by Bennett Muraskin
Reviewed in this essay: Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood and Writers, edited and with an introduction by Scott Hilton Davis, translated from the Yiddish by Tina Lunson. Jewish Storyteller Press, 2014, 240 pages.
JACOB DINEZON WAS AN IMPORTANT PERSONALITY in the history of Yiddish literature. As noted by Scott Hilton Davis in his introduction to Memories and Scenes, Dinezon provided moral and material support to many Yiddish writers, in particular I. L. Peretz. Sholem Aleichem, who named Mendele Moykher Sforim the zeyde or “grandfather” of modern Yiddish literature and himself the “grandson” (Peretz was considered the “father,” whether he liked it or not), affectionately called Dinezon its “uncle.” This suggests that Dinezon played a supporting rather than a leading role. His own literary output consisted of melodramatic novels — one a best seller, in fact — but they were not considered great or even good literature.
Memories and Scenes is described as “a series of short stories based on Jacob Dinezon’s memories from his childhood days in the shtetl and his early years as a writer…” — but this is not entirely accurate. There are eleven selections from his writings; how many are autobiographical is hard to tell. In those that could be either memoirs or short stories, Dinezon does not always write in the first person, and even when he does, the pieces read more as fiction. For example, the picture he paints of a Talmud Torah teacher is too saintly to be believed, and the dialogue he includes in “Borekh,” a story about a good-hearted but simple orphan boy who leaves the shtetl to make his way in the world, is clearly invented. As a short story, it pales in comparison to I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.”
Of the five selections that are unmistakably short stories, my favorites were “The Little Flask” and “Motl the Purimshpieler.” In the former, a humble tailor is transformed into the scourge of the shtetl makhers (bigshots) when he gets drunk, and in the latter, a troupe of Purim players is thrown into prison when one of the actors inadvertently insults the police chief. The social criticism and humor in these stories are reminiscent of Sholem Aleichem — which is, of course, meant to be a rave.
One hybrid selection that reads very well, “Nonsense: The Community Goat,” is a commentary on the Dreyfus Affair in which Dinezon draws a parallel between the anti-Dreyfusard’s blind defense of the “honor of the Army” and an incident in his shtetl in which an ignorant rebbe blindly defended a troublesome goat because of its purported religious significance.
Two bona fide autobiographical essays are of genuine interest. The first, “My First Literary Accomplishment,” describes how hearing and reading the very stories that were forbidden to him as a Talmud scholar inspired him to become a writer. In the second, “Sholem Yankel Abramovitsh and Mendel Moykher Sforim” (the name and pseudonym of Mendele the Bookseller), he explains why he originally thought they were two separate people because the famed author used the former name to write in patrician Hebrew and the latter to write in plebeian Yiddish.
Two other essays of lesser quality are included; one comparing magicians’ illusions to the deceptive business practices of a wine merchant who was also a khasidic rebbe, and the other a diatribe against Yiddish theater. Why this last piece was included is a mystery.
Good, bad, or indifferent, many of these selections have value for shedding light on the peculiar customs of the shtetl, elucidated by a helpful glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the term apikoyres (heretic) or freethinker was freely applied to less observant Jews, not just outright nonbelievers.
By all accounts Dinezon was a decent, charitable man and a progressive Jew. He helped Sholem Aleichem acquire the royalties that were due to him. During World War One, he collaborated with Peretz in founding in Warsaw a Home for Jewish Children orphaned by the war and devoted his own financial resources to the cause. Dinezon also carried on the work Peretz had started in building a network of secular Yiddish schools in Poland. He died in Warsaw in 1919 and, at his request, was buried next to Peretz, his closest friend.
As a writer, he wore his heart of his sleeve. To read him is to know him — and that can only be to our benefit.
Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.
MAMELOSHN is supported at the Jewish Currents website and in print by the Atran Foundation.