Growing up, I knew very little about Yiddish literature with the exception of The Wise Men of Chelm. My elementary school librarian read us the tales of the people so wise they tried to repopulate a river with canned herring. In middle school, I played Dorothy in the Solomon Schechter production of the Wizard of Chelm, befriending rabbis in need of a hat and jacket. By the time I began studying Yiddish in graduate school, I still didn’t know many Yiddish writers and stories until I began teaching myself.
During my second year teaching in a Reform day school in Miami, I was looking for a Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) book to read to elementary school students when I stumbled upon three retellings of I.L Peretz’s Even Higher. Each adaptation left me with a growing sense of warmth. The story is about the Nemirov rabbi who disappears during Slichos, the special prayers recited at dawn around the time of Rosh Hashanah. The townspeople believe their dear Nemirov Rabbi has ascended into the heavens to provide comfort to the sinners in the coming new year. One man–a Litvak– is suspicious, “Not even Moses rose into the heavens!” The Litvak follows the rabbi with the intention of proving the Rabbi’s disciples wrong. Instead, the Litvak finds the rabbi dressed as a peasant secretly helping a poor, elderly woman light her fireplace. From that point on, whenever the townspeople said their rabbi ascended into the heavens, the Litvak says, “even higher.” Human acts of kindness are divine. We are all capable of changing our world and making it more beautiful.
Even Higher is based on Hasidic folklore like many of I.L Peretz’s stories. Although Peretz (1852-1915) was not raised in Hasidic traditions, he had attended Hasidic religious services. I.L Peretz, often called one of the founding fathers of Modern Yiddish literature, was born Yitskhok Leybush Peretz to a mostly-observant Jewish family in Zamosc, a culturally diverse and multilingual city in Poland. From a young age, Peretz was exposed and drawn to several Jewish ideologies. Zamosc was the second largest center in Europe for maskilim, Jewish proponents of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) yearning to acculturate into their non-Jewish European surroundings. Zamosc was also home to Hasidim and Misnagdim. The Misnagdim, not unlike the skeptical Litvak in Even Higher, rejected Hasidic enthusiasm and spirituality. Traditionally, Litvaks were portrayed as “cold and calculating” in literature (YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.) As Barbara Cohen calls them in her retelling of Even Higher, Litvaks have to see something to believe it. Literary critic, Irving Howe, writes Even Higher would have been known in Hasidic circles, but the skeptical Litvak was Peretz’s creation, resembling Peretz’s own attitudes on Hasidism as an outsider. Although not observant, Peretz had a special appreciation for Hasidic imagery, exuberance and the strength of their cohesive community.
Barbara Cohen, beloved author of the Passover story The Carp in the Bathtub and Molly’s Pilgrim, retells Even Higher in picture book form and translation as if Peretz himself published the second edition for readers eighty years after original publication. Cohen modestly writes, “I did not adapt the story because I thought I could improve upon the efforts of a master like Peretz. That would be impossible. I adapted it in the hope of making it more accessible than the original to contemporary American children of all creeds.”
Richard Ungar, author and illustrator, replaces the character of the Litvak with three curious boys in his adaptation of Even Higher. The story is especially appealing, resembling a school-age mystery adventure where readers collect clues as to who is the woodcutter and where is he going. Ungar also expands on the story’s Tzedakah lesson. The rabbi declares, “One kind of giving to the poor is to give after you have been asked. A higher kind is to give before you have been asked. And an even higher kind of giving is when the identity of the giver is not known to the person receiving the gift.” Ungar plays with Peretz’s language, explicitly stating the “even higher” types of charities. Peretz and his Yiddish readers would have been familiar with the rabbi’s sermon from Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah that regards anonymous giving as the third highest form of Tzedakah.
The most recent adaptation was written by the celebrated children’s author Eric Kimmel, most well-known for his folklore retellings. Kimmel veers off from Peretz’s original work, stating, “I let her [the old woman] dance in memory of the time when my grandmother, at eighty-five, pulled me out of a kitchen chair and tried to teach me to dance the Krakowska Wesele.” Kimmel also incorporates a Ukrainian drinking song sung before Rosh Hashanah every year. Although observant readers might have been offended by the mixed dancing sequence and elimination of Slichos for a drinking song, the crucial message remains, “The miracle is that there are no miracles. We don’t need them. Ordinary kindness and compassion are enough to save the world.”
For a bilingual reading of Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher, visit Yiddish Far Kinder.
By Danielle Winter (Brooklyn Public Library)