Every­day Jews: Scenes From a Van­ished Life

Yehoshue Per­le; Maier Deshell & Mar­garet Birstein, trans.; David G. Roskies, ed.
  • Review
By – March 5, 2012

The Yid­dish sub­ti­tle of Every­day Jews is Yidn fun a gants yor, or Jews the Whole Year Through. Cov­er­ing the entire Jew­ish litur­gi­cal cal­en­dar,” includ­ing many a Shabes, as well as Purim, Passover, Shavu­os, and Hanukkah, it is nar­rat­ed by twelve-year-old Mendl, who is rem­i­nis­cent of Shalom Aleichem’s Motl Pesi, writes David Roskies in his excel­lent intro­duc­tion. Roskies also notes that Mendl’s sto­ry tracks in metic­u­lous detail his sex­u­al ini­ti­a­tion, moral strug­gle, and psy­cho­log­i­cal maturation.” 

Crit­ics called some of Perle’s ear­li­er works porno­graph­ic,” chiefly because of his frank­ness about sex. Oth­ers came to admire him. Emanuel Ringel­blum asked him to write for the Oyneg Shabes Archive, but Perle’s work was nev­er found. In 1943 he died at Auschwitz. 

Every­day Jews presents read­ers with strik­ing images, such as the trees in front of a church which guard­ed the shad­ed faces of the Holy Moth­er and Child.… inclin­ing to one side, she [the Holy Moth­er] looked down on her half-naked breast.…[while] the sun, look­ing like a large, flat, gold­en plate, was set­ting on the oth­er side of the cross.” 

The nov­el con­tains some unfor­get­table char­ac­ters. Mendl’s moth­er fre­quent­ly refers to her first hus­band and the brass han­dles on the doors in her for­mer War­saw home. More than once, when life was becom­ing too much for [her],” she moves the fam­i­ly to anoth­er house; at oth­er times she dons her gold-rimmed glass­es and escapes into books. Mendl’s father’s (prob­a­bly) selec­tive deaf­ness allows him to ignore many a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion, includ­ing the still­birth of his daughter’s child in a snow bank. 

One hopes Yehoshue Perle’s work will at last receive the recog­ni­tion it deserves.

Julia Wolf Mazow, retired uni­ver­si­ty Eng­lish instruc­tor, stud­ied Yid­dish in the Oxford and YIVO sum­mer pro­grams. Her trans­la­tions from Yid­dish have appeared in BRIDGES.

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