Jacob Dinezon Biography

From Leksikon fun der Yidisher
Literatur, Prese un Filologie

(Lexicon of Yiddish Literature,
Press and Philology)

Zalmen Reyzen, editor
Vilna: Vilner Farlag fun B. Kletskin, 1926
Volume 1, Pages 700-710
(See Yiddish Version Here)
Translated from the Yiddish by
Tina Lunson
Yankev (Jacob) Dinezon

(1856[1]–August 29, 1919)

Born in Nay Zhager, Kovno region, into a Hasidic family. His father, Binyumin Dinezon, a scholarly Jew and in the last years of his life a failed businessman, gave him a traditional Jewish education, at age four already attending a cheder, at seven beginning Talmud study. From earliest childhood on he demonstrated a passion for writing and Mikhl Gordon, a close friend of his parents’ house who kvater (the person who brings the baby to the room where the circumcision is held) at D’s circumcision, and carried him in his arms, predicted a literary career for him. When he was 12, his father died and he was taken in by an uncle on his mother’s side, Isaac Eliashev, who lived in Mohilev on the Dnieper. He was an observant Jew, but no stranger to secular knowledge and also an excellent mathematician. D studied in the yeshiva there until age 16, was one of the best students, known for his scholarship, and later studied by himself in the besmedresh (study house) of the famous orthodox patron Reb Shimen Tsukerman, who also welcomed D into his home as a frequent guest. In Tsukerman’s library D found a great treasury of books that satisfied his thirst for reading and knowledge.

At that time D also began an acquaintance with Hebrew Enlight­enment literature. A great influence on him then was the home of the wealthy and educated Mohilev family Hurevitsh [Hurewic; Hurevits, Horowitz, Gurevitz], especially the wife Bodana Hurevitsh, who hired D as a Hebrew teacher for her children. It was at the Hurevitsh home that D was first exposed to secular learning and also learned Russian and German. He quickly became a member of the household and they gave him various assignments in their business as well. Once he was sent from the Hurevitsh house to Vilna with a message for Bodana Hurevitsh’s sister Devorah Romm, where, in the famous printing house, he met outstanding maskilim, among them Issac Meyer Dik. By that time, he had already published letters and articles in Ha-Magid (The Preacher) and Ha-Melits (The Advocate), but was already an enthusiastic follower of the Yiddish language as a means of enlightening the folk masses.

He presented a series of natural science lessons at the Mohilev Talmud Torah, after the style of [Aaron] Bernstein, volunteering together with friends from among the city’s progressive youth. He even had a few of them published in brochure form (Duner un blits (Thunder and Lightning), 1876; Regn un Shney (Rain and Snow) and others). He wrote a large novel in Yiddish titled Beoven avos (For the Sins of the Fathers) in which he depicted the tragedy of a young Jewish woman who was destroyed by the fanaticism and ignorance of her parents. (Taken from Mohilev reality, the same subject was dealt with by D’s friend who later became a revolutionary, Eliezer Tsukerman, in his story “Oylam Hapuakh” (“The Upside Down World”) in Ha-Shahar (Morning), VI.

Acquainted with D’s novel in manuscript form, the Vilne “enlighteners” like Sh. Y. Fayn, A. M. Dik and others accepted the young writer warmly, and the printing firm Romm bought the manuscript from him, paying the highest honorarium standard at the time, that is, as much as Dik received: 2 rubles for a printer-signature. However the novel was confiscated by the censor and was never distributed; in order to cover the cost of the honorarium that he had received for the forbidden B’oven avos D prepared in 6 weeks—between Passover and Shavuos—his second novel Ha-Ne’ehavim veha-ne’imim, oder Der shvartser yungermantshik [The Beloved and the Pleasant, or the Black Young Man], (Vilne, 1877, 240 p). The success of that work, which even the author himself was not completely pleased, was extraordinary. Within a short time the novel reached an unheard-of number of 10,000 copies and later was reprinted several times in the thousands. It was rare for a work of Yiddish literature to make such a deep impression on the Jewish audience. And the heroes and heroines of the novel were for many years a by-word for many people.

During that time, D experienced a heavy tragedy—an unfortunate love for his pupil, the Hurevits daughter. He was faithful to that first and last love for his entire life and never married. The writer Smolinskin made a strong impression on him in his comments about D’s article “Hahargl vHabakures” (Hashokher, VI), stating that a “maskil who writes in Yiddish is like two contrasts in one person.” He retreated from literature for a long time, considered leaving Mohilev and going to the Breslev rabbinical seminary, but it was too hard for him to separate from the Hurevits family.

At the beginning of the 1880s, when Bodana’s family moved to Kiev, he moved there with them as their bookkeeper and cashier at Hurevits’s shop. At the end of 1885 D arrived in Warsaw, where he settled in with his sister, who ran a business of beautifully crafted writing instruments. Not counting his feuilleton Vos zogt der eylem, with which he greeted the publication of Tsederboym’s Yudishen Folks-blat (1881, 1–3), explaining the need for a Yiddish newspaper, he only began publishing once again at the end of the 1880s.

When Dr. Skomarovski turned to Heinrich Graetz for permission to translate his History of the Jews into Yiddish and the famous historian answered with a refusal that sullied the Yiddish language (Dr. Skomorovski published Graetz’s answer in Hatsefire and Hamelits), D came out with a sharp and courageous article, “Professor Graetz and the Jewish ‘Jargon,’ or, Who Should be Ashamed of Whom?” (enclosure to the Yudisher Folks-blat, 1888, No. 2), in which he defended the Yiddish language with a whole series of arguments and did not hesitate to attack Graetz as a historian who in his “History” in general ignored the Russian Jews. The editor of the Folks-blat (Dr. L. Kontor?) took Graetz on particularly on the last point, even giving in to D in the question of Graetz’s relation to Yiddish.

Dinezon returned to the language question in his larger article “The Yiddish Language and Her Writers” (in Hoyzfraynt I), where he demonstrated his knowledge of Old Yiddish literature (and Reb Kitsin in his overly strenuous paper in Sholem Aleykhem’s Yudisher Folks-bibliotek (Jewish Folk Library) I, posed the idiotic question, from whence did D know that Eliahu Bokher was the author of the Bova-bukh!) and came out against the arrogance of the Hebraists and contempt for Yiddish from the side of the learned and accomplished by saying that “one can better affect the hordes with their own simple language.” He also wrote narratives and sketches from Jewish folks life (“Kreplekh zolstu esn” (“Go Eat Kreplach”)—a sketch in Sholem Aleykhem’s Yudisher Folks-bibliotek I; “Yon-kiper” (“Yom Kippur”)—a larger novella in Hoyzfraynt II), and his big novel Even nagef, oder a shteyn in veg [A Stone in the Way], Vilne, 1890, p. 358). Besides a long series of other belletristic work that was only published later or remained in manuscript—for example the children’s story Avigdorl.

A defining moment in his life was his befriending in 1887 of Y. L. Peretz, whose Bekante bilder (Familiar Pictures) D published at his own expense. That acquaintanceship soon became an intimate touching friendship, which filled the entire rest of D’s life and pushed all of his other interests into the background. He also helped the great poet in his literary undertakings, for example in the publication of the Yudisher bibliotek (Jewish Library), where he published his third great novel Hershele (Little Hershel) (Warsaw, 1891, 200 pages).

His children’s story Yosele (Little Joseph) (“Progress” Press, Warsaw, 1899, 188 pages) created a big stir. Later D from time to time printed stories in Yud, Yudishe Folks-tsaytung, Fraynt, Tsukunft and others. He earned a living as an announcement agent for Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers, but he gradually withdrew from actively published literary activity and although he did not stop writing, he rarely published his work but gave a lot of time and effort to the literary concerns of his colleagues—the Yiddish writers. The little room in Warsaw where he lived for years became a literary center both for the regular guests and for strangers.

After Peretz’ death, which made the deepest impression on D, he gave himself entirely to the work of the Jewish orphanages and schools, which began to be built during the time of the war and the expulsions. Together with the representative of the Bund, V. Medem, and the representative of the Poale-tsien, Raykhman, he was the person most concerned with the Yiddishistishe schools in Poland, and his death was a great blow not only for Yiddish literature but also for the young Yiddish schools movement.

Several thousand people participated in his funeral procession with dozens of delegations from unions and organizations, and he was buried near Peretz. Over the grave of Peretz, D, and An-ski in 1925 was erected the monument Ohel Peretz (Peretz’s Tomb).

D became thought of as the creator of the sentimental novel in Yiddish literature. Yet Dik had already written many stories in the sentimental style, but D had first made the effort at a great novel in Yiddish. He also stood much closer to the modern times with its problems, like the old writer from the Haskole, although the main quality of Dik’s—the offering of edification, the criticism—brought Dinezon closer to the founder of secular Yiddish belletristic writing, and made him Dik’s direct heir.

His chief goal was to enlighten the ordinary readers, awakening in them good feelings, love and pity for the weak, and regard for a loving heart. On the other side, he sought to make repugnant to the reader the evil and false people, depicting them in dark colors (Der shvartser yungermantshik). Drawing upon the ideals of the Haskole movement, he defended to his readers the ideas of education and religious tolerance, and also explained manifestations of the natural environment and so on. D’s style in his first novels is primitive, the depiction of the heroes is exaggerated, the language is not free of Russianisms, but they have the great merit of being accessible and comprehendible to the ordinary reader whom D had most pointedly in mind, and he was their household author.

The depictions of the secondary characters in D’s first novels were excessive just as some sketches of community and Hasidic life were artistically not thoroughly successful. Dinezon’s merits were more apparent in his third novel Hershele, which in that detail stands on a higher level of realistic representation.

Beginning in the 1890s D’s creative work became more artistic and complete. From big novels he moved to stories and sketches written in a soft and tender tenor. His darling heroes were ordinary women and children. The fate of an unfortunate orphan is described in his fine work Yosele. Also concerning children’s lives was the series “Kindershe neshomes” [“Children’s Souls”] (in the supplements to the Fraynd, 1904). Another of his great works was Alter: a roman in eyn teyl [Alter: A Novel in One Part] (in the supplements to Fraynd, 1903, pp. 40-276), Der krizis [The Crisis], a story of merchant life (Warsaw, 1903, p. 104); “Yosl Algebrenik” (“Yosl the Algebra Man” (in Tsukunft), and others. Dinezon’s newer work was not entirely free of sentimentality either; but the real, heartfelt lyricism and the kind, touching love for people that can be felt in everything that D wrote, gives the work a special charm; and his gift for tender depictions of women possesses a special place in Yiddish literature.

No collected publication of D’s work has come out to date; around 1912 D began to prepare such a publication, and had even permitted the first volume to be set in type under the title Goles bilder [Pictures from the Exile], which contained the long stories Falke un zayn hoyz [Falke and His House] and Der krizis [The Crisis], but in the end, for reasons unknown to us, the plan was not realized.

He also left a large amount of work that was never published, such as Am habonim oder di sheyne Rokhle [_____ or the Pretty Little Rokhl], a novel in four parts, 750 pages; Maysim bkol yom [Everyday Deeds], a novel in two parts, 508 pages; Kholme teyve khazey, a kritishe ertseylung fom lebn gegrif en forgeshtelt in a kholem [A Critical Story of Life from a Concept in a Dream], written in 1880, 200 pages; Far likht bentshn [Before Blessing the Shabbes Lights], part one, 175 pages; Reb Berl der der groyser, a kheyder mayse [Berl the Great, A Kheyder Story]; Kheyder yunglekh, an emese mayse [Kheyder Boys, A True Story]; Vegn Robinzon Kruze—eykh mayn ersht verk [About Robinson Crusoe—And My First Work]; Tsushnayder; Yonkiper motiven [Yom Kippur Themes]; Der zeyger [The Clock]; Di melkhome [The War]. The Seyfer zikharon also mentions a work of his in Yiddish, Miriam hakhashmonit [Miriam the Hasmonite]. Also never out in book form is his story A brif tsu a makhaver [A Letter to An Author] which N.N. printed in a series of feuilletons in the Yudishe folks-blat in 1885 and where he depicts in the form of a letter from a Jewish student a heart-rending tragedy on the basis of the abnormal Jewish children’s education [system] in Lite [Lithuania]. From D’s other literary work of note is his translation of Graetz’s History of the Jewish People (except for the first volume, which was translated by Y. Y. Lerner in 1885) and his reworking of the first volume of the four-volume World History (first published as a supplement to the Yud in 1900; it was later reprinted many times. In comparison, the Hebrew Publishing Company, New York, came out with parts in different books, like Egypt, Babylonia, China. His series of articles “The Mormons—Their Religion and Their History” (in the supplements to Fraynd, 1904, pp. 200-227).

In separate publications, several of his short stories were printed, such as Shimshon Shleyme mit zayne ferd oder a kholem fun a gevezenem shmayser [Shimson Shleyme and His Horses, or A Dream of a Former Coachman] (Kleyne folks-bibliotek, Warsaw, 1905, p. 15) and from his many holiday stories Tuvyele—A Shavuyes Story (Progres, p. 16); Gitele’s yon-kiper (Hibru Publishing Company ko., NY). His story Yosele was also published in the edition Finf niftorim (with a sketch about Dinezon’s life and work by M. Ben-Yankev and with pictures and embellishments by Uriel Birnboym (Der kval publishing, Vienna, 1920, p. XVI + 147) and also in a special reworking for schools by Yankev Levin (Hibru publishing ko., NY). The almost endless letters that D wrote over many decades to almost all Yiddish and Hebrew authors also have a special value to Yiddish literature; those letters, which are an important part of his creativity, especially in the last period of his life, when he sought through them to quiet his too-early-silenced writing talents, are unfortunately not collected and only certain ones of them have been published, as in Shalit’s Lebn I-IV, in the collection Shriftn V in Bikher Velt 1922, p. 327, 1923 p. 222 and 414. And his colossal archive, which contained thousands of letter to him from Yiddish writers and personalities represents an enormous treasure for the history of our intellectual culture over the last 50 years, remains unpublished at the disposal of the Dinezon Committee, and only a very small part of them was published by Sh. Rozenfeld in the three volumes of his journal Der Khoydesh, 1921.

Still of great interest is his still unpublished memoirs about I. M. Dik and Mendele Moykher Sforim, and about Yiddish theatre. Also of importance for his biography is his Erinerungen fun kindershen lebn (Der yud, 1900, p. 5-14), and Mayne erste kinder-yohren biz mayn erster probe tsu shraybn [sic] (in Pinkes, 145-168). Of his few memoirs about Peretz, only one chapter was printed in Tog, New York, Peysakh 1924.

[Bibliography] Seyfer zikaron; Kritikus (Dubnow), in ___[Cyrillic]___, 1890, II; ___ in __________, 1893, II–III; L. Viner, YL; Ben-Kalman, in Dos tsvansigste yorhundert; I. L. Peretz, Oyfzatsen un felietonen, id, in Akhieysef, 1904; Bal-Makhshoves, Geklibene shriftn I; Dr. M. Pines, Der geshikhte fun der yudisher literature, I; JE, IV; ____, VII; Sh. Niger, Dinezon der brifshrayber, in the collection Shriftn V; Dh. L. Tsitron, Dray Literarishe doyres, I; id, Dinezon und levande in Shalit’s Lebn, VIII; M. Litvakov, Tsvey doyres—Dinezon un A. Vayter in Kultur un bildung, 24; Dr. Yankev Grinfeld in Fraynd, New york, 1919, X; An-ski, Ben Avigdor and others in Ilustrirter velt, 1919, 9; Yankev Fikhman, in Meveyres, 1919, id, in Moment, 1924, 227; Dovid Frishman, Haynt, 1919, 205; Dr. Gershon Levin, ib; H. D. Nomberg, Moment, 1919, 205; V. Medem, Fun mayn notits-bukh; Lazar Kahan, Lodzer folks-blat, 1919; Menakhem and A. Glants, Tog, New York, 7, XI, 1919; Z. Shnior, Moment, September 1920; Bal-Dimon, Morgen zshurnal, 1923; A. Katsizne, Dos problem dinezon in Literarishe bleter, 22; N. Mayzil, ib, 78; Roza Laks-Peretz, ib, 42–43; Sh. Dubnow, Tog, N.Y., 1925; Sh. An-ski, Pionirn, part 2, chapter 25.

[1] Not 1858 or 1859 (according to JE) or 1852 (according to Seyfer zikhron).
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