Bal-Makhshoves’ Essay on Jacob Dinezon

By Bal-Makhshoves
(Israel Isidor Elyashev)

From Geklibene verk
(Gathered Works)
Washington, D.C.: S. Shreberk, 1910
Volume 1, Pages 113-120
(See Yiddish Version Here)
Translated from the Yiddish by
Jane Peppler

Twenty-five years have passed since the seventeen or eighteen-year-old Dinezon met Isaac Meir Dik. They met in the printing place “Widow and Brothers Romm,” and the young Dinezon had brought with him his first great novel, Der shvartser yungermantshik. With great respect (because everyone from Zhager is respectful) and with great humility (because Dinezon was always great in humility), he stood in front of the man who was then the foremost Jewish folk writer. And he himself didn’t even believe his plain feet were standing on the holy floors of the Widow and Brothers Romm.

This is no small thing! The famous tkhines [prayers and devotions] of Sarah bas Toyvim came from this house. From this same “Widow” came Tsenturiye Venturiye, Yosifon, Tseyna Reyna, the Karbn minkha siddur, and all holy and pious stories about the sanctification of the Sabbath, the mitsvah of khallah, and the like.

To be published by the “Widow” was, at that time, as if you’d fallen between tzitzits and mezuzahs, as if to mingle with holy vessels in the cupboard of the poorest Jew of the poorest community. And just as somebody who wants to travel in an unknown town doesn’t ask the way but goes first of all straight to the train, so Dinezon, who wanted to penetrate the heart of his unknown reader, wandered into the most famous printing house, where Isaac Meir Dik was then the foremost editor and proofreader.

Jacob Dinezon stood in front of him like a student in front of a teacher. With a beating heart and in pure trembling, he listened to the words from the ancient Maskil who praised Der Shvartser Yungermantshik and promised to print the work.

Did Isaac Meir Dik understand the difference between himself and that young man from Zhager who was apparently a Maskil like himself? Had he discovered in the work the poetic tone by which this young man differed from him, the dry Maskil? Who can know? We, however, who have read not only this novel of his youth but also his Even negef, Hershele, Yosele, up to his latest novellas in Der Yud and in Der Yiddishe Folktsaytung—we know what a new poetic tone Jacob Dinezon brought into today’s new Yiddish literature.

He painted the Jewish world not with pity but with love. He is almost the only one who loves the people he describes in his novels. He is almost the only one who created complete Jewish characters. But in order to create total characters, one must love the world and the people from whom these characters derive. Most of all, first and foremost, he was most successful in describing Jewish women and Jewish children. Only with them could he find pure hearts full of love just like his own heart.

Between love and pity, there is a big difference. You yourself taste the difference when you receive pity instead of love. Every time I think about this, I’m reminded of a beautiful midrash in which it is told that Taneh [an early rabbi, scholar, and wise man], thirsty and tired, was resting under a lovely tree with luxurious branches and wide leaves, near which rushed a clear source of water. Refreshed by the cool shade and the clear water, this learned man, before leaving, gave the lovely tree a brief blessing: he wished it only, “Remain as you are.”

Here, in this very brief blessing, lies a person’s true love of God’s creations. He sees in them a Godly completeness, he receives pleasure from them. His glance takes in their beauty. He stops being the critic who wants to chisel and file God’s work with his clumsy hands. He has only one wish: that angry, external accidents should not break and ruin the beautiful creation of the world; that the desert wind shall not tear out this tree by its roots nor blow away the leaves and their shade under which there rushes a clear spring of water.

Pity is, however, much different. The person who pities sees, first of all, deficiencies in people and community. Only an old tie or hidden instinct keeps him from fleeing the sad picture that captures his heart. Both feelings, love and pity, draw tears from our eyes, but how different are the sources from which they stream! Love cries because external accidents have impeded Godly fulfillment but believes in the inner strength of God’s world that is stronger than all mishaps and doesn’t lose faith for a moment. Pity, however, cries because there is no remedy for the sorrows in life and the community—because life, due to its innate deficiencies, must sooner or later return to dust. The person who pities sees hidden paupers everywhere. The person who loves sees, through the holes in a pauper’s clothing, an “enchanted prince.”

Jacob Dinezon traveled through his little Jewish world with this kind of love. In Der Shvartser Yungermantshik, we already see in Joseph the hidden prince—clearer still in his Hershele and everywhere he describes his women, his children, his young fellows. We instantly forget the dirt, the darkness, the poverty in which they are growing up, just as if they were hidden behind the soft black curls of his young heroes, just as a warm mild shine from their young sparkling eyes would reflect on their gray lives. And no matter how sad and unfortunate the circumstances of the individual’s life should be, Dinezon still finds people and hearts that bring grace and light-feeling into an individual’s darkness and will at least lighten his last minutes while saying goodbye to the world.

The unlucky life of a delicate, fine child’s soul is described in Yosele, and more than one reader has shed tears reading this very sad book. It seems the entire life of a poor Jewish child drowns in sadness and suffering, that there is no consolation and one can only despair. Dinezon wrote this not with ink but with blood; he poured out the entire cloud of his disposition in that sobbing story. Suddenly, however, almost at the end, he acquaints us with a water carrier, a teacher, and a watchman, and it seems to us a stone is removed from our hearts. In these three people, then, one hears the pulse of big, pure hearts full of love for people, for every individual, and we say to ourselves: where one can find a person like Yoyneh the Water Carrier and Reb Shoal the Shochet, there is still hope, still a belief that the life of a poor Jewish child will not always be so dark and bitter.

Jacob Dinezon is the optimist of our Yiddish literature. For him, evil is just a matter of chance, and he is confident that good will always triumph over the unfortunate accidents of life. The person who looks at God’s little world through the eyes of a faithful, devoted mother could not feel otherwise; he lives with a deep belief that within a shadow, one can find a thousand bright colors.

Every literature has two kinds of writers. One kind looks at everything in the world with the eyes of a man’s soul—seeing coldly, clearly, edges sharply delineated—looking at life as an unending war between good and evil—inexorably uncovering everything that is sick, weak, rotting, and dead.

But there are also writers who look at life and people through the eyes of a loving mother who will perhaps gloss over ten defects while not overlooking the smallest good trait behind the crooked back or wounds of her crippled child, who will always uncover the Godly spark of a delicate soul.

These particular writers have the distracted look of a beautiful young child dreaming in the midst of the bright blue day, full of wonder about every leaf and flower, God’s marvels—awaiting each coming day as a dear guest who’ll bring news, presents, and a happy smile to the lips.

Dinezon is a writer of this second kind. In addition, he is the only one amongst his older friends who doesn’t paint Jewish life for us from a man’s soul. Reading his work, it seems to us that we hear a clever mother’s soft voice, mixing tears and love like light and shadows on a cloudy summer day. He doesn’t spare words; he speaks quite candidly because his feelings of love flow forth as from a wellspring, and there are never enough words for these feelings. The written word is not yet strong enough to find suitable expression for the jumble of a thousand feelings.

In the small choir of our artists, the male souls, Dinezon’s voice rings out with a flute’s soft timbre. Without him, something important would be missing from our literature. With him, we feel ourselves more uplifted, more fulfilled. And he’d be missed not only as an artist but as part of normal literary life. His influence on the writers and artists who have always surrounded him is no less important than the books he wrote in the few free minutes he had in his overly committed days. Not through moralizing and philosophy, not through hard square-cornered words and lightning from his spirit did he achieve his influence over other artists, but through his knack for revealing and supporting talent everywhere, for revitalizing the despairing, for strengthening and raising up artists who have fallen. His tender mood (full of love and, therefore, full of the first demand to see wholeness, first to reveal the hidden strengths) worked like the light and warmth of the sun, which itself doesn’t know how many seeds have sprouted because of her, how many closed buds have opened because of her.

And if one wants to evaluate Dinezon’s worth from that angle, it will perhaps be revealed to be as important in our literature overall as his best books. This isn’t the time or place to decide. His anniversary, at which everyone (the old and the new) with a connection to literature will soon be heard, will show this more distinctly than one can express in words. For dozens of years, Yiddish literature has had in Jacob Dinezon a faithful, ardent friend. He never asked what language a comrade wrote in. What that comrade gave to Jewish readers, whether he enriched them with thoughts and pictures, or instead muddied their minds with empty florid language, was all that mattered.

Jacob Dinezon, who was among the first members of the editorial staff in Ha-Shahar (Dawn) and a friend of Zuckerman and Yisroel Berenstein (the best publicist, after Smolenski, in Ha-Shahar), was later I. L. Peretz’s closest friend, and laid more than one cornerstone in the foundation of today’s Yiddish literature.

Soon Dinezon’s anniversary will be celebrated.  And I can imagine the embarrassed face with which the honoree will receive his guests and congratulatory telegrams; firstly, because he is a very modest person and only believes in the talents of others and, secondly, because nobody knows better than he does how much he still has to give the reader from the treasures of his talent.

Only recently, Dinezon has shown himself from a new angle in his literature. One sees in “Borekh” and “Algebrenik” how far he is capable of arousing—in a simple reader from the common folk—a feeling and longing for pure poetry, pure art. And he who knows Dinezon more intimately knows it is only due to external accident that he has not become the novelist-historian of Jewish life in Lithuania in the 1870s-80s.

Twenty-five years have passed since he became a Yiddish writer, but we don’t see a person who is exhausted, who is weakened. On the contrary, I’m confident that the next 25 years will show the reader what he missed in the first 25 years of Dinezon’s literary activity.

Jacob Dinezon’s fine, pale visage with the dreamy soft black eyes, the soft tone of his voice, and his quiet, calm gait, everything together speaks to us in a distinctive language. He’ll always be this way, but his soft nature will change more and more often. And though the basic character of his works will, for the deeper critic, remain as before, we’ll see him in more forms. After all, he isn’t hacked from stone like a male’s soul; he carries in his breast the soft heart of a mother and the pure, golden heart of a child.

Through the window I see the tall Swiss mountains, the Alps, with their sawed-off tips and hacked stone breasts. They stand like the biblical King Og, harsh, huge, and earnest. The sun doesn’t make them any friendlier—night makes them even darker.

The picture of a pretty young child sits on my writing table. All the lines of his face are anxious, soft, flowing, mobile, and they don’t stop being lovable and lovely. I don’t want to take my leave, either from the Alps or from the lively picture, and if God were now to ask me: “What is your request? Speak, and I will fulfill it,” I would answer, “Dear God, to stand hand in hand with the pretty young child and look upon your stone giants.”

My dear, beloved Dinezon, you understand my thought: you would answer the same way. But where does one get the Alps in our poor young Yiddish literature?

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