By I. D. Berkowitz (1885-1967)
From Unzer rishonim: zikhroynes-dertseylungen
vegn Sholem-Aleichem un zayn dor
(Our Forebears: Memories-Stories
about Sholem-Aleichem and His Generation)
Hamenora Publishing House, Tel Aviv, 1966
Volume 4, Chapter 5, Pages 46-56
Translated from the Yiddish by Mindy Liberman
Even earlier, I was well acquainted with Jacob Dinezon from my days as a beginner in Warsaw. By then, I was already a frequent visitor in his famous confirmed-bachelor room at Dzielna Number 15 and had benefited from his kindness—I received from him a small interest-free loan in a time of need. And, as I was among those who did not exploit his goodness and paid back the loan exactly on time, he considered me to be among the “respectable” young people of the writing profession. In general, he showed me the special friendship and truly warm attentiveness of an older, knowledgeable friend—something so valuable in the first uncertain years of every young writer’s life.
Now, when I was staying in Warsaw throughout the winter of 1910, his friendship towards me grew stronger. This was somewhat of a family relationship—thanks to his old attachment to Sholem Aleichem, which had been recently renewed with new, tender, and solid threads. As soon as I arrived in Warsaw, Dinezon gave over to me the supervision of the editions of Sholem Aleichem’s works that found themselves in his hands since Sholem Aleichem’s Jubilee Committee bought back the books from the previous publishers. Dinezon himself remained the caretaker of the type molds that lay packed up on shelves in a dark corner of his room, along with the type molds of the works of Peretz and other writers.
Dinezon conducted me into the small, obscure world of Jewish publishing and taught me how to conduct myself on those badly trodden and tortuous roads. And as I showed myself to be not too bad a student, I was a great success. As an exacting person who lived his everyday life with precision and, in addition, carried the poor accounting of many of his friends on his conscience, he felt a deep disdain for the impractical attitude most Jewish writers had to numbers and found in me a bit of comfort.
I would enter his room at various hours of the day and night and see him at his patient, old-bachelor work as he pumped his little smoking tea machine at length and, engrossed, washed the tea glasses with a somewhat dirty towel until they shone to the nth degree. Then I would listen to his long sentimental letters, which he was always in the midst of writing to various friends in all corners of the world. (He read them aloud to his guests instead of his literary works, which he wasn’t writing at the time.)
But more than anything, I had the opportunity up close to ponder the riddle of Dinezon—the riddle of his well-known goodness. It was an accepted truth for everyone that Dinezon was by nature an unusually good person, tenderhearted, ready to give away his soul to others. And to this day, when we mention his name, we mention him with a feeling of affectionate gratitude and call him nothing else but “Good Uncle Dinezon.” Because every one of us saw only good from him and received only kindness from him. Moreover, his room was truly a home for all the worried spirits of the writing family. Nonetheless, Dinezon, in the depths of his nature, was not really good.
In any case, his kindness was not from that genuine and pure attempt which derives from an inner, spiritual, and all-understanding and deeply merciful sincerity, and which raises itself to the height of an ideal human quality. He was, as I saw him, not the free master of his goodness, but its humble slave, who took upon himself a task—perhaps unbeknownst to himself—to fill his own empty life with kind acts and “good deeds” for others. This slavery often tried to rebel quietly in protest against the heavy, imposed role of ever-smiling goodness and eternal attention to the lives and interests of others.
However, Dinezon controlled himself the way a God-fearing Jew restrains himself according to the strict good habits indicated in the Holy Books—because otherwise, he was afraid to remain in his dark old-bachelor room lonely and idle. This was the true Jewish war of the Good Inclination against the Evil Inclination, and here, in the genuine Jewish manner, the Good Inclination prevailed.
On Dinezon’s beautifully chiseled hard face, hard as if packed with too much goodness, around the corners of his sweet-smiling eyes hid thin, bitter wrinkles that gave his smiling expression the appearance of crying. These bitter wrinkles beneath the prepared sweet makeup seemed to cry quietly and delicately over his life, which was crumbled and gobbled up by others—by the beaks of strangers. If the visiting stranger who came to pester him with his personal concerns was not a dignified person, Dinezon’s bitterness often escaped in the first minute: his face clouded over, his small stiff hands trembled, his voice sounded strange, distant. However, Dinezon would quickly control himself, and with a sigh, return to the role assigned by the Good Inclination, and bit-by-bit, become more affable, warmer, and talkative. And the irksome visitor would leave satisfied and filled with his kindness.
And quite often, Dinezon’s repressed selfishness took revenge on his unwitting oppressors. Sitting in his room, I was more than once a witness as he sharply and bitterly criticized those to whom he had just bestowed his goodness only moments after they departed. Not, God forbid, because they had taken his time and effort—that was his mitzvah, his good deed, that was not to be desecrated with dissatisfaction, but because they did not deserve the time and effort he gave them—as people they hadn’t earned it! Maybe God blessed them with a little talent, or Peretz thought highly of them—but what good is talent if the person himself isn’t much of a person? And here, Dinezon would draw up an accounting of their substantial sins at the expense of the one who just a few minutes earlier was shown favor by his generosity. It sounded like a bitter revenge for his own pure, steadfast life, which was divided up without mercy among those sinners who weren’t at all worthy and incapable of showing appreciation.
As a matter of fact, this wasn’t news to me. In Sholem Aleichem’s archive, I found a large and thick album containing letters from scores of Jewish writers who corresponded with him in the years 1888-1889, when he issued his Folksbibliotek. Among those letters was an especially notable bundle of long, densely written letters from Jacob Dinezon. I read the letters with great interest, not omitting even the long, sentimental-philosophical digressions about the world and people in general.
The main interest was in the surprise of Dinezon’s character as he appeared in his letters: on the one hand, a soft, open-hearted, and fully tender devotion to the lives and interests of others; and on the other hand, a hard bitterness and narrow hatred—quite often toward the same people on whom he had bestowed his goodness. The young Frishman suffered this fate. Before this, Dinezon had praised him to the skies in his letters to Sholem Aleichem as a rising literary star, called him a “Creator of Worlds,” worried about him as if he was his own, and bitterly wept over his distressing situation. Then suddenly, he took a dislike to him and began to criticize him to Sholem Aleichem with the most pointed expressions. The “Creator of Worlds” was no longer a “Creator of Worlds” and was transformed into a “mere mortal,” a simple human. This resulted in a great disturbance when Sholem Aleichem’s young wife, Mrs. Sholem Aleichem, and her niece, were guests in Warsaw. Before their eyes, Frishman made fun of Dinezon as a ladies’ man. For this, Dinezon’s offended, well-concealed selfishness took profound revenge. He himself wrote about it to Sholem Aleichem: “I, poor Dinezon, how passionately I can love those who love me, and how deeply I can despise whoever earns contempt in my eyes . . . ”
However, Frishman was not the only one. Even then, Dinezon’s room in Warsaw served as a shelter for writers, especially for those who came from the provinces—for them, it was often simply lodging for the night. And in his letters to Sholem Aleichem, Dinezon seldom had a good word to say about those who revolved around him and obtained his favors. He allowed them to exploit him—but after that, he didn’t care for them. In one letter, he realized on his own that he had gone too far. “Ah,” he wrote, “you must have such a bad opinion of me by now. I speak badly of this one and of that one.”
At that time, Dinezon gravitated strongly to Sholem Aleichem with all of his feminine soul that always yearned to join with a stronger one. He was delighted by Sholem Aleichem’s brilliant young talent, by his literary accomplishment with the Folksbibliotek, by his generous hand, by his wealth. He even forgave Sholem Aleichem for so heavily editing his long story, “Go Eat Kreplach,” that only a few pages remained in the first volume of the Folksbibliotek. Dinezon complained intensely in one long letter to Sholem Aleichem—and never mentioned it again. He wrote long and frequent letters to him in which he expressed his devoted fondness and strongly criticized the enemies of Sholem Aleichem who begrudged him his talent, his honors, his affluence.
He especially ranted about the editor of the St. Petersburg Folksblat, Yisroel Levi, who at that time began a wild attack on Sholem Aleichem. He fell so far under Sholem Aleichem’s influence that in his letters Dinezon addressed Levi exactly as Sholem Aleichem called him, “Abominable Litvak,” even though Dinezon himself was a genuine kosher Litvak from Zamut who spoke with a true letter “sin.”
In those days, Dinezon was enamored of Sholem Aleichem almost as much as he later became with Peretz; however, he was unsure whether Sholem Aleichem accepted his devotion as he should—or was actually mocking him. One of the “Sages of Kiev” wrote to Dinezon that Sholem Aleichem was a terrible joker and that when he received a passionate love letter from Dinezon, he leaned on his wife’s shoulder, and both of them read the letter and laughed out loud. That seriously troubled Dinezon and he constantly tried to worm out of Sholem Aleichem whether the story was true or not.
At that time, Dinezon first became acquainted with Peretz, who later became his lighthouse for the rest of his life. For the time being their acquaintance took place through letters because Peretz still resided in Zamość. But already then, in contrast to Frishman, Dinezon wrote to Sholem Aleichem about the unknown Peretz with these words:
“I love Peretz like a new sun on a clear new morning after the terrible dark night of the previous person—a new spring with flowers, with sweet, warm rays after that barren winter in which that person made my heart and myself so desolate and cold. But his suffering from hunger and his need muffled all of my bitter feelings, and when I see for myself that my worst enemy is hungry and suffering, my heart dissolves in pity, and I willingly help him. Precisely for this I did not obey my heart and feelings, and made myself loathsome, and belittled myself on his account . . .
“With Peretz this cannot happen. First of all, he’s a decent human being, respectable and not petty, and not financed by anyone else. Second, this person has a truly good soul, dislikes ridicule and scorn. Third, he doesn’t like associating with ‘Maskilim,’ our pagan Litvaks. And furthermore, he flees from honors, and more than anything, he’s a natural-born genius. Fourth, he doesn’t request the least thing from me. On the contrary, he even asked me how he could serve me and asks me to visit him at his expense. Feelings of brotherhood and communal ideas about distributing a few cursed rubles have no role for him—neither do I wish to nor will I visit him, friendship from afar is enough—or abstract friendship, admiration, esteem, and that’s that.”
Shortly after that, Sholem Aleichem lost his possessions, the Folksbibliotek came to a halt, and the correspondence between Dinezon and Sholem Aleichem broke off. And several years later, when an enmity developed between Sholem Aleichem and Peretz (over Peretz’s Di yudishe bibliotek(The Jewish Library), which Sholem Aleichem saw as an act of robbery against his Yidishe Folksbibliotek, and over Sholem Aleichem’s sharp critique of Peretz’s “poetry” booklet), Dinezon became a partner in this enmity as a matter of course. Only in 1900, after an interval of eleven full years (during which Dinezon lived in Kiev for a few years and avoided meeting with Sholem Aleichem), Dinezon reached out to him with a letter, declaring that he harbored anger towards him because of Peretz, to which Sholem Aleichem replied:
“Most dear and honest friend!
“It seems that a tomcat and not a cat has run between us. I don’t begin to understand a single word that you say, just as I have not understood why you kept your distance and hid from me for all this time. You say that I encountered you and did not stop. I swear on my children, whom I adore, that this is the first I’m hearing of this. On the contrary, my wife says that she met you, and you answered that you couldn’t come to see me for some irrelevant reason. Certainly, I asked after you numerous times and felt that your heart ached for me, but my situation was not the best at that time, it should not happen today. The result is as if I have committed who knows what kind of injustice and crimes. What’s the matter with you? I have never been a criminal, and certainly no fool. Fools told you that I lost my brains along with my money because that’s what these fools wanted.”
Further on, speaking in his letter about his critique many years earlier in Kol mevaser in which he had written about Peretz’s “poetry,” Sholem Aleichem wrote:
“And there was also a small critique of a small book by Peretz, which makes me laugh when I think of it, but no longer. And you say something entirely in gibberish: ‘But you came out to invalidate his noble talent . . . and to ridicule everything that emerges from his pen.’ Feh, it doesn’t become someone as honorable as Dinezon to say something like that! But if you want to know, Peretz did more to me than I to him. And further on you say: ‘Know that in my eyes you have never been a model of justice and truth.’ Eh, brother, if I had displayed less justice and less truth, I would be a wealthy man to this day! There is perhaps as much justice and truth and integrity in my literary work as in that of all the Jewish writers together.”
From then on, a friendly correspondence bound the two of them once more. It was, however, not as frequent or as fervent on Dinezon’s side as it had been during Sholem Aleichem’s good years. The temperature of Dinezon’s friendship with Sholem Aleichem was now apparently controlled inadvertently by Peretz’s influence. If Peretz expressed a frosty opinion of a recently published article, it had a chilling effect on Dinezon’s friendship. However, if a lively, heartfelt letter from Sholem Aleichem arrived right afterward, the chill soon thawed, and the thin ice began to melt as if under the rays of the sun.
But when Sholem Aleichem became sick and Dinezon accomplished a great thing for him, helping to buy back his works from the publishers—the old friendship between them was renewed and strengthened, just like in former times. Now, when I sat in Dinezon’s room and spoke with him about Sholem Aleichem, I felt that Sholem Aleichem held the second place in his heart after Peretz. Because although Sholem Aleichem was embraced by the people as one of the renowned classical authors, exactly as Peretz, he was saved from destitution through Dinezon’s hand and is now quite indebted to him. Moreover, with God’s help, the relationship between Peretz and Sholem Aleichem changed completely. The old hatred was forgotten long ago, and sometimes they even wrote each other affectionate letters. When Peretz would ask me about Sholem Aleichem’s health in Dinezon’s room on a Sabbath morning, Dinezon’s face would light up, and he’d look at me as if to say, “You understand what this means?”
When the great polemic between Frishman’s and Peretz’s people flared up, Dinezon was no less hurt than Peretz himself. He told me in those days that Frishman came to him in his room—to clear his conscience—and sat for the whole evening and smoked maybe half a dozen cigars. Dinezon scolded him in a way that he was sure to remember! He told him briefly and to the point: “You have always been a troublemaker, someone who causes chaos. What other people sow, you trample. You resent that the Jews have the great Peretz!” And Frishman sat and remained silent.
“By the way,” Dinezon added angrily, “this same Frishman boasted to me that Sholem Aleichem is on his side and writes him long letters. So be it. To me, Sholem Aleichem has forgotten to write even a short letter. As far as I’m concerned, this Frishman has always been a sort of devil, may God protect us. As far back as at the time of Ofir when Sholem Aleichem rained gold coins on us . . . he paid Frishman 750 rubles through me. So, let it be . . . Nevertheless, if you’d like, you can write Sholem Aleichem that his truly good friends did not deserve this from him.”