Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Eleven

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral

Chapter Eleven
The Old Home and America
in Falik and His House
and The Crisis of City Jews
Generations and eras. — Falik, the small-town little person, doesn’t allow himself to be pushed out. — Why not emigrate to America? — The ambition of the weak against the rising entrepreneur. — “The desire not to disappear.” — Loving the ramshackle house as one would an old wife. — “For a hat a man doesn’t sell his head.” — Immortalized in the old country; in America, swiftly forgotten. — The folksy Jew with deep, thick roots. — “You’re not supposed to make anyone else needy.” — Dinezon, a pioneer of the theme of “here and there.” — Artistic moments in The Crisis. — True stories about the merchant milieu, about card playing, about shmendriks who are embarrassed by their Jewish names, and about grown children who remain dependent on their fathers. — Hillel Abelman, the refined merchant who begs for mercy for the fire not to be put out. — Money displaces honesty. — From tears to a smile and from a smile to irony.

The conflict between generations representing separate eras of Jewish life is most strongly expressed by Dinezon in his novel Falik and His House.[1] In a fine folksy fashion absent of tricks, three types of people are portrayed representing three different currents.

Falik, a tailor and mender, can’t part with his little town, especially when he sees Shaya Miller’s house going up opposite him. He, the little person, doesn’t want to be swallowed up by the entrepreneur for whom the whole world is small. For this reason, he doesn’t want to sell his house and settle in the new world with his children who live in America and want him to come there, too. Why? In town he’s his own boss, but there—what? The little person doesn’t want to be displaced, just as the long-settled person doesn’t want to be torn from his old home.

Falik tells this to his son who lives in the town and is trying to talk his father into selling the old heap: “You mean, stop being my own boss? . . . As long as I have my own home, I can come to your place when I want and not come if I don’t want. But it would be different, my child, and it must be, if I no longer have my own home and would only be able to stay with you. Children never become too burdensome for parents; parents, however, become burdens for their children, especially when they require shelter with them.”[2]

Falik grasps with his tailor’s mind the greatness inherent in building and traveling out into the world and has considerable respect for this, but no less fear. Therefore, he’s always drawn to catching a glimpse of Shaya Miller building walls, though he’s frightened of the big thing that stands opposite him and will ultimately displace him from his own dwelling. He runs around on the scaffolds when his neighbor isn’t there and replies to his wife who questions him:

“You think, Matleh, that tailoring is the only trade? You should know that building walls for a house according to a plan is also a trade, a substantial trade, I tell you. And it makes good sense. And that which makes good sense tends to lure, to make you want to simply see everything and understand it better.”[3]

And the more he understands the magnitude of Shaya Miller’s accomplishments, how a person grows in wealth, in greatness, in his courage to build, the more Falik, as a little person, wants what he himself has accomplished not to vanish—to not leave what’s his own, however impoverished and small it may be.

“Look, Matleh,” he gestures with his hand, “over there, under the roof near the attic window. I still see nails that I hammered in with my own hands when we were both still young and you were about to give birth to our first child.”[4]

He lives with memories. The recollections make him feel younger, give him importance, pride; they make him happy with what he has. His wife usually doesn’t comprehend it—so he gives her this example to make the matter self-evident even for her: “Imagine, Matleh, if someone comes to visit us here where we sit so old and weak and says: ‘Listen, Falik, I’m putting down a million rubles in cash for you here, and you just leave behind for me your old, gloomy Matleh?’”[5]

In old Falik is embodied the self-worth for which a Jew is ready to risk all. “For the sake of a hat missing for his head, a person doesn’t sell his head. As long as there’s a head, a hat will eventually turn up.”[6]

*    *    *    *    *

Dinezon was possibly the first of the Yiddish writers in Russia to describe this type of Jew who doesn’t want to leave his old home even though he endlessly suffers in it. Why doesn’t he want to leave the “here” for the sake of the “there”? Because:

“Here I am—me. Some people know Falik and Falik knows some people here. Here I have my house; indeed with an old, leaking roof, but still my own. Here I take up some space in my city, and even after my death, whoever walks by my tomb at the local cemetery will know that here lies Falik the Tailor who was born in this city, lived here, earned an honest livelihood, and no one will have, God forbid, anything bad to say about me.

“But what will I be in America? A torn-off leaf from some distant tree which a wind carried somewhere to a strange woods among other trees, among greener and younger leaves. Who will I be there? What will be my own there? While alive: a stranger, a wanderer; and dead—lonely, forgotten. In time the wind will cover up my tomb and no one will even know that there once lived a Falik and that Falik died.”[7]

These moving lines are witness to Dinezon’s intuition, a writer in Russia. In America, in the American Yiddish literature, this became a daily motif. Everywhere there were thousands of Jews like Falik who felt lonely even among their own children. Dinezon was the first to deal with this theme in this manner. He depicted not only the helpless child, but also the old father, just as he depicted the young Alter.

*    *    *    *    *

Falik is perhaps the most profound personality in Dinezon’s works of prose. In contrast to Shaya Miller, the arrogant merchant who wants to fool the simple tailor by giving him a bit of work and throwing him a compliment so he can wrest away his house and put up a mill, Falik is an honest, folksy Jew, like an old oak tree with deep and thick roots that are difficult to tear out of the ground.

As the roof begins to leak in his house, Falik sees that he has no choice but to leave; but as soon as the sun comes out, it drives away his fear of the storm. He’s not even impressed by the fervent little letters from his son in America: “Here it’s a free world, a Jew or not a Jew, everyone is a person here equal to all others, and parents who have grown children don’t have to fear their old age.”[8]

All these gilded joys don’t persuade Falik. He holds out against all these beguiling words. And finally he finds a way to wriggle out of his children’s plans.

“Dear Children,” he writes, not feeling that he has invented this idea. “If you don’t have enough sense or refinement, but clearly write that the reason you’re not sending me any money to put a roof on my house is to make me needy and join you along with your mother, I must tell you that one must not make somebody else needy, not a Jewish woman nor a Jewish man, not even your own father. And if in America this is called smart and good, then I’d rather die here in my birthplace as a fool!”[9]

Here we have quite a new version: instead of children coming to their parents with a moral lesson, “One must not make somebody else needy,” the father comes with this complaint to his children. Instead of the children teaching their parents the scripture of freedom, the old father teaches, “One must not make somebody else needy!” The old-fashioned, small-town father is more humane than his good and devoted Americanized big-city children.

In Falik and His House, Jacob Dinezon is a pioneer of the challenges surrounding emigrating to America—the “here and there” in Yiddish literature.

*    *    *    *    *

Dinezon’s themes and writerly skills, however, were probably best and most broadly expressed in one of his shortest novels: The Crisis. These pages of prose are also the freshest for today’s reader.

Published for the first time in book form in 1905, The Crisis was written under the shadow of the Russo-Japanese War, which impacted the country’s economy. Dinezon describes how Warsaw Jewish manufacturers struggled not to go under. Such is the difficult situation of the honest, respectable merchant Hillel Abelman, whose employees have nothing to do and the days stretch as long as the Diaspora:

“Were the boss not in the store, they would know what to do. Were he not there, they’d play dominoes or checkers, they’d argue, they’d tell jokes, in the worst case, for a change they’d crawl under a bundle of fabrics and take a pleasant little nap. Unfortunately, the boss is always in the store these days, and even forgets to go to lunch on time.”[10]

Dinezon vividly describes how starved the people are to make money and how artful the dealer is when he wants to arouse a desire to buy. The girl who comes in to get change for a hundred is not thinking about purchasing at all, but the boss and the employees work such tricks to dazzle her with all sorts of samples and courtesies, that she comes back the next day with other customers to make purchases.

“Why don’t you rest for a minute?” Abelman’s wife asks him.

“‘If there’s a fire, one shouldn’t sleep!’ he replies. And what he means is not that, God forbid, a house or a store is burning in town, but that the entire business world is burning, and one must remain watchful at all times, prepared to save oneself before the fire approaches . . . Water must be prepared . . . ‘Water,’ meaning: cash.”[11]

And, if one is a respectable merchant, one must keep up with the fashion. Reb Israel Epstein comes along, the state rabbi’s father-in-law, and demands a pledge of money to help the needy who are clamoring on the thresholds of the institution. He can’t just manage any old way. Which means:

“God is with you! If you pledge a little, the other guy will also pledge a little. Don’t you understand that the little boss looks up to the bigger one?”[12]

*    *    *    *    *

Up to the present day, The Crisis is considered among the most vivid depictions of the Jewish business world. In reading it, one momentarily forgets that it’s about the Warsaw that once was, because it exactly fits any city in the world where there are only Jews.

“Whosever’s house you might go to in the evening, whether summer or winter, you’ll always find a minyan, at least—an assemblage of Jews sitting at a table deeply engrossed in playing cards. They play. Is there an end to the names for this sinfulness? The storekeeper plays, his wife as well, sons and daughters play, sons- and daughters-in-law, bosses aren’t embarrassed to play with their own clerks, and they don’t play like during Hanukkah until the Hanukkah candles go out—they’re not ashamed to play until well after midnight, and what’s the result?”[13]

*    *    *    *    *

Hillel Abelman has already had a taste of overeducated children. They finished university, but even after their marriages, they need to stay with their father because they can’t make a living. And he’s not impressed that they chatter in a strange language, though he’s not an old-fashioned man.

Dinezon illustrates through Abelman the new type of Jew who doesn’t tolerate being ashamed of his Jewish name. The insurance agent, Tabahov, who altered his name in such a shmendrik (silly) fashion, doesn’t leave him alone, just as his children who Christianize their names also don’t leave him alone. He unburdens himself to his wife:

“That’s how it is because the fashion is to be ashamed of one’s Jewish name. ‘Brocha’ is a Jewish name, but it’s not enough for them. So they’ll turn the name ‘Brocha’ into ‘Bertha.’ In Brocha there’s a ‘b’ and an ‘r’ and in Bertha there’s also a ‘b’ and an ‘r.’ A letter of a Jewish name is enough. But what do you do to them if they give their child the name ‘Stefanida’ or even ‘Carolina’? Do you think that such names aren’t given to Jewish children? Do you even know how to translate Naftal Terentievitsh Tabahov into Yiddish?”

“The devil spit on such a Jew!” she sputters out.

“Don’t spit, dear wife! How’s the saying go: ‘If you have children in the cradle, leave other people alone.’ You don’t know what sorts of little cards your grandchildren will yet have printed.”[14]

Dinezon, we see, distances himself from the maskilim for whom it was an honor to give themselves names that “sounded good” in the language of their homeland. Dinezon emphasized themes that became familiar to the true nationalistic orientation in Jewish life that went under the symbol of “back to oneself.”

*    *    *    *    *

Hillel Abelman, who wants to be the respected Jew in all ways, is not someone who battles with others, but he does battle with himself. He doesn’t want to fall. He prays for a miracle. And when the good news arouses him from sleep that the street is burning, he clearly sees it as the miracle for how he can remain an honorable man:

“One spark can save him. And sparks are flying like hail from the sky.” What does one do, however, if the firefighters smother the sparks? “Now, he thinks, there’ll come a spark that will fix everything that the firefighters ruined. And he waits for the wind to turn or a flame to spring up from the corner of the roof to rescue him—rescue him from disgrace, from bankruptcy, perhaps save his very life which is attached to his body by merely a hair of anguish.”[15]

Dinezon is delicately effective with lyrical accents and tones arising from the tragicomic scenes that pull on the heartstrings. Abelman watches the firemen pouring buckets of water and he feels as if they’re scalding him.

“‘Criminals, murderers, what do you want from my life?’ his heart shouts to the firefighters. ‘What do you care if it burns?’ . . . And suddenly it is doused completely. Done! Put out without mercy with his last spark of hope.”[16]

If this isn’t enough, his wife comes along with her dreams. She literally saw, she tells him, that out of the merit earned by her parents, no evil would occur because they were standing over their fabric store with outstretched hands “and wouldn’t permit the fire to approach.”

Here Dinezon demonstrated a skill for using an anecdote in such a charming fashion that it appears to have grown out of the plot itself. With Ableman’s words, The Crisis ends:

“Even if a miracle occurs that could take care of all the troubles, something passed down from the deeds of our ancestors gets all mixed up in it and ruins it.”[17]

Dinezon travels from tears to a smile and arrives at irony. The Crisis is the irony in which the merchant goes bankrupt against his will—even though he uses all the cleverness he has.

Money, that is, displaces the honesty in people. Let one not be tested by the temptation of money.

After Yosele, Jacob Dinezon continued to demonstrate novel phases of his storytelling talent by using new motifs which are important contributions to Yiddish literature.

[1]  First printing in Friend in 1904, reworked before his death by Dinezon himself, but with the last lines incomplete.
[2]  Falik and His Son, p. 17.
[3]  Ibid., p. 50.
[4]  Ibid., p. 98.]
[5]  Ibid., p. 101.
[6]  Ibid., p. 103.
[7]  Ibid., pp. 76-77.
[8]  Ibid., p. 73.
[9]  Ibid., p. 105-106.
[10]  The Crisis: Stories of Merchant Life, I. Lidsky Publishers, Warsaw 1905, pp. 3-4.
[11]  Ibid., p. 16.
[12]  Ibid., p. 24
[13]  Ibid., pp. 76-77.
[14]  Ibid., pp. 122-123.
[15]  Ibid., p. 129.
[16]  Ibid., p. 128.
[17]  Ibid., p. 133.

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