Bontshe Shvayg, Bontshe the Silent One, “was born in silence. He lived in silence. He died in silence. And he was buried in a silence greater yet.”
The great Polish Yiddish author I. L. Peretz (1852-1915) wrote the short story “Bontshe Shvayg” in 1894. I read it for the first time 50 years ago as a college undergraduate. Ever since I have carried the story within me as a darkly ironic warning of the price of silence.
Though Bontshe passed through the world “like a shadow, though [n]o one noticed when the wind whirled him off and carried him to a far shore,” in “the other world” the angels waited for him in ecstatic expectation. Bontshe! Bontshe!
“Not once in his whole life ... did he complain to God or to man. Not once did he feel a drop of anger or cast an accusing glance at heaven.” Even when “[s]pattered with the mud of city streets, spat on by unknown strangers, driven from the sidewalk to stagger in the gutter ... he kept silent!”
When Bontshe came before the Heavenly Tribunal, the counsel for his defense knew that the prosecutor had no case. Indeed, when the time came for the prosecutor to speak, all he could manage to say was: “He kept silent. I will do the same.”
With that the judge of the Heavenly Tribunal instructed Bontshe: “All heaven belongs to you. Ask for anything you wish; you can choose what you like.”...
“Well, then, what I’d like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning.”
The story’s last words: “The judges and angels hung their heads in shame. The prosecutor laughed.” (All quotations are from the English translation by Hillel Halkin.)
Three weeks ago I attended a weekend program at the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Massachusetts, devoted to the life and work of Peretz. Under the guidance of the two featured lecturers, Dr. Ruth Wisse from Harvard University and Dr. Justin Cammy from Smith College, along with the insights of my fellow students, I was able to place “Bontshe Shvayg” within the broad context of Peretz’s extensive and varied writings.
“Bontshe Shvayg” is representative of that portion of Peretz’s work that expresses his barely suppressed rage at Jewish passivity in the face of Tsarist and Christian persecution, a fateful and sometimes fatal misdirection of Jewish ethical values under the increasing pressure of a physically, emotionally and intellectually aggressive modernism.
While on one level Peretz applauds Jewish menschlikhkeit, a certain gentle and fair-minded decency, on another level he warns – 40 years before Auschwitz – that when this sense of decency leads to an extreme passivity, the results can be catastrophically self-destructive. Through his refusal to complain, his refusal to fight back, his refusal to demand his rightful due, Bontshe has reduced his world to “a warm roll with fresh butter every morning.”
Like many other Yiddish and Hebrew writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Peretz saw himself as a bridge between a premodern tradition-bound Jewish community and the challenges and opportunities of the modern world. “Bontshe Shvayg” shows Peretz at his most bitterly ironic. Some commentators read the story as an illustration of Peretz’s “creative betrayal” of long-held Jewish values. I prefer the rabbinical term yesurin shel ahavah, or chastisements of love; out of love for his fellow Jews, Peretz goads them to forsake a counterproductive passivism and to take charge of their destiny within a rapidly changing world.
In other stories, Peretz abandons his critical ironic approach and bears witness to our age-old virtues of piety, self-sacrificing devotion and demonstrable concern for the needy. In “If Not Higher,” for example, the rabbi of Nemirov “vanishes” every Friday morning in order to chop the wood, stoke the oven and light the fire for a poor bedridden old woman. In “Devotion without End,” Miriam is quite literally willing to die for her husband, Chananiah. Peretz’s program for connecting our Jewish past with our Jewish future, then, rests upon both hard-headed criticism and a tender-hearted affirmation of our best qualities – the ingredients of his mature love for our people.
Despite the efforts of Peretz and his contemporaries more than 100 years ago, today’s Jewish community is still in need of a solid bridge that can span the chasm between tradition and change, between past and future. More than ever, we need to fashion new forms of identity that can withstand the onslaught of the confusing, complex, dangerous, yet hope-filled world of the 21st century. We need to develop Jewish identities that can stand the test of time.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.