By Mikhl Natish
From YIVO bleter (YIVO Pages)
The Monthly Journal of the Yiddish Scientific Institute
Vilna: August-December, 1936, Vol. 10, Entry 6, pp. 31–39
Translated from the Yiddish by
A chapter from the introduction to the graduate paper:
“Jacob Dinezon: His Life and Work”
By Mikhl Natish (pseudonym of Michael Shutan)
—From Dinezon’s letter to I. (or Y.) L. Cohen, December 10, 1902.
When we read in Dinezon’s Shavuos story Tevyele, published in Fraynd, 1903:
“At times, Jewish children don’t have good hearts, whereas they always have soft hearts,” we grasp the true nature of the author himself: this Jewish tenderheartedness is the foundation of Dinezon’s relationship to his protagonists, even the negative ones. This also determined Dinezon’s position on the burning national and social problems of his day. The Haskalah battle that was for writers such as Mendele and Linetski implacably consistent was, for Dinezon, compromise.
In an unpublished, untitled story, written in those years when the battle with the old generation was at its height, Dinezon developed the method to which one must turn in this struggle. Through the mouth of his heroine Khane, a kind of Maskilte [the feminine form of Maskil, a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment], he says that we must not stuff the blind, fanatical public at large with education using force; we have to move the public, wary of the “education-operation,” not with an assault but with sympathy.
We hear the same in a second unpublished work, where the cultivated heroine Fruma has this to say:
“Let the young . . . work . . . and enjoy, and let the old devote themselves to rest and piety.”
Dinezon’s amicable position had to a certain extent changed. In his novel Even negef (1890), his stand against the fanatical element in the surroundings was certainly slightly more aggressive. But as a rule, his social program was: tolerance and compromise.
Incidentally, we need not deduce this only indirectly from his literary works. He himself clearly formulated this thought in the 1870s in his major Hebrew article, “Habit and Critique” (Hahergel Vehabikoret, published in Peretz Smolenskin’s Viennese journal HaShachar, VII, 1876.) Wishing to emphasize the positive side of the Haskalah, Dinezon demonstrates the false principles of the Maskilim. He strongly criticizes their system of mocking and belittling the old Jewish cultural ways while incapable of creating new ones in their stead. In his criticism of the Maskilim, Dinezon suggests the requirement that enlightenment be built on a foundation of a genuine, serious, affectionate relationship with the common people, and an intelligent, sincere understanding of the essence and significance of the old Jewish culture.
According to Dinezon, derision does not have the power to enlighten and lift up the people. With derision—he writes—one has only attained that “the believers have remained believers and have not budged from . . . their place by even half a step.”
From this conclusion: “Open his (the people’s) eyes, show him pure, clear light; give him correct knowledge (das yeshore) in his language, teach him the laws of nature, and he’ll stop believing in this nonsense. (More precise information about the article Hahergel Vehabikoret and its principles can be found in later sections of my work.)
Dinezon approached the people like a quiet, sensitive friend who believes that one can awaken a desire for education among the people more quickly through Musar than through malicious satire. That position grew organically from his ethical-sentimental nature. He was not, like Mendele, for example, the angry, “that’s-not-what-I-have-in-mind”-scolder. His writing was not “crowing, barking, and yelping at the privileged ones who robbed the people—the do-gooders, ringleaders, big shots, and freeloaders . . . .” (See Linetski’s “From the Fair,” Odessa, 1909, p. 14. We quote from S. Niger’s article “The Sharp Tongued Wedding Jester,” Tsukumft, 1935, pp. 644-645.) It is rather the antithesis of this Maskilic method and social temperament. Speaking about fanaticism and hypocrisy in the Vinograd Rebbe’s court, the main character of Dinezon’s novel, Even Negef, expresses himself as follows:
“Perhaps I sin before God in suspecting my beloved people of such a thing of which Jews are not capable . . .” (Even Negef, p. 261). Such care and conscientiousness in bringing out any negative judgment on the people are characteristic of Dinezon’s nature. He expressed his position this way:
“We need only give the Jews a good example; the Jewish heart is good enough, we need only rouse it” (ibid. p. 355). Or:
“If we could only rouse the Jews, everything would be all right! If we had a collection agent, the Jew would not remain a debtor . . . . We Jews do not have our own spiritual awakening within ourselves. For every good thing we require someone from the outside to rouse us” (Yosele, p. 139).
“We need only give the Jews a good example . . . we need only awaken (the Jewish heart) to good actions”—that is, in essence, Dinezon’s method in writing.
The words of his heroine Mina in an unpublished novel are appropriate as a formula towards this end. The heroine says to the woman consoling her in an ill-fated romance: “In your words lie consolation, explanation, and reprimand.”
“Consolation, explanation, and reprimand”—those are the fundamental elements of Dinezon’s writing.
As regards moralizing and consoling, Dinezon continued the tradition of the old Jewish books of morals, from which the ethical elements of his own worldview emanated. Dinezon made use of the Musar tradition for secular Maskilic purposes. The worldliness expressed in his writing is not free of a certain religious note, only that instead of “Paradise” and “The World to Come,” he depicted for his readers an ethically refined “Here and Now.”
Dinezon carried his belief in and love for people deep within. His enlightenment had as its goal instructing the blind fanatics in a lyrical humanitarian spirit. With his writing, he meant to turn the good away from what was bad and rouse the bad towards good.
With this approach, of course, Dinezon was not really suited to the role of becoming the means for socially awakening the masses. He well knew the significance of the bread-problem. In his story “Yom Kippur,” published in Spektor’s Hoyzfraynd (II, 1889), Dinezon speaks of poverty in this way:
“Poverty, hunger, need, and want, always have one face, one taste, and one place by the door. So sour and bitter (are) the tears of the downhearted . . . . All the wishes and desires of people will change, . . . only the wish of . . . the hungry for the little piece of bread will remain forever.”
However, Dinezon did not organize a social consciousness among those poor souls, the “dark, dried up, and lowly.” Thanks to the artistic-emotional charge in his children’s story Yosele (1900), he attained a very high level of direct social protest against the wealthy, whose representative is the lively and apt character “Sheyndele the Rich Lady.” But Dinezon’s poor man is generally a humble person with modest needs. In his novel Even negef (1890), Dinezon tells how Shimele the Teacher’s wife reacts to the first spring sun: “She thanks God for his mercy . . . that the poor can also be restored a little and enjoy the warmth of the bright sun” (Even Negef, p. 137). Her husband Shimele, the wheeler-dealer, speaks about the “kosher-meat-tax-man who hasn’t a shred of pity for the poor” (ibid. p. 145). Shimele comes to a comforting conclusion: “Ben Sira—he thinks—was right in saying, ‘All the days of the poor are bad.’” With that, Shimele the Teacher is done with his protest against the taxman.
Dinezon’s poor man is satisfied with simply philosophically asserting his tragic situation. He doesn’t display the slightest social temperament (except perhaps in Yosele). He sees his fate as God’s judgment and, therefore, is afraid even to throw a harsh curse at the wealthy woman.
Here is how Rukhele, the rich protagonist of Even Negef, expresses her sentimental outlook on poverty:
“Ah, poverty, poverty,” she says, “how loathsome you are, where you serve. . . . Can a pretty poor child not wear a beautiful dress and jewelry as I do? Only you, poverty,” Rukhele concludes, “make people ugly.” (Even Negef, pp. 197-198).
Everything is clear: The discrepancy between poor and rich is not the result of circumstances, which can disappear if the circumstances change. Rather, a kind of fate rules over a person’s material lot. In the story “Avigdorl (Little Avigdor),” the Maskil, the positive hero forced by the fanatical, dark environment to leave the place where his beloved lives, philosophizes for his friend, the title character of the story:
“People,” he says, “are thrown into the world as if by a blind hand. One . . . travels life’s way without effort or hindrance. . . . Another falls along the way and runs after the wagon like a dog. . . . There is another party of people who . . . always fall under the wagon and are trampled by horses.”
In one of his unpublished novels, a poor dressmaker carries on a conversation with a rich, aristocratic young woman. The aristocratic young woman asks the dressmaker:
“Why can you not be a fortunate child like me?” The dressmaker answers, “Because God doesn’t wish it. . . . I have no luck.” The dressmaker also knows that God relates to the rich as a father to his children but to the poor as stepchildren. “We poor,” she says with resignation, “are banished by loyal Mother Nature to the wet nurse against our will.”
Since it is so, the social problem is not: How do we rid ourselves of poverty in the world, but how do we weaken its shameful effects? Dinezon’s center of gravity is not on the economic and social-political side but on the psychological and moral. Poverty easily leads to lagging behind and ethical depravity. Dinezon foresaw precisely this great danger for the mass of poor Jews who panted badly under the yoke of Czarist oppression, endless need, and assaults from Jewish clergy and the rich.
Dinezon’s attitude to the poorer class was, in essence, one of empathy. In his story “Tales for Every Day,” he speaks through the mouth of his damaged, naïve, hardworking heroine Mirke about the selfish attitude of the wealthy toward the poor. The rich man, he says, through Mirke’s mouth, uses the poor man because of his personal arrogance and for practical purposes. The poor man lowers himself before the rich, forgetting that “he (himself) is also a person like the wealthy man, with flesh and a soul . . .”
The poor man is a passive, downtrodden element in Dinezon’s work. He lowers himself before the rich man because he is poor and his children are hungry (ibid.)
Khane, the heroine of the previously mentioned unpublished story, comes to this conclusion:
“They (the wealthy),” she says, “are great . . . people. . . . We (the poor) are small, bent over into the ground people.” Dinezon does not take this conclusion any further into the problem of poor and rich.
This same Khane says something similar later on in her sentimental tirade:
“Rich and poor is a matter for God.” God divided the rich and poor equally, but people “did not share fairly among themselves, and the strong took all and dominated the weak.” The only protest, concludes Khane, against the injustice of the strong, rich man, is the poor man’s appearance, which is formed according to God’s. The poor man’s eyes, she consoles herself, are a “screaming outcry against” the wealthy.
In the same novel in which the dressmaker appears, an educated Maskil is presented, the bookkeeper Shteynbarg, who is let go from his position with a wealthy man because of an unsubstantiated suspicion of a foolish theft. He appeals to the rich man’s daughter, who is deeply in love with him:
“The rich look down from their high windows on the poor in their small houses like upon animals who have no heart or feelings.” Our hero Shteynbarg goes no further than this resigned sentence.
In the story, “Avigdorl,” a main character says to his daughter, whom he strives to bring up in a free worldly spirit: “So it is in the world: He who is stronger subjugates the weaker. And the poor must be subjugated by the rich.” And further:
“Only the arrogant rich man, the rich man who acts superior, is cold. . . . The rich and not arrogant man is often the best person in all the world.”
The true verdict Dinezon concludes through a character’s dialogue is found not on the side of the rich (“from the high mountains”) nor on the side of the poor (“in the lowly synagogue courtyard streets”). Everyone has to find the midpoint where he feels comfortable and has no pretensions. “Neither the rich nor the poor limit you,” Dinezon’s hero echoes. “There is no absolute happiness . . . only ‘better’ and ‘worse’ and, therefore, . . . everyone can be happy in his own approximation.”
The predominant negative trait in the rich, then, is his “arrogance.” The way to equalize the two conflicting social categories, “poor and rich,” is not the social struggle but the ethical elevation of the people.
Therefore, it is no surprise that in Dinezon, the thought is tossed around that a good rabbi, a “sage,” would be able to do a lot to set the social conditions in order. In his previously mentioned story, “Avigdorl,” Dinezon weaves in a journalistic-satirical article on the social-cultural order of the city Shkule (an anagram of Shklav or Shklov?). With the secret ink pen of his main character, he writes:
“How much better would our poor and rich be if they would . . . bring upon themselves a wise rabbi who knows a lot, who knows what the world demands. . . . The rich man himself would have a very important use for him. During his difficult times, he (the rich man) would have someone with whom to discuss things.” And, Dinezon theorizes, “a loyal, true word from a bright enlightened rabbi . . . from a pure, virtuous person” would be helpful during those “rocky moments when a person forgets, because of too much abundance, his suffering and poor brothers, and how necessary and important they are to our wealthy and rich.”
In the dressmaker novel, we also meet a rabbi. He regards the rich with respect and values the rich for their stinginess and restraint with their wealth. “The rich man eases the neediness of the poor masses. If not for his stinginess, he wouldn’t be able to provide advice for the poverty that lies on his shoulders.”
The rabbi did have one complaint against the wealthy: their inclination to “distance themselves from their brothers and trod with their feet on everything the Jew holds sacred.” Here Dinezon’s negative position against the tendency of the rich to assimilate is expressed. This did not speak to the essential social question: in rich and poor, Dinezon does not see classes that battle with each other. This approach is again determined both by his specific psychological makeup and—this is not hard to prove—through the real historical situation of his social level, which in the conditions of the coming Russian capitalism in the 70s had first to acquire its face.
But if he did not reach clarity in the social question, Dinezon still belonged to that type of writer who considered their work to have a serious social-educational function.
Writing was for Dinezon a responsible undertaking. He clearly saw that poverty degrades people. And further, looking at social changes, he saw that eating from the “Tree of Knowledge,” from education, brought an end to the “Garden of Eden,” to people’s happiness and peace and the old ways. However, he consoled himself that this is merely false education. (The previously mentioned Khane says, “If education is merely something that hides the true soul and nature as under a cover, . . . I despise it.”) True enlightenment (“light”) will bring elevated feelings and deeds and changed living conditions and will help to better understand the old Jewish Torah. Knowledge and Jewish religious-national feelings can live in harmony, can mix together (see Even negef, pp. 49-50 and 60-61) just so long as we are responsible people. True education will also improve the attitude toward the poor, and so the poor man’s situation will improve.
Therefore, the fundamental motifs in Dinezon’s works are love and humanity. Ethical–psychological problems always stand at the core for him. “Pure innocence” meets gray depravity. Thus he draws only “black” and “white” characters. Good stands opposite evil; love against hate. Seldom does a negative character of his lean towards a positive direction or a positive towards a negative.
His positive characters are the young who strive towards education or the poor who are oppressed, and because of this, the positive characters are almost always passive. Active in his evildoing is the “vile person who is satiated . . . and has no worries . . . and his head is free to invent vile deeds . . . to destroy a house and family,” or the “vile servant girl,” who through chance or her own baseness suddenly becomes a wealthy woman and wishes to rule. (References to Ha-ne’ehavim veha-ne’imim, oder Der shvartser yungermantshik (The Beloved and Pleasing, or, The Dark Young Man) and Yosele.)
Dinezon’s eye always had before it the “humiliated and the insulted,” and he is correct when he writes in the previously cited letter to I. (or Y.) L. Cohen:
“I have seen more suffering in my world than joy or pleasure.”
(The letter has been handed over to the Manuscripts Section of YIVO Archives by the addressee.)
As opposed to the evil of those who are “debased,” Dinezon states his principle of faith:
“One must never be humble or boastful. . . . Neither income nor poverty makes a person lowly, only his lowly actions.”
“I don’t see in a person’s actions either evil or baseness,” Dinezon concludes. “To me, he is a person, just as I am.” (“Special Jewish Occupations for Our Time,” Der fraynd, 1904.)
With all of his literary activity, Dinezon had one intention in essence: to awaken in the people a feeling of moral and social responsibility.