than the aforementioned liberal-romantic wanderer: Peretz appears here as what we might call a colonized intellectual who is radicalized. 3 3 As Hannan Hever explains, the colonized intellectual is a person torn between two worlds. He is marked by assimilation into Western culture and universal values; initially he is charged with translating the colonized to the colonizer. He is radicalized when he is angered by a recognition of his culture, impacted by imperialism. This brings about a self-fashioning as an “awakener of the people;” however, his position will be forever marked by non-belonging and a conflict with his target audience, a conflict marked as an aesthetic difference. See Hannan Hever, “A New Israeli Discourse: On the 25th Anniversary of Anton Shammas’ Arabesques,” Theory and Criticism 4 (Summer 2013): 306; Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2007 [1961]), 147-148. It is a shift in focus from an external maskilic point of view to an emphatically sentimental one, and it is very similar to the shift that Dan Miron identified as the tone used in the late 1880s by Sholem Aleichem and others to mark the constitution of a Yiddish national literature. 4 4 Rather than as the Yiddish section of Haskalah literature. See Dan Miron, “HaHinukh HaSentimentali shel Mendeli Mokher Sfarim,” Sefer HaKvatzanim (Dvir, 1988), 211-212. In Peretz’s work that tone is particularly evident in stories like “Bontshe Shvayg” from the year 1894.

What seems to set Peretz apart from the other klasikers is that, according to Mahalel, while both Sholem Aleichem and Abramovitsh were attracted to socialist thought and to the energy it seemed to inspire, Peretz is noteworthy for the manner in which he changed the very means of literary production. In discussing Peretz’s poetry and Hasidic stories, Mahalel shows how Peretz’s intention to provide the Yiddish labor movement with a mythical backdrop to draw on while modernizing its means of representation was consistent and innovative. However, the true transformative moment resides in the encounter between Peretz, proto-Bundist reading circles, and the readership they crafted. The incorporation of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the author as a producer at this point enriches the narrative, emphasizing Peretz’s revolutionary role as a producer and disseminator of literature. According to Benjamin, authors take part in capitalist production — as producers rather than as artists — and therefore must take a position in regard to it. Unlike readings that evaluate this position in terms of the “attitude” of the work, as if it resided in some autonomous sphere removed from capitalist production, Benjamin claims that a work is progressive only if it understands itself as part of a capitalist production process and strives to change the social relations this process determines. Mahalel’s description of Peretz’s editorial efforts around the publication of “Yontef bletlakhs” is perhaps the book’s most exciting contribution and the one that holds possible instruction for current organizers and cultural activists, as it gives a level-headed description of that magic moment when art, politics, and radical desire intersected and brought forth something wonderful. Peretz, who strove to find poetic, political, and commercial means to disseminate his work, created the “Yontef bletlakhs”– a radical publication camouflaged as a religious holiday newsletter, a cheaply printed, accessible publication containing stories and essays by Peretz himself. As activists in different reading circles gathered around the easily available and accessible bletlakh and instructed themselves in the working of socialism, mediated by Peretz’s imagination and symbols, the amalgamation of socialism and national identity expressed as cultural autonomy was formed in their minds and became part of the Yiddishist socialist creed.

In telling this story, Mahalel successfully navigates the complex relationship between Peretz’s literary contributions and his commitment to socialist ideals. Mahalel’s prose is accessible, making this scholarly work engaging even for readers less familiar with Yiddish literature or Jewish history. Furthermore, Mahalel’s exploration of Peretz’s impact on Jewish socialist movements adds a valuable layer to the narrative. By situating Peretz within the broader context of the time, the book becomes a window into the interplay between literature and political activism. In that, the book partakes in that blessed turn that occurred in Yiddish studies, away from an apologetic, liberal, and fundamentally nationalist depiction of literature as individual artistic expression to a modernist and sophisticated view of Jewish modernity as constituted by the shrewd deployment of textual strategies and political technologies.

However, the book’s commitment to reclaiming Peretz from the neoconservative reading of Ruth Wisse and others also seems to somewhat limit its scope of interest. Fundamentally, Mahalel’s narrative leads to a mirror-image of it: while Shmeruk or Wisse view the later, decadent Peretz as representing the “real” Peretz and use it as key for reading his radical period, Mahalel sees the radical Peretz as the essence of the author, without engaging with his later decadent writings. Nor does he engage with episodes like Peretz’s disagreement with the Bund leadership (but not readership), over issues such as language ideology, Jewish multilingualism, literary style, etc., even though these episodes are extremely pertinent to the book’s question. 5 5 Evidence of such disagreement is Peretz’s proposed resolution to the Czernowitz Conference, which differed greatly from the Bund’s polemic proposed resolution. See Yekhiel Szein­tuch, “Ve’idat Chernovitz ve-Tarbut Yiddish,” Hulyot: Dapim le-Makhkar be-Sifrut Yiddish ve-Zikoteha la-Sifrut ha-Ivrit (2000): 287. For example, David Fishman describes the Bund leadership turning away from Peretz over his “chauvinism” and “degenerate” style. 6 6 David Fishman, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), 52. Again, it is a problem of the leadership and not readership. Kenneth Moss demonstrated that even after the breakup with the leadership, Peretz stayed immensely popular with the activists; his “decadent” style became — as championed by the journal Di literarishe monatsshriften, whose editors, one of which was a Bundist, were Peretz’s disciples — the aesthetic style of the Yiddish renaissance and was even begrudgingly endorsed by Bund critics. 7 7 Kenneth Moss, “Jewish Culture between Renaissance and Decadence: Di Literarishe Monatsshriften and Its Critical Reception,” Jewish Social Studies n.s. 8, no. 1 (Autumn 2001): 167. By not engaging with these issues, the book misses its stated goal of arguing “that Peretz’s stylistic shift reflected his ongoing search for new ways to express his radicalism” (xxvi). The existence of two contradictory Peretzs – a radical and a decadent – is not refuted.

Acknowledging my own partisan perspective, I see Mahalel’s book as written from a partisan position. As I was reading, I couldn’t help feeling that Mahalel adopts, to the point of identification, a Bundist understanding of history, socialism, art, and Peretz. For the most part Mahalel understands socialism in art in terms of representation and performativity. The book predominantly evaluates the radicalism of texts by how much they represent socialism and to what extent they perform socialist gestures. Language is understood as directly representing reality and mediation is hardly considered an issue. Therefore, I was disappointed but not surprised that the book didn’t have much to say about Peretz’s formally complex work such as the plays “Di goldene keyt” (1909) and “Bay nakht afn altn mark” (1907) that go beyond representation and in which mediation is a key issue. Similarly, Peretz’s introduction of decadent poetics to Hebrew, and with it the themes of perversion and mental illness, is shown to be radical by enumerating the times class struggle is mentioned but there is no discussion of the political meaning of lyricism, otherness, or the question of utopia; and while Peretz’s important contribution to the development of Hebrew belletristic writing is credited, multilingual writing is simply treated as writing in several languages.

However, despite these very few critiques, the book remains a valuable contribution to the study of Peretz and his work. Mahalel’s assessment of Peretz’s steadfast socialism is impressive and his critique of apologetic readings that sought to “redeem” Peretz by presenting him as a “complicated” author rather than as an inspiring radical thinker is well founded. Mahalel’s passionate defense of Peretz’s radicalism and his engaging narrative make the book a valuable addition to the understanding of Yiddish literature, Jewish history, and the interplay between literature and political activism.

Elhanan, Elazar. “Review of Adi Mahalel's The Radical Isaac: I. L. Peretz and the Rise of Jewish Socialism.” In geveb, January 2024:
Elhanan, Elazar. “Review of Adi Mahalel's The Radical Isaac: I. L. Peretz and the Rise of Jewish Socialism.” In geveb (January 2024): Accessed Feb 26, 2024.


Elazar Elhanan

Elazar Elhanan is an Associate Professor of Hebrew and Yiddish literatures in the department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures in the City College of New York.