History of Yiddish Literature

By Leo Wiener
Instructor in the Slavic Languages
at Harvard University

From The History of Yiddish Literature
in the Nineteenth Century
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899, Pages 189-191
Jacob Dienesohn

Of an entirely different tendency are the writings of Jacob Dienesohn, although akin to “Isabella” in the sympathy he shows for the older generation.

Dienesohn had begun his career in 1875, when he published a novel “The Dark Young Man,” after which he grew silent. In 1885 he took up his literary work, since when he has produced two large novels and several shorter sketches.

His first work was very popular. He depicted in it the machinations of an orthodox young man of the older type, who felt it his duty to lay stumbling-blocks in the way of one who strove to acquire worldly knowledge.

Dienesohn occupies a peculiar place in Judeo-German literature. He is the only one who has attempted the lachrymose, the sentimental novel. He began writing at a time when Dick had prepared the ground for the romantic story, and Schaikewitsch [Shomer] had started on his sentimental drivel. But while these entirely failed to produce something wholesome, Dienesohn gained with his first book an unusual success. He drew his scenes from familiar circles, and his men and women are all Jews, with a sphere of action not unlike the one his readers moved in. Readers consequently were more easily attracted to him, and carried away a greater fund of instruction. His feminine audiences have wept tears over his work, and the author has received letters from orthodox young men, who assured him that although the description of the Dark Young Man fitted them, they would not descend to the vile methods of the hero of the book in pursuing differently minded men.

During his renewed activity, which began in the Volksblatt ten years after his first novel had been printed, he dwelt on that period in the history of the Russian Jews when they were just commencing to take to the new culture, when it still meant a struggle and a sacrifice to tear oneself away from the ties which united one with the older generation. In the “Stone in the Way” he describes the many hardships which his hero had to overcome ere he succeeded in acquiring an education. In “Herschele” (still unfinished) the same subject is treated in the case of a young mendicant Talmudical scholar, who is beset, not only by the usual difficulties, but who is, in addition, trying to suppress his earthly love for the daughter of the woman who furnishes him with a dinner on every Wednesday.

Dienesohn treats with loving gentleness all the characters he writes about. (l) Like Spektor, he attacks no one directly, and, like him, sarcasm has no place in his works.

His most touching and, at the same time, the most perfect of his shorter stories is the one entitled “The Atonement Day.” (2) He introduces us there to a scene in the synagogue where an old woman is praying fervently. Her devotion is interrupted by her thoughts of her daughter at home whom she had enjoined to fast on that awful day, although she had just given birth to a son. For a long time her religious convictions outweigh her maternal feelings, but, at last, her natural sentiment is victorious, and she hurries home to insist on her daughter’s eating something. In this way the newborn babe is saved.

Thirty years pass. The old woman has died, and her daughter Chane is brought before us on the same Atonement day. She has grown old, while her son has, in the meantime, finished at the university, and is a practicing physician. She, too, is praying fervently, and thinking with awe of the day when young and old, the pious and the sinner alike, come to the synagogue and invoke the mercy of the Lord with contrition of spirit. Her eyes search in vain for her son among the crowd congregated below. The hours pass, and he does not appear. Faint with hunger from the long fasting and grieving at her son’s apostasy, she falls sick and soon dies. In her last agony she makes her son promise her that he will, at least once a year, on the Atonement day, visit the synagogue. After that, one can see every year, on the awful day, the physician in deep devotion in the house of the Lord.

(1) Other articles by him: Jud. Volksblatt, Vol. V, pp. 329 ff; Vol. VIII, (Beilage), pp. 33-43; Hausfreund, Vol. I, pp. 1-21; Vol. II, pp. 75-99; Jud. Volksbib., Vol. I, pp. 244-248; Jud. Bibliothek, Supplements.

(2) Hausfreund, Vol. II, pp. 75-99.

Chrestomathy (Page 257)

As the main intention of the present Chrestomathy is to give a conception of the literary value of Judeo-German literature, and not of its linguistic development, the texts have all been normalized to the Lithuanian variety of speech. The translations make no pretense to literary form: they are as literal as is consistent with the spirit of the English language; only in the case of Abramowitsch’s writings it was necessary frequently to depart considerably from the text, in order to give an adequate idea of the original meaning which, in the Judeo-German, on account of the allusions, is not always clear to the reader. The choice of the extracts has been such as to illustrate the various styles, and only incidentally to reproduce the story; hence their fragmentariness. Should the present work rouse any interest in the humble literature of the Russian Jews, the author will undertake a more complete Chrestomathy which will do justice to the linguistic requirements as well.

XVI. The Atonement Day
(J. Dienesohn, Pages 315-324 )

… It is again the day of Atonement, but since that time thirty years have passed. Again the synagogue is full of men wrapped in taliths and shrouds! The floor is strewn with hay now as then; in two large boxes filled with sand on both sides of the altar there are burning to-day the waxen soul-lights just as thirty years ago, though for other, fresh souls that have become souls only within the last thirty years. And they burn, some quietly and softly, and some flickering and melting, and urchins are now as then picking up the pieces of molten wax.

*    *    *    *    *

Although the voice of the Precentor is now different, yet the words which he says, and the tune which he sings, are the same, precisely the same, not a bit changed.

And the tears are the same that flow to-day in streams there behind the curtained windows in the woman’s gallery, though from other eyes they flow, from other tortured hearts….

On the same spot where thirty years ago the unfortunate mother had been standing and mourning her beloved daughter who had departed so young from this world, there is to-day also standing a mother and dissolving her heart in hot tears. She is bewailing and lamenting her beautiful daughter who had once been her blessing, a girl, as pure as gold, who had been misled as if by witchery, and of whom it would be hard and bitter to say what she is doing now; and the ever-true mother prays now with tears, as hot as fire, not for health, not for long years for her child, but for quick death, which would be better for the child even than for the mother.

She still harbors her mother’s truth in her heart, even as before the calamity had happened…. For that very reason she prays to God so fervently to grant death to her child. She sees no better thing in the world, and she can ask for no better thing to-day of the living God.

And her tears flow quietly and fall on the words of her Prayer; she holds her head buried on the Prayer-book and is ashamed to lift her eyes, lest they meet some eyes that may recognize her shame which has become as a spot upon her face….

*    *    *    *    *

And precisely there where the poor widow had been standing thirty years before and had looked every minute to catch a glimpse of her orphans, to see whether they were praying, whether they were reciting the Hebrew words, and had burst out in sobs when her eyes did not find that which she had been looking for, there is standing to-day a young Jewess, and she peeps through the curtain, and she does not know herself at whom she is looking more, whether at her husband who is wildly gesticulating with both his arms and his whole body, or at the young man who is also seated at the Eastern wall not far from him and is praying as behooves a Jew and is sitting quietly as behooves a man.

What thoughts are now rushing through her head! How many tears she has shed since that day when the young man broke off his relations with her, and the uncouth man had become her husband, her breadgiver! How many wounds she has been carrying since then quietly and deeply buried in her Jewish heart, and has been tortured by her own thoughts which crowd upon her against her will, and which she has no strength to repel! And how she now implores God that He may extinguish the sinful fire from her sinful heart, that He may extinguish all that burns and boils within her, that she should forget all that had been, that she should not know how it ought to have been, that she should know but one thing, how to love her husband, who is and must remain her husband until her death! To love him with all his inhumanity, with all his uncouthness, and even when he beats her, she alone to know it, lest her enemies be not rejoiced, and that she may accept all her troubles in good spirits, just as He who gives each woman her lot, has bidden a Jewish woman to do….

And her tears flow on the same spot where just such tears have flowed thirty years before for another reason and from another source. And they fall on the same words of the Prayer-book, which every Jewish woman interprets in her own way.

Only at the Western wall, not far from the door, the poor women are weeping to-day with the same intonation, with the same burdened heart as thirty years ago.

*    *    *    *    *

Poverty, hunger, misery, and want have always the same face, the same appearance, and the same place at the door. Just as oppressive and as bitter as the weeping that issues from the downtrodden has been before, it will eternally be. All desires and longings will change and are actually changing, but the want of the hungry will eternally remain a piece of bread; the longings of the needy will eternally be: To be freed from want and not to know the feeling thereof!…

*    *    *    *    *

And there at the door there now stand just such gloomy, emaciated, and dispirited women, who listen or do not listen to the Reader and weep out of the fullness of their hearts,—it is the Atonement day.

In the very center of the Eastern wall, in the same spot where the pious Gütele had been praying thirty years before, one may even now discern a woman, nigh unto fifty years, sitting quietly and sadly, like one struck dead, with closely pressed lips. Her eyes look into the open Prayer-book, but they do not see the words.

Why does she not weep?

Is she so happy that even on the day of Atonement she cannot prevail over her heart to consider that no good is eternal, and mortal man does not know what to-morrow may be?

Or is she not a Jewish woman, a woman having husband and children? and where is there a Jewish woman that has not some one or more reasons for weeping on the Atonement day, and shedding hot tears?

Is she, perhaps, so hard of heart and so bad, so haughty and conceited, that she does not think it proper to weep, lest people should see her tears and deem her equal with the others?

No! Chanele,—they call her the good, the wise Chanele,—her very dry eyes are witness that she has wept much, very much in her time; she is not proud and is not ashamed to weep, especially on the Atonement day, when tears come of their own accord!

Why, then, does she not weep?

Many eyes are looking at her and wondering why she is so different from other years, why she looks stolidly, like one turned to stone, into the Prayer-book, why she is neither weeping nor praying. A few times she pushed aside the curtain, looked down into the men’s division, seated herself again in her place and looked each time sadder and more oppressed than before.

When the Precentor began to read the Mussaf-prayer, she once more peeped through the window, her eyes ran restlessly over the whole synagogue, and she went back to her seat.

“He has not come yet!” her heart spoke to her inwardly. “Even to the Mussaf he could not come?

Yiddish Version

wie demālt; in zwēi grōsse Kastens vull mit Samd vun bēide Seiten Bime brennen heunt die wächsene Neschome-licht wie mit dreissig Jāhr zurück, chotsch nāch andere, frische Neschomes, wās senen erst in die dreissig Jāhr Neschomes gewor’en. Un’ see brennen manche still un’ ruhig un’ manche flackerndig un’ schmelzendig, un’ Jünglech Kundeessim chappen die Stücklech ābgeschmolzene Wachs äuch heunt wie a Māl. Chotsch die Stimme vun dem Chasen is’ itzt andersch, āber die Wörter, wās er sagt, un’ der Nigen, wās er singt, senen dieselbe, gār dieselbe, nit geändert auf ēin Hāar.

Dieselbe senen äuch die Trähren, wās giessen sich heunt teichenweis dort hinter die varhangene Fensterlech in der weiberscher Schul, chotsch vun andere Äugen, vun andere gepeinigte Herzer fliessen see….

Auf dem Ort, wu mit dreissig Jāhr früher is’ die unglückliche Mutter gestan’en un’ bewēint ihr liebe Tochter, wās is’ asō jung vun der Welt aweg, stēht heunt äuch a Mutter un’ zugiesst ihr schwer Harz in hēisse Trähren. Sie wēint un’ klāgt über ihr schoene Tochter, wās sie hāt sich a Māl gebentscht mit ihr, a Maedel, schoen wie Gold, wās is’ pluzling wie vun a Kischef varführt gewor’en, un’ wās mit ihr thut sich itzt, is’ schwer un’ bitter selbst auszurēden; un’ die ständig getreue Mutter bet’ itzt mit Trähren, hēiss wie Feuer, nit Gesund, nit lange Jāhren far ihr Kind, āber a Tōdt a gichen, wās wet gleicher sein far dem Kind noch mehr wie far der Mutter.

Sie hāt noch ihr mütterliche Treuheit in ihr Harzen, wie noch ēhder das Unglück is’ geschehn…. Nor take derfar bett’ sie bei Gott asō hēiss ot dem Tōdt auf ihr Kind. Kēin bessere Sach seht sie nit in der Welt un’ kēin ander Sach kānn sie bei Gott dem lebedigen heunt nit betten. Un’ es giessen sich ihre Trähren still un’ fallen über die Wörter vun ihre Tchines; sie halt dem Kopp in Ssider eingegrāben un’ schämt sich ihre Äugen arauszunehmen, tomer begegnen see sich mit Äugen, wās wöllen ihr Schand’ dersehn, wās is’ wie a Fleck auf ihr Ponim gewor’en….

Un’ punkt dort, wu die āreme Almone is’ gestan’en mit dreissig Jāhr zurück un’ hāt minutenweis gekuckt, ihre Jessomim in Schul zu sehn, ōb see dawnen, ōb see nehmen a jüdisch Wort in Maul arein, un’ hāt gechlipet wēinendig, as ihre Äugen hāben nit gefun’en, wās see hāben gesucht, stēht heunt a jüdische Tochter un’ kuckt durch dās Vorhangel, un’ sie wēiss allēin nit, auf wemen sie kuckt mehr, zi auf ihr Mann, wās macht wilde Bewegungen mit bēide Händ’ un’ mit sein ganzen Körper, oder auf dem jungen Menschen, wās sitzt äuch in Misrach-wand nit weit vun ihm un’ dawent wie a Jüd’ un’ sitzt ruhig wie a Mensch.

*    *    *    *    *

Welche Gedanken läufen ihr durch ihr Kopp itzund! Wieviel Trähren hāt sie vargossen vun jenem Tāg ān, as der junger Mann is’ gewor’en aus Chossen ihrer un’ der wilder Chossen is’ ihr Mann, ihr Brōtgeber gewor’en! Wieviel Wunden trāgt sie seitdem still un’ tief varschlossen in ihr jüdischen Harzen un’ peinigt sich vun ihre ēigene Gedanken, wās tracht sich ihr nit wöllendig, nor sie hāt kēin Kōach nit, nit zu trachten. Un’ wie bett’ sie itzt Gott, er soll auslöschen dās sündige Feuer vun ihr sündig Harz, auslöschen All’s, wās brennt un’ kocht in ihr, sie soll vargessen, wās is’ gewesen, nit wissen, wie es darf zu sein, nor ēin Sach soll sie wissen, wie lieb zu hāben ihr Mann, welcher wet un’ mus ihr Mann bleiben bis ihr Tōdt! Sie soll ihm lieben bei alle seine Unmenschlichkeit, bei sein Wildkeit, un’ selbst wenn er schlāgt sie, soll sie nor allēin wissen, Ssonim sollen nit derfrēut wer’en un’ sie soll alle ihre Pein far Gut können ānnehmen, wie Der, wās thēilt dem Gōrel ein jeder Ischo, hāt a jüdischer Frau geboten….

*    *    *    *    *

Un’ es fliessen ihre Trähren auf dem ēigenem Ort, wu es hāben asölche Trähren gegossen mit dreissig Jāhr zurück vun a ganz ander Grund un’ Quelle. Un’ see fallen auf dieselbe Wörter vun Machser, wās jede jüdische Frau varstēht see andersch als die andere.

Nor dort in Mairew-seit, nit weit vun Thür’, wēinen die āreme jüdische Frauen äuch heunt mit dem ēigenem Nigen, mit dem ēigenem betrübten Harzen wie mit dreissig Jāhr zurück

Āremkeit, Hunger, Nōt un’ Mangel hāben alle Māl ēin Ponim, ēin Tam un’ ēin Ort bei der Thür. Asō sauer un’ bitter dās Gewēin, wās kummt vun Niedergeschlāgene, is’ a Māl gewesen, wet äuch ēbig sein. Alle Wünsche un’ Gelüste vun Menschen wöllen sich überbeiten un’ beiten sich, nor der Wunsch vun dem Hungerigen wet ēbig bleiben dās Stückele Brōt; die Gelüste vun dem Nōtbedürftigen wet äuch ēbig hēissen: Vun der Nōt befreit zu wer’en un’ nit mehr zu wissen vun dem Tam, wās es hāt!…

Un’ dort bei der Thür stēhn itzt äuch nit wēniger Finstere, Ausgetruckente un Schofele, nebech, hören oder hören nit die Sāgerke un’ wēinen, wie see zum Harzen is’,—es is’ Jonkiper. Nor in rechten mitten Misrach-wand, auf dem ēigenem Ort, wu die frumme Gütele hāt mit dreissig Jāhr zurück gedawent, seht män itzt äuch a choschewe Frau, korew zu fufzig Jāhr, sitzt still un’ trauerig, wie a Derhargete, ihre Lippen varschlossen. Die Äugen kucken in offenem Korben-minche, nor see sehn die Wörter nit.

Farwās wēint sie nit?

Is’ ihr asō gut zu Muth, as selbst Jonkiper känn sie ihr Harz nit zuthun, zu dermāhnen, as kēin Gut’s is’ nit ēbig un’ der lebediger Mensch wēiss nit, wās morgen känn sein? Oder is’ sie nit a jüdische Frau, a Frau vun a Mann un’ Kinder, un’ welche jüdische Frau hāt nit ergez ēine oder mehrere Ursachen, wegen wās Jonkiper zu betten un’ a hēissen Trähr lāsen fallen?

*    *    *    *    *

Is’ sie efscher asō hart un’ asō schlecht, asō stolz un’ vornehm bei sich, as ihr passt nit zu wēinen, Leut’ sollen ihre Trähren nit sehn un’ nit klähren, sie is gleich zu Allemen?

Nēin! Chanele, “die Gute, die Kluge” is’ ihr Namen,—ihre jetzt truckene Äugen sāgen noch Eedes, as see hāben in sejer Zeit viel, viel gewēeint; sie is’ nit stolz un’ schämt sich nit zu wēinen, bifrat Jonkiper, wās wēint sich memeele!

Farwās-e wēint sie nit?

Es kucken auf ihr viel Äugen un’ wundern sich: Wās is’ heunt mit ihr der Mähr mehr als alle Jāhr? Nor sie kuckt trucken, wie varstēinert, in ihr Ssider; nit sie wēint, nit sie dawent. A Pāar Māl hāt sie dās Vorhangel varbōgen, a Kuck gethun in männerscher Schul, sich bald zurück aweggesetzt un’ jeder Māl alls traueriger un’ beklemmter wie früher.

*    *    *    *    *

As der Chasen hāt āngehōben dawnen Mussaf, hāt sie noch a Māl a Kuck gethun durch dās Fensterl, die Äugen senen unruhig umgeloffen über der ganzer Schul,—sie hāt sich zurück aweggesetzt. “Er is’ noch alls nitdā!” hāt ihr Harz geredt innerlich, “Zu Mussaf afile hāt er nit gekönnt kummen?

Och, un’ dās is’ mein Kind, mein Bchor! Vun ihm hāb’ ich dās asō viel Jessurim un’ Schmerzen arübergetrāgen, bis ich hāb’ ihm auf die Füss’ gestellt!

“Jā, mein Kind, mein Wund’! Ein ander Mutter wollt’ ihm sein Gebēin varscholten, sie wollt’ gesāgt: Nit du bist mein Suhn, nit ich bin dein Mutter,—ich känn es āber nit,—sei mir mōchel, Gott in Himmel, wās ich ruf’ ihm noch “mein Kind, mein Suhn!”… O, ich känn bei Dir auf sich betten a Tōdt, āber nit auf mein Kind!—Strāf’ mich, Ribōne-schel-ōlem, mich, sein sündige Mutter, efscher bin ich schuldig in dem, wās er is’ vun rechten Weg arāb un’ hāt Dich, lebediger Gott, vargessen un’ hāt dein Tōre varlāsen un’ thut dein Gebot nit? Jā, ich bin schuldig, ich hāb’ ihm zu viel lieb geha’t; wās er hāt gebeten, hāb’ ich gethun; ich hāb’ sich mit sein frummen Vāter ständig arumgekriegt, as er flegt ihm bestrāfen wöllen. Ich hāb’ ihm ausgehodewet, wie er is’, un’ mich strāf’ far ihm!”…


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