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Resurrecting Jacob Dinezon

Lawrence Bush
November 21, 2016

by Curt Leviant

Discussed in this essay: Jacob Dinezon: the Mother Among our Classical Yiddish Writers, by Shmuel Rozhanski, translated by Miri Koral. Storyteller Press, 2016, 142 pages.

TEKHIYAS ha-meysim, resurrection of the dead, occasionally happens in literature when attention is once again focused on long-neglected authors. Scott Davis, editor and publisher of Storyteller Press, is one of those resurrectors. He has rediscovered the prolific and best-selling 19th-century Yiddish writer Jacob Dinezon, who was friendly with the Big Three, the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature –- Mendele Mokher Seforim, Sholom Aleichem and Y.L. Peretz -– and has brought him back.

So far, four works by or pertaining to Dinezon have been published by Storyteller Press: Memories and Scenes, a collection of stories and reminiscences (2014); two novels, Yosele (2015) and Hershele (2016); and now the 1956 biography, Jacob Dinezon: the Mother Among our Classical Writers, by the Argentinian Yiddish writer, Shmuel Rozhanski, translated by Miri Koral.

I must confess that even though I took an advanced degree in Yiddish literature at Columbia University, I had never once heard mention of Dinezon until Scott Davis came along a couple of years ago and resurrected him. Today, when you seek images of Dinezon on the internet, you find one with Sholom Aleichem and Peretz, another with Peretz and Sh. An-ski (pictured above), and another with Peretz alone. Dinezon was friendly with Peretz for a quarter of century, and in 1890 he published, at his own expense, Peretz’s first book, Bekante Bilder (Familiar Pictures), when it was rejected by all other publishers, and presented the entire printing to his friend.

Rozhanski’s book is not exactly a biography in the classical sense. (In fact, he doesn’t even tell us what year Dinezon was born.) Rather, the author focuses on Dinezon’s books and the interaction between them and the author’s life. It may more properly be called a literary biography, with summary and gentle analysis and evaluation of the Dinezon’s works.

JACOB DINEZON was born in 1856 near Kovno, Lithuania, and died in Warsaw in 1919. He was one of the most popular Yiddish writers in the 19th century, when Yiddish literature flourished in Eastern Europe. His 1877 novel, Ha-Ne’ehavim veha-ne‘imim, oder Der shvartser yunger-mantshik (The Beloved and the Pleasant, or the Dark Young Man) sold over 20,000 copies, making it Yiddish literature’s first bestseller. Every Jewish household had his books, but because of the sentimental nature of his work, he was considered passé by critics who felt that he pandered too much to women readers and other lovers of romances. Dinezon himself, in fact, thought that his book had inspired “a flood of empty and bad novels” and published nothing else for thirteen years. Yet Peretz urged him to revive his writing career and collaborated with him closely as co-editor and co-publisher of an 1891 anthology, Di yudishe bibliotek (The Jewish Library).

Today, Dinezon might be considered the author of soap operas or pulp fiction. In Rozhanski’s book, we learn of the spiritual and linguistic struggle that Yiddish works had to undergo during mid- through late 19th century, when proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, sought to highlight Hebrew belles lettres and diminish Yiddish. Among these maskilim were Mendele Mocher Seforim who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, and Sholom Aleichem, who began in Hebrew but then switched to Yiddish.

Dinezon, too, was torn between the two languages, and this inner battle is aptly depicted in one of his letters. There he states that when he writes in Hebrew and uses phrases from Isaiah or Ezekiel, he feels that the prophets are speaking for him. But when he writes in Yiddish, he feels that he is speaking for himself and that his protagonists are speaking in their own authentic voices.

This is perhaps the best description of the inner conflict that 19th century writers who knew both Hebrew and Yiddish had to face. The usual explanation for dropping Hebrew and returning to Yiddish -– this was Sholom Aleichem’s position, for instance –- was the more practical one that the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe knew Yiddish far better than Hebrew and hence the readership was very limited. But Dinezon’s literary explanation penetrates the heart of the artistic problem of choosing one or the other of two Jewish languages.

Rozhanski calls Dinezon “mother” for his gentle nature. When Peretz once devastated a young writer whose short story he had read by telling him, “Enough! You have no talent,” Dinezon, who was present, called the young man aside and told him to try again; perhaps his next effort would be better.

Yet Dinezon had the courage to criticize Mendele, whom Sholom Aleichem called the “zeyde,” the grandfather, of Yiddish literature. Dinezon called Mendele too much of a purist regarding use of the Yiddish lanuage. He felt the language of the plain folk should be utilized. And Rozhanski claims that Dinezon’s goals were more moralistic than artiistic; hence Dinezon criticized Mendele’s satires, regarding them as humor without any moral lesson.

Indeed, it was the moral lesson and a practical uplift of society that Dinezon had in mind when he published Yosele (1899). In this short novel (which YIVO describes as “a children’s story”), Dinezon criticized the cruel educational methods used by teachers in the small town kheyders. The work prompted calls for reform, helped modernize pedagogy, and led to the inception of more secular-minded schools for youngsters.

Rozhanski contends that Dinezon’s creativity shouldn’t be measured by books alone. His work for orphans, his translation of Graetz’s History of the Jews from German into Yiddish -- even though Graetz didn’t want his work “desecrated” by having it in jargon --and his thousands of letters to writers and social activists, all should be considered part of Dinezon’s creative accomplishments.

So modest a man was he that once, at a literary even in honor of Peretz, the Yiddish author said that his inspiration was ... and he pointed to Dinezon in the audience and continued ...”My holy soul is this man...this man.” At this Dinezon rose and denied Peretz’s kind remark by saying that the inspiration comes from within Peretz himself.

Dinezon was a lifelong bachelor. At one point in his life he was, like Sholom Aleichem, a tutor to the daughter of a wealthy man. Like Sholom Aleichem, he fell in love with the girl, and the girl’s love was reciprocated. But whereas Sholom Aleichem ended up marrying his pupil, Dinezon was denied his girl student. But despite this setback he continued to serve the wealthy man in other trusted capacities.

In 1913, when Sholom Aleichem was ill in Europe -- he would emigrate to the USA in 1914 -– Dinezon wrote him a letter revealing a plan. When Sholom Aleichem would feel better he would join Peretz and him and all three writers would go to Palestine and walk the land and write a book about their adventures. “So get well soon,” Dinezon concludes.

Of course this dream was never realized.

For this slim in-depth literary biography, Rozhanski assiduously mined letters, newspapers, magazines, Yiddish writers’ memoirs, critical evaluations, as well as all of Dinezon’s published works from which to draw information about the writer, in his own words and in the estimation of others.

Two recent critically acclaimed novels by Curt Leviant are King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.