Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Two

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

Chapter Two
Why Did Dinezon the Hebraist
Become a Yiddish Writer?
From teacher to belletrist. — “First question.” — The conflict between his mother and Michael Gordon about writing holy books and Yiddish songs. — “True maskilim are ashamed to write jargon.” — The Nanny. — From compassion for the coarse world to the call of “my artistic soul.” — How to be free of one’s schooled religious texts in one’s writing? — The popularizer wants to be independent. — Through Yiddish he became independent. — Embracing one’s life.

Jacob Dinezon became involved with Yiddish literature as a cultivated teacher.

His closest friend, I. L. Peretz, thought of him more as a teacher of morals than as an artist: “First, that is, be liberal, good, and honorable; only afterwards, beautiful! The picture, the scene, the part of the described life is not a goal in and of itself. Life perhaps has no purpose in and of itself! The artist must therefore, at least, demonstrate that one must love another; that one’s wrongdoing does not have to oppress another; that falseness, intrigues, fanaticism, bad habits, and the like do not lead to goodness; that ‘Jewishness is not the magical belief in saints and their miracles.’”[1]

With this particular view of literature, Dinezon arrived at writing. And since he was a very naive person, a tender, utterly honorable person, he understood nothing more than in order for someone to write, one must trust in life. From this arose a realism steeped in sentimentality.

*    *    *    *    *

In his memoir, which he began in 1911 in remembrance of S. Niger, Dinezon’s introduction described an episode of his “first attempt at writing” that characterizes both himself and the time in which he lived.

He describes how, since childhood, he loved white paper. “What use it had for me,” he says, “I had no idea. Yet, the moment I saw, either on the street or in cheder, a boy with a piece of empty, beautiful, and clean writing paper, no price—based on what I possessed then—was too dear.”

One day, he “stole” several pieces of paper from his father’s desk, and when asked why he did this, he found it impossible to reply. His father became angry and wanted to punish him, especially for the sake of his mother, who actually perceived this as little Jacob heading down a terrible path, dear God. The child, however, was lucky because their neighbor and good friend was the poet Michael Gordon, who saw an alternative explanation for this attraction to writing paper. As a result, there took place between Gordon and Dinezon’s mother this conversation:

“What does he need the paper for? Why does he like it so much?” his mother asked.

“Perhaps, although the paper really isn’t useful for anything yet, the fact that he is drawn to it is an indication the paper is somehow related to his young soul. Who can know what he will grow up to become? Maybe someday he will be a great rabbi and write holy books on paper about the Torah.”

“From your mouth to God’s ears!” Dinezon’s mother declared.

Then Gordon added, “Or maybe he’ll actually become an educated person and write the kinds of songs I write!”[2]

To this Dinezon’s mother replied: “You should better bite off your tongue!”[3]

*    *    *    *    *

“Better to bite off your tongue!” rather than become a Yiddish writer—this was the thinking in every respectable Jewish home in the 19th century. Even those who took pleasure in reading “jargonly writing” trembled at the thought of their child taking up writing in Yiddish. Like everyone else, Jacob Dinezon thought this as well.

Therefore, he first began writing articles and correspondences in Hebrew journals. In Yiddish, he wrote essays about natural science. In Hebrew he wanted to become a writer and in Yiddish a teacher.

“Several years after my leaving Warsaw,” relates our greatest historian about the personal relationship and friendship that began in 1887, “Dinezon corresponded with me. All his letters were written in Hebrew. Writing in Russian was difficult for him, and according to the customs of those times, ‘it didn’t suit’ to correspond in Yiddish between learned men who knew how to write in Hebrew. True maskilim were ashamed to write in jargon.”[4]

Today, what is curious in the history of Yiddish literature and culture is what was said by the one who later became the flag-bearer of Yiddishism. Even in 1891, Peretz wrote in his foreword to the first volume of Yiddish Library that “Jargon doesn’t have any pretensions of replacing the native position in a Jewish home. This position is occupied and needs to be occupied by Hebrew; jargon has no pretensions to the position of teaching, this position has eventually to be occupied by the language of the land. Jargon is only a nanny; she just wants to teach how to walk, sit, and begin to talk. Then you can throw the nanny out, or, in gratitude, leave her a place at the table!”[5] If the revolutionary Peretz could assert this, then what could it mean for the proper Dinezon?

*    *    *    *    *

Then why, indeed, did Dinezon begin writing in Yiddish? He speaks about himself on the occasion of telling S. Niger about Isaac Meier Dik: “I saw my name printed with big letters for the first time under one of my articles in Ha-Magid (The Preacher), then in Ha-Melitz (The Advocate), in Ha-Karmel (Mount Carmel), Ha-Tsefirah (The Morning), and similarly in Smolensky’s Ha-Shakhar (The Dawn). I first wrote in Yiddish whenever I felt like teasing, or to make myself and my friends merry, and in this way I gradually changed my mind to where there could be nothing more natural than writing in Yiddish for Jewish readers. Yiddish began to please both my artistic sensibility and my Jewish mind, which always troubled me when writing in Hebrew for only a small group of friends to whom I actually had nothing to say, nothing to recount.

“Yet the thousands and tens of thousands of brothers and sisters for whom my words might be useful and my tales might give pleasure could not hear my words or listen to my tales because I wrote in a language that only we savants, we learned ones, we enlightened ones understood; but not them, the ignorant upon whom we looked down from a great height.”[6]

So Dinezon began to write in Yiddish out of compassion. With complete childish innocence he revealed those hidden thoughts that had tormented him. In other words, a transgressor! You could write in Yiddish and see how great the need was for your writing in Yiddish, yet you ignored the language and were ashamed of it. How could a Jew be so heartless?

Dinezon, however, confessed wholeheartedly that in the process of writing, while he was trying out his pen in both Hebrew and  Yiddish, he began to realize that in actuality he was drawn to writing in Yiddish not so much out of compassion, but for another reason: he started to feel that as good a Hebraist as he was, his Hebrew didn’t flow. While on the other hand, as little as it befit him to lower himself to writing in Yiddish, his Yiddish flowed.

“My artistic soul,” he recounts, “couldn’t remain satisfied from writing in Hebrew because it seemed to feel constrained and not free. Not because words and expressions were missing. Those I had more than enough of in my Hebrew Bible, and exactly those overly abundant and ready words in their usage had blocked their own freethinking, and instead of speaking for myself, Isaiah, Job, or Ecclesiastes always spoke for me. At other times with my Hebrew, I clothed my protagonists in strange, ill-suited clothes. The clothes hung worn and awkward, and I myself was no more than a second-hand clothes dealer. I felt entirely different in Yiddish. Here no one was speaking for me, not Isaiah, not even Ezekiel. I spoke for myself, and not only did I speak for myself, but my protagonists also spoke in their own tongue, each one as he felt and was used to speaking. I didn’t have to search for words and expressions for them, especially ones which they had never lost.”[7]

Dinezon transitioned from Hebrew to Yiddish the way a son leaves his father when he wants to become independent. His father is actually kind and good, but the child still wants to become independent. Yiddish helped those Jewish writers become independent who were drawn to their people but couldn’t make an intimate connection using Hebrew.

This is how the “artistic soul,” as Dinezon expressed it, oriented the young maskil to his path. Although he began writing in Yiddish when he “felt like teasing to enliven himself and his friends,” he “gradually came to the conclusion that there does not exist anything more natural than writing in Yiddish for Jewish readers,” and Yiddish began to satisfy his “artistic sentiments.”

If Dinezon had simply relied on his logic and highly regarded teaching, he certainly wouldn’t have become the noted author he became. He might have made a number of additional translations relating universal and Jewish history,[8] he might have published a few more brochures and booklets which informed about countries and peoples, as well as the natural sciences, for which he had a special weakness.[9] Perhaps he would have also printed booklets about accounting and trade.[10] All these would have been published in an affected style, as was the custom among his circle of maskilim.[11]

As a Hebraist, although sharper and more categorical than others who wrote in Hebrew before they transitioned to Yiddish, Dinezon couldn’t compare himself to I. L. Peretz, who “already then wrote a wonderful Hebrew” and “was both the adored and wild child of those maskilic societies.”[12] However, even Peretz wound up in Yiddish. So, for all the more reasons, did Dinezon.

A writer must succeed at choosing his own path, just as every human being must succeed at choosing a profession.

*    *    *    *    *

But between a teacher and a writer there is an obvious difference. A teacher can satisfy himself by repeating what others say. A writer can’t gain any enjoyment from copying and repeating. And a writer who has no enjoyment from his own writing can’t bring about enjoyment in others.

One can learn how to write, but one cannot learn how to become a writer. One can learn how to speak well, but one cannot learn to be an orator. To become one yourself, one has to bring something to it beyond what is inherited; something attained from learning, or from the street, life, or experience. A writer must always be in the process of becoming. It has to always come to him. If it doesn’t come, it languishes.

Just like culture, a writer can’t “remain in place.” If there is no movement forward, there is no “remaining in place”—the movement is backwards. Living means creating. An alive writer is comparable to someone on a mountain for the first time—either he climbs higher, further, or he falls down, slides down, crashes down. “Remaining in place” one can only do when one goes forward, however little, but forward—and alone!

When Dinezon tried to write in Yiddish he felt that he wrote on his own and liberated himself from the Scriptures and the affected style which, in his day, held sway over everyone learned in Hebrew. Instead of speaking in the abstract, he began to write from the life that arose before him, that he himself observed, that he himself felt. Instead of making something up, it is better to describe what springs from life; to join in, empathize, and become intimately involved.

In Yiddish, Jacob Dinezon immediately managed to evoke a sense of intimacy. Both he and his reader instantly sensed the warmth of blood, heart, restlessness, sorrow, and too little joy. In Yiddish, life spoke to him everywhere in the most sentimental tones.


[1]  I. L. Peretz, Vol. 10, p. 132.
[2]  Michael Gordon, A Folk Poet From Vilna, 1832-1890, is the author of the popular song, “The Whiskey.”
[3]  “Reminders,” “The Yiddish Record Book,” Yearbook of the History of Yiddish Literature and Language for Folklore, Critique and Bibliography, First Edition, 1912, S. Niger editor, Vilna, p. 150.
[4]  Simon Dubnow, From “Jargon” to Yiddish, Vilna 1929. “The Amiable Jacob Dinezon,” pp. 24-32.
[5]  I. L. Peretz, “Education,” Vol. 12, p. 17.
[6]  “Jacob Dinezon’s Letters,” Di Tsukunft (The Future), 1929, No. 9.
[7]  Ibid.
[8]  Gretz’s Folk History of the Jews and Vol. 1, “World History” (printed as a supplement to Jew in 1900) was the beginning of a wide-ranging opus that created among Jews a greater understanding of their history.
[9]  His brochure, “Thunder and Lightning,” was published in 1876. Later, “Rain and Snow,” “Egypt,” “Babel,” “Vienna,” “The Mormons: Their Religion and Their History.” Dinezon also refined a series of lectures about natural sciences based on Bernstein.
[10]  Dinezon was for many years a bookkeeper which he likely learned in Mohilev from his uncle who had a reputation as a mathematician.
[11]  Beginning with his uncle, Isaac Eliashev, who was truly observant, but at the same time was involved in secular knowledge and languages.
[12]  Nokhum Sokolov, Personalities, translated by Moses Shender, Polish Jewry Press, Buenos Aires, 1948, “I. L. Peretz,” pp. 20 and 37.

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