Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Seven

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

Chapter Seven
The New Approach Through
Hershele and Yosele
Dinezon’s rise in Peretz’s circle. — Modernized. — Publisher of Familiar Images which is a curiosity for booksellers. — Co-editor of Yiddish Library. — Freed of old weaknesses. — Without two titles and without expression. — Hershele, a novel about classes taking shape. — Brayndele, Mirele, the synagogue official, the informer. — How the Butcher and the Rebbe seek husbands for their daughters. — The anonymous public doesn’t respond directly. — Holy books that awaken the youth and youth who have no strength to rebel. — The prisoner in shackles through lofty windows. — “One God could have been distressed to observe!” — The proper informant against the old cheder. — Writerly instead of writing letters. — Drawing near to Mendele’s school. — Material poverty and spiritual poverty in Yosele. — Conclusions instead of foregone conclusions. — The religious teacher’s dialectic and the orphan’s sorrow. — Two mothers: the rich Sheyndele and the honest, despondent Khyene. — Reb Saul Shokhet (ritual slaughterer) and Jonah Vasertreger (water carrier): the pigeons. — Yosele, “A little holy spark for other’s sins.” — Educational and social standpoints. — Yosele, a classic work in literature and for the school.

As a result of befriending Peretz, Dinezon was elevated. At first in a literary manner, then socially.

In Hershele, published in 1891 in Warsaw, a modernized Dinezon is already evident. The change is marked by 1899 in Yosele. In this work, Dinezon is so radiant that even those snobs who had derided his over-sentimentalism began to perceive the writer in a different light. And Yosele was eventually recognized as a classic work of Yiddish literature that withstands the test of time.

*    *    *    *    *

It’s interesting that “Monish,” Peretz’s first literary creation, which was the cause of the painful clash with his editor, Sholem Aleichem, was the visiting card that introduced Peretz to Dinezon. And it is noteworthy that “Monish,” which was too modern for the modern Yiddish literary humorist of the late 19th century, was actually a source of inspiration for the old-fashioned Jacob Dinezon.

As Tsitron relates, Peretz sent Dinezon a notebook of short stories from Zamość. When they were read aloud for a circle of writers, everyone was captivated. But when an attempt was made to speak with a publisher, there was no one to deal with. Even without having to pay an honorarium, no one wanted to print the book. Publishers smiled: You call these stories! “A page-long story or a half-page story is like a ‘chew and spit out.’ This was because they were only bookbinders, dealers in thick, fat-bellied stories à la Shomer (Nahum Meir Shaykovitch).”[1] Therefore, short story writers struggled to find publishers. Dinezon was one of the seekers, and he found one: he printed the stories himself and sent the entire printing to Peretz. This was in 1890. This was Peretz’s first book in Yiddish: Familiar Images From Life.[2]

This association apparently triggered a correspondence between Dinezon and Peretz. In the first letter (which to this day has not been published or well known) Peretz replied on February 24, 1889 from Zamość, thanking Dinezon for his praise and asking him (in Hebrew): “Is this you, Sir, the author of The Beloved and Pleasing and “Go Eat Kreplach” (a story by Dinezon published in the same first volume of Sholem Aleichem’s 1888 Jewish Folk Library where Peretz’s “Monish” was printed)?[3] It didn’t take long for this correspondence to nurture the sort of friendship and mutual working relationship that is a riddle to the present day. Such contrasting natures from such contrasting writerly traditions, and yet they so quickly hit upon reciprocal ways of working together. They discussed editing and co‑publishing anthologies, and, as early as 1891, there appeared the first volume of Jewish Library, and the second volume arrived immediately thereafter, in which Dinezon offered his novel Hershele, published the same year in a separate issue.

Peretz set the tone and  literary structure of the anthologies and identified young writers; Dinezon took responsibility for the financing and communications, served as an adviser, and was the one who carried out their mutual plans. This became the pattern for the remainder of their lives, even when Dinezon’s name was not featured.

Peretz, the modernist, captivated Dinezon, the writer of the old ways of life. And this immediately came to be expressed in the novel published in the first years of their friendship.

*    *    *    *    *

In his novel Hershele, Dinezon frees himself from the weakness of calling his work by two titles with an “or” in the middle. With two titles he had emphasized that he liked Hebrew, and that first comes the quote from Scriptures and then the Yiddish: The Beloved and Pleasing, or The Dark Young Man;[4] Even Negef, or A Stone in the Road.[5] With these scriptural quotations derived from the Old Testament, it appeared the author intended that if he’s writing in jargon, let it not be considered that this was the most important thing for him; he was just writing this for the “Jewish masses” and not for his equals.

But Dinezon’s novel of 1891 bears just one title: Hershele. There is also no motto as a justification.

In Hershele, the fundamental mistakes of Dinezon’s earlier novels are also diminished. The sentimental style continues, but it’s not laid on so thickly or strung out and exaggerated. The dialogues are shorter, the plot more concentrated, the descriptions clearer, and the character types more natural. Also, the language is modernized: Dinezon frees himself of Russifications and Germanisms.

Aside from the character types and personalities, Dinezon imbues Hershele with images of daily life. Described for the first time in Yiddish literature is the role of theater in Jewish life. The folk-play, “The Selling of Joseph,” put on by a group of yeshiva boys, reveals not only how theater was once performed, but also how the audience reacted. Aside from being a moving description, this is an interesting chapter on a Yiddish theater tradition and a contribution to our cultural history.

*    *    *    *    *

If A Stone in the Road, set against the canvas of the period, is a family novel that reveals the behind-the-scenes battles between Hasidim and maskilim as mirrored within the family, then Hershele is a novel arising from class struggle. Had Dinezon not been such a sentimentalist, Hershele would be a bitter lament about class injustice.

Brayndele, a wealthy widow, is enormously pleased that her enlightened daughter, the beautiful and gentle Mirele, has a teacher as good as the yeshiva boy Hershele. Yet, she can’t imagine that this poor lad would allow himself to think about Mirele as an equal. How can such a mendicant aspire to such an heiress? Though he is her teacher and Brayndele thinks very highly of him, and while he is given board in their home—in the kitchen, alongside the cook—he is only invited to dine with them “like decent folk” thanks to the enlightened Mirele. That is: if one is enlightened, one is more decent. If one can read books by great writers in foreign languages, one is, therefore, capable of being honorable. Here we have the viewpoint of a bygone era regarding education: it’s only from ignoramuses and old-fashioned thinking that the greatest injustices arise, and education will “certainly” bring justice to the world.

Mirele’s uncle, a synagogue official and rich man, goes even further than Brayndele. Notwithstanding that Hershele’s a refined yeshiva boy, it’s so impossible for the uncle to even considering allowing the mendicant into his family that he doesn’t hesitate to inform on him. As soon as he sees the enforcer in the street, he stops him and immediately imparts “what is needed.” Aye, this denunciation creates the greatest threat to the religious school where Hershele is a student, and all the yeshiva boys are arrested. Mirele’s uncle is unperturbed. He is the authority with the boorish characteristics of a wealthy man for whom all means are kosher in order to achieve his ends.

There is a different reaction, however, from the general Jewish populace. “During prayers,” Dinezon relates, “the religious school churned; one couldn’t hear the cantor’s words. Mirele’s uncle, the synagogue official, pounded on the stand to no avail. The public did not stop talking and aside from the synagogue official himself, no one even responded with an ‘amen.’”[6]

The public, in general, is better and more humane. Dinezon, who described people who were convinced that as long as they could read new books the bad folks would become good, also described others who understood that knowledge is not everything. From knowing goodness to wanting to be good is for many a great distance; therefore, of cardinal importance is the spiritual level of people. Conscience and morals are more important than knowledge.

“Hershele,” one yeshiva boy says to another, “knows that the books are just to awaken someone who’s asleep, but they don’t have the power to awaken one’s strength or set oneself on one’s feet! . . . True, I have knowledge of everything, but I don’t know how to do anything! My entire life has no order and my learning is also disordered. I often see myself as being lost in a swamp; someone who sinks deeper by the hour and doesn’t have the courage to try his strength at getting himself out. I don’t have the strength to pry myself out. Too bad! I will just remain a religious teacher of children, a poor man, a cripple.”[7]

 In Hershele, Dinezon presented the struggle between the idealists and the boors, the dreamers and the corrupted, the poor and the rich, the learned and the ignoramuses.

*    *    *    *    *

In Hershele, two types of fathers are overtly contrasted, but regardless of their various qualities, manners, and builds, they share the same interests as all parents who have a daughter to marry off. First is the head of the yeshiva who has a pale little daughter, Rebecca; the second is Boruch the butcher whose daughter is the overgrown and portly Sarah-Feyge.

The butcher and his wife feed Hershele and are certain that the more they feed him the more they have the right to expect him to marry their daughter. They’re prepared to give him board for an entire week—with what else can they entice him? And in order to be ensured of the outcome, the butcher arrives at the idea of enlisting the help of the head of the yeshiva to have a talk with Hershele.

So the gentle head of the yeshiva does talk, but in the middle of his speech to Hershele, his young daughter keeps entering the room to serve tea and hand out refreshments, and she positions herself so that Hershele notices her. In the meantime, the head of the yeshiva forgets to speak about the butcher and his daughter. Truly a learned man, truly a gentle head of the yeshiva, but a father is a father!

Dinezon describes with special pleasure the primitive public and how it comprehends and acts. In describing the performance of “The Selling of Joseph,” he says, “Although the public certainly knew that the pit on stage was only a crate without a cover, not only without water but also without scorpions and snakes,” many “Oys” of fright were yelled out when the brothers pushed the forlorn Hershele into it. “Even Mirele put her hand over her heart and nearly cried out in pain. . . . Everyone was filled with apprehension.”[8]

Dinezon paints a moving scene at the end of the novel as Hershele is being escorted through the village in shackles. Mirele, the romantic girl with the sheen of education, a girl from a small town who could easily fit in a big city salon, looks out through the tall panes at her beloved being brutally wrenched away from her.

Dinezon, the sentimental and sweet novelist, can barely control himself. His last sentence is, therefore: “One God might have been distressed observing this!”[9]

*    *    *    *    *

The emotion with which Dinezon finishes off Hershele: “One God might have been distressed observing this!” is spread throughout his novel Yosele.

Just as he failed to observe in Hershele those societal strengths that could battle the persecutions and injustices that were perpetrated against the poor and helpless, Dinezon also fails to observe them in Yosele. There might be some intimations: characters with hearts and consciences who allow us to feel that they can’t swallow the injustices, but they are passive; at any rate, they don’t raise any alarm. “Yosele, a quiet, emaciated child, responds to blows with indifference, as if he were already used to getting them.”[10]

Dinezon begins his Yosele by describing the education in the cheder of the past, how the upstanding teacher did not treat the poor children honorably, while at the same time dreading to touch the rich ones. And he concludes his description with the inequality among adults, where the pedagogy is awful, exactly as it was in the old-fashioned cheder.

Dinezon steps forth as the protestor against the old cheder and as the protester against class distinctions. This is how many understood him years later.

This is how Dinezon was presented after his death in the battle for the new education and for a just social order.

*    *    *    *    *

In Yosele we see Dinezon at a higher rung of development than in Hershele.

In this work, which was published in Warsaw in 1899, we clearly see Peretz’s influence in both language and style. Dinezon draws closer to the style of our classicists: even in the long sentence it’s apparent how the writer now seeks brevity and emphasis; he tries to fashion the word and especially the phrase. Instead of writing in a belletristic style, Dinezon begins to write in a more writerly fashion, strengthening himself and taxing himself with the form. He, who was surprised that Mendele wasn’t writing in Hebrew rather than Yiddish, attempts to draw closer to Mendele.

“Reb Berl,” all the other religious teachers say enviously, “is successful; nothing less than a success. Although he doesn’t repeat teachings with his students, he’s considered effective; although he hits like everyone and gives lashes as is the custom, he’s considered to be good, and an expert in dealing with fearful children. Success comes his way. It’s an honor to entrust a child to Reb Berl’s cheder.[11]

He is not deceitful, this particular religious teacher, and also not a criminal, yet much like a criminal, he does things that suit a liar and abuser of children, especially an impoverished orphan. He has an excuse for everything, a moral, a quotation, and a theory. “In teaching,” he says, “there lies a great sense.” And where is this sense?

Reb Berl tells Menashe Milner, whose two sons are studying with him for a third semester and still cannot speak Hebrew correctly, “The greater the difficulty with Hebrew, the easier, you’ll see, it will go in studying the Pentateuch with Rashi’s commentaries. This is, after all, a known thing that is especially true for those great scholars, the sharp minds, who don’t know a word of Hebrew. And why do you need another reason? Our Rabbi, may he be well, is a known genius with a keen mind, yet doesn’t he say, ‘velakhidekh beahava’ instead of ‘velikhdekh beahavah’? And what’s the reason, do you think? Simply, because a good mind doesn’t bother over a small thing that makes no sense.”

In language and in the particulars of construction, Yosele is a great leap forward in Dinezon’s creativity.

*    *    *    *    *

Within the framework of Dinezon’s sentimentalism, Yosele is the most concentrated work. Here the rhythm is faster, the plot more intense, the descriptions more concise.

He conjures up a town where the sound of sorrow echoes loudly, hovering above the lonely, impoverished Jewish child: “Yosele left for the little Hasidic house of worship. There were no yeshiva boys there; therefore, no holy books either. It was dark with just one little candle burning on a stand. The caretaker, an elderly, half-blind Jew, didn’t notice that there was someone there other than himself, and Yosele crept behind the stove and slept like a prince.”

This little, foreshortened paragraph is more characteristic of Peretz than Dinezon. But it’s enough to read several sentences to recognize Dinezon’s sentimentalism, his sweet affection for people, especially suffering ones, and more so, for lonely children.

Yosele is such a child—a victim of society where one slander is stronger than a thousand truths. Here, for example:

“What do you say, little boy?” a Jew asked him.

“A bible!”

“What do you need a bible for?”

“I want to study!”

“Don’t you have a religious school?”

“No!”

“Who are you?”

“Yosele.”

“Why are you speaking with him?” interjected a yeshiva boy who had come over to the old man. “This is the little thief who was just on trial. I bet he wants to steal a book!”

“True, little boy?” the man asked.

“I don’t want to steal anything,” Yosele replied. “I want to study the bible. Give me a bible and I’ll study.”

“Here’s a bible. I’ll see if you can study and if you really want to. Come, sit down next to me.”

And Yosele enthusiastically and with great pleasure studied the bible out loud for the man. The man didn’t have to help him out.

“You’re a good boy!” the man said. “But, tell me, if you can study so well, why do they call you a thief?”

Yosele didn’t respond, but his eyes filled with tears.[12]

These are moving passages from Yiddish literature—moving passages from Jewish life.

*    *    *    *    *

In Yosele, Dinezon emphasizes the emotional tones.

The themes touch upon the melodramatic moments of a child’s life, a forlorn child who is poor and orphaned. And the writer also describes them in melodramatic tones with the delicacy of a gentle person who has an ear more for others than himself.

Yosele, a child harmed in the cheder and in life, is a victim of various mistakes and injustices that have mounted up within the society. The child sees how money dominates. The child sees that people rely more on what “is said” than on what they themselves see and comprehend. One judges on the basis of pre-judgments and even the trial is unjust. If suspicion falls on anyone, it’s hard to free oneself of it. Greater than the material poverty is the spiritual poverty. Money misleads even naive and honest people. Habitual morals are like a net that ensnares and prevents escape. People are too lazy to deepen themselves. Judgments are formed based on superficial impressions. Therefore, Yosele can’t save himself.

If it did occur once that a few coins were found in Yosele’s possession that belonged to the teacher, excuses and explanations are of no help: “A little thief!” The caring mother, Khyene, who faints over this, holds onto Yosele for the teacher to flog him. This is how they want to save him! It’s of no help for him to defend himself before the authorities who even try to talk him into thieving.

There are a few exceptions, but really no more than exceptions. Jonah the water carrier, for example, and Reb Saul the butcher, people who can free themselves from the vulgarized establishment moral code that hangs on the purse and the logic of the overstuffed. Jonah appears to be a lamed-vovnik, one of the thirty-six saintly ones, the opposite of “Sheyndele, a fat Jewess with a three-fold goiter and a throat full of large pearls.” Reb Saul is the opposite of the professional religious scholars and teachers who can mask their falseness and lies. When Yosele’s sister, Sarale, tries to throw herself onto the open grave, she is comforted by one of these rare compassionate individuals:

“Enough crying, enough lamenting, my daughter!” says Reb Saul while taking her hand. “Your little brother has died—died, as does a purified, refined soul. Let him have his due. And be comforted by this: that not a boy or some sort of thief is buried here, but a little holy one who from his birth until his death suffered for others’ sins, for others’ evildoings! . . . May he be a good intervener in heaven for you and all of Israel!”[13]

These were not merely pretty words. In contrast to the heartless, deluded, obtuse, and coarse egotists, these particular Jews stood broken: “A few large tears that had continually gleamed as if frozen in the eyes of the old pious Jew finally loosed and ran freely down his sunken, gaunt cheeks, over his snow-white beard, and fell directly onto the open grave. . . . Looking at Reb Saul, Jonah the water carrier burst into tears, and it took a toll on Reb Saul to quiet him.”

“Not understanding Jonah,” Dinezon says, however, before the end of the passage, “the public shrugged and responded, “‘Drunk, probably.’”

The bashful Jacob Dinezon, representing the ordinary person, wasn’t frightened of drawing this conclusion: “The public did not understand!” The water carrier had more humanity than the fine upper crust of the shtetl.

*    *    *    *    *

Dinezon, the exalted defender of the impoverished and misunderstood child, inserted into Yosele language that years later served as arguments for modern pedagogy, for the secular school, and for free thought:

“For what purpose does one teach a child such rules that his young mind cannot yet grasp?” asks Khyene.[14]

“Useless curses!” says Reb Boruch spitefully. “What, is a shoemaker not a Jew?”[15]

And Yosele? “Now he sensed, though not clearly, that aside from beatings and hunger, there is something that hurts and torments even more than beatings and hunger, and this is the neglect and injustice done to him because of his impoverishment . . .”[16]

“Yosele hears how the rabbi swears falsely, ‘May one swear falsely?’ his heart cries out.”[17]

“‘Compassion is cruelty!’ Boruch shouted hoarsely.”[18]

“‘Don’t be afraid, Khyene,’ Reb Berl said. ‘There’s great power in the rod.’”[19]

“‘Whoever steals once, steals again!’ interjected the rabbi’s wife.”[20]

“‘I told you a long time ago,’ Reb Solomon added, ‘that a poor man is a thief!’”[21]

The upstanding Jacob Dinezon showed in Yosele—as early as 1899!—that in Jewish life arose conflicts that could have exploded any day. And he used a child to demonstrate how far these conflicts had reached, about which society was not yet organized, but for which there were antagonistic sides aplenty.

The sentimental storyteller became an awakener regarding societal and educational sins. All Jewish radical circles that were involved in the idea of building new Jewish schools and especially new institutions, took Dinezon’s Yosele as witness and testament to the unjust order of society. They derived from it weighty arguments in public trials, and his selected pages became the most beloved reading material in the Jewish schools, and even on holidays, in acted-out scenes and plays.[22]


[1]   Three Literary Generations, pp. 93-4.
[2]   Familiar Images of Leon Peretz, published through J. Dinezon with “Several Words on the Publication.” In it were stories which established a world-wide reputation for Peretz, like “The Crazy Beggar,” “The Messenger,” etc.
[3]   Letters and Speeches by I. L. Peretz with an introduction and commentary by Zalmen Meizil, Vilna 1929, p. 36.
[4]   From Samuel II, 1:23 Bet, Alef: “Saul and Jonathan, so beloved and pleasing in their lives, that in their deaths they did not part”—as translated by Yehoash.
[5]   From Isaiah, 8:14: “And he will be for being made holy, but also for a stumbling block, and for a boulder of temptation for both houses of Israel”—as translated by Yehoash.
[6]   Philadelphia edition of Morgn-Zshurnal (Morning Journal) (reprinted from stereotypes, without a date), p. 169.
[7]   Ibid., p. 119.
[8]   Ibid., p. 45.
[9]   Ibid., p. 179.
[10]   Yosele, Story of a Jewish Life by Jacob Dinezon, Hebrew Publishing Co. Edition, New York, (No date), p. 4.
[11]   Ibid., p. 3.
[12]   Ibid., p. 90.
[13]   Ibid., pp. 111-12.
[14]   Ibid., p. 11.
[15]   Ibid., p. 13.
[16]   Ibid., p. 26.
[17]   Ibid., p. 30.
[18]   Ibid., p. 32.
[19]   Ibid., p. 35.
[20]   Ibid., p. 43.
[21]   Ibid., p. 49.
[22]   Samuel Glaserman, a dramaturge who was for some years a teacher, made a play out of “Yosele in Cheder,” publicized in The Jewish Paper, Buenos Aires, September 8, 1926.

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