Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Five

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral
Chapter Five
Even Negef, or A Stone in the Road,
The First Jewish Family Novel Regarding
the Conflict Between the
Jewish Enlightenment and Hasidism
After thirteen years of keeping silent. — Ripening through sorrow. — Revision of the primitive literary method. — A maternal tone in the telling. — Language development. — The maskil can’t manage to keep himself from proselytizing. — “Compassion with sense.” — The teacher who bears the greatest troubles; the small figure that plays a central role. — Poverty deafens the conscience and riches corrupt. — The rabbinical authority and its interests and intrigues. — Idealized figures: Feyge the servant and the imaginary Rachel and Moshele. — “To tears must I bring them!”

Dinezon kept silent for thirteen years.

Following The Beloved and Pleasing, which was written in 1877, Dinezon didn’t issue a new novel until 1890. Again published in Vilna, Dinezon also gave this book two titles, one in Hebrew and the other in Yiddish: Even Negef, or A Stone in the Road.

Over the course of those thirteen years, Dinezon issued only a sparse number of translations, revisions, articles, and, in particular, he became involved in the discussions about language and Yiddish literature. He wrote stories, but had no desire to see them in print.

During these years, his relationship to Yiddish ripened. On one hand he defended the language against enemy salvos, but on the other hand, he did not yet embrace the aesthetic values in Yiddish literature. It was not yet clear to him what was unquestionable for Mendele Mocher Sforim. Therefore, it led to a clash between Dinezon and Sholem Aleichem.

At this same time, however, he became friends with Isaac Leibush Peretz and Simon Dubnow. These were affiliations which had a deep effect on Dinezon’s ensuing creativity and, especially, on his life.

*    *    *    *    *

The unhappiness Dinezon experienced as a result of The Dark Young Man opened his eyes. He began to comprehend the weaknesses in his first work. As strongly as he believed that a writer is obligated to listen to his readers and please them, he made himself examine why his first novel was so primitive. The character types were presented as if they were formulaic: black and white, good and bad, righteous and evil.

Between black and white there are, however, many more colors. Even in white itself, just as in black itself, there are numerous shades. Just as goodness has no bounds, evil, too, has its endless possibilities.

Over time, his first novel, therefore, shocked the author himself. And when looking at it today—so many years later—it’s not relevant to look at it critically from a modern perspective.

The second novel is already a result of Dinezon’s further development. A Stone in the Road is incomparably loftier and more developed than the first novel. By now one can sense a folk-writerly quality. The persona gallery is better portrayed. There are no more clumsy contrasts. Granted, the good folks are too good here as well—angels actually. But the bad folks are not such extreme evildoers. And there are even types which are a mix of good and bad, a mix of wisdom and foolishness, as people generally are.

But the most important thing about A Stone in the Road is that within it are described not just individuals but entire families. A Stone in the Road is a family novel from an important period in Jewish life.

*    *    *    *    *

A Stone in the Road is the first Yiddish family novel.

Jacob Dinezon presents several families against the canvas of two movements which divided the Jews in Russia: the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and Hasidism. He shows the tear within the family itself.

Dinezon, with no ambitions for language mastery, did, however, free himself in his second published work from many of the weaknesses which “jargonized” his first novel. There was less barbarism, fewer localisms, and shorter dialogue. The plot was more focused. The character types were clearer and sharper. The maternal tone in the storytelling achieved a clearer form and style.

*    *    *    *    *

Yet, in A Stone in the Road, Dinezon the maskil couldn’t keep himself from overt propaganda. He doesn’t rely on the reader to draw his own conclusions, but provides them himself. And he expresses the most comprehensive ideas and moral lessons after having portrayed, over the course of about five hundred pages, idylls and dramas that are both comedic and tragic.

 “A poor man,” concludes the unfortunate Moshele, “lay with a broken leg next to a stone and moaned bitterly. Around him stood many Jews. Others helped him moan . . . . The unfortunate Jew was soon carried to the poorhouse. . . . Some old Jew took a handkerchief in which he threw in a few guldens and approached everyone else with these words: ‘Jews, have mercy, sons of mercy! Give alms for the unfortunate one, poor thing! Give, Jews, so God may bestow you with health and long life!’”

But here you immediately notice that Moshele, the unfortunate youth, tells this story about a Jew who broke his leg only as a parable in order to demonstrate an object lesson:

“We Jews,” he says, “are merciful sons of mercy. We don’t let a fallen one lie. We give him a hand and help him stand up. We respond to every bitter cry with everything we can. Yet, it seems so many of our unfortunate ones have fallen, more than any other folk which can so pride itself in the term ‘merciful sons of mercy’ as we can. Why, brothers, is this so? Where does such a sad paradox come from in our lives?”

And he explains the sense of it: “We imagine that the reason for this paradox lies, therein, because the good quality of mercy is for most of us born only after the calamity. First, someone or several people need to break a hand or foot and there has to be heard a heartrending cry in order to awaken our compassion. Then we are truly prepared to do everything to rescue the unfortunate one from his calamity. But how can compassion help when the lost one can no longer be found and the broken one can no longer be made whole? . . . Compassion must also contain sense and wisdom, and unfortunately we lack these! . . . Compassion means to lift up a fallen one and carry him to the poorhouse. Wisdom and sense, however, teach us to make this falling impossible, to use all possible means to prevent falls so we have no need for our compassion! . . . No calamity should occur in the first place!”

Therefore, he makes the appeal: “Dear brothers, why shouldn’t we remove the stones in our streets so we no longer trip over them? Stumbling blocks and causes of accidents lie upon our roads. There isn’t a day when someone doesn’t trip over them!”[1]

A Stone in the Road really does show Jews falling over “stones” and breaking limbs and backs. Moshele is such a lively invalid, and  Rukhele also falls victim to one of these particular “stones.”

Jacob Dinezon describes the atmosphere in which the Mosheles and Rukheles lived, and he preaches “compassion with sense.” “Remove the stones from our streets so that no one trips over them!”

*    *    *    *    *

Dinezon introduces quite a few character types.

Reb Leizer is a rich Jew in town: a refined and tolerant modern traditionalist. Rukhele, his daughter, is a tender girl with trembling deference who takes after him. She plays the obedient daughter, even when everything in her calls for protest and revolt. Her mother, Chayele, is an entirely different person. In contrast to her husband, a maskil of utmost refinement, she is a devotee of the Hasidic rabbi and can’t hide her egotism, and, therefore, advances her plans through hypocritical means. Since her brother-in-law, Reb Leizer’s brother, the childless Reb Shloyme, is also a Hasid, the type of Hasid that especially loves to make a toast and do a little dance, she pulls him into her plotting when her husband dies ahead of his time. She uses her brother-in-law to ensnare her tender daughter in her matchmaking.

Dinezon delineates the personalities in A Stone in the Road, especially the women. Even today, many readers can become hooked by the novel though it contains quite a bit of small-town navet and old-fashioned procrastination.

*    *    *    *    *

Portrayed here is the religious schoolteacher, Reb Simon, who causes one misery after another. Ultimately, he is completely innocent. Fundamentally, he is not a bad man, though he savagely beats the rich man’s son. Why does he beat him? Because his teaching is not by preference but is a distasteful task. He goes around embittered because he neither has a livelihood nor any enjoyment at home. So he releases his anger on the children in his cheder and brutally beats them. Ay, why does their father allow it? Because Rukhele, as much as she doesn’t want her brother to study in such an old-fashioned cheder, has pity for the poor teacher. Especially because he asks it of her. This luckless Jew who can, thanks to Rukhele, feel himself a true guest in Reb Leizer’s home, getting food and respect, manages to send the worst misfortune upon Rukhele. Not out of evil intent, but in search of a means to make a little extra money, he simply undertakes the role of matchmaker. And he attempts to join a wall to a wall—as long as he gets a few coins and can also marry off his own spinster daughter. Livelihood!

In contrast, this teacher, himself a Hasid fond of drinking a toast with sponge cake, can sleep away a midday Sabbath at the home of some rich man where he has tippled a bit too much whiskey, and can always come up with a good-natured answer for everything. Even when his wife yells and he has to escape his own home, he replies to her:

“Because of poverty, she yells; because of pain, she curses. And in truth, isn’t she right? Should a poor man have children if he can’t even give them some dry bread to fill their bellies or arrange a match for his grown daughters?”[2]

When Rukhele is critical of his cheder, declaring that it’s filthy and smells bad, he immediately comes up with an excuse and points out only the good aspects of the old-fashioned cheder. In other words, he says: “Go talk to a girl! Does she even know what the Torah is obtained with? ‘Bread and salt is what you shall eat’ and ‘water up to a measure shall you drink,’ and ‘on the ground shall you sleep,’ and ‘in sorrow shall you dwell,’ which means: ‘You shall get used to living in sorrow.’ . . . So go talk to her and make her understand that, on the contrary, what happens in my cheder is even better for the children, for they will learn even more swiftly ‘if God wills it, one becomes learned in Torah.’”[3]

Out of this religious schoolteacher, who is superficially a passable little person in the novel, arises a central character—a key to the drama.

Reb Simon doesn’t want to do any harm to the gentle Rukhele, yet he causes her the greatest pain. He proposes the match without giving any thought to the lad; the groom is barely in his reckoning. He has in mind only the couple of rubles that will rescue his household. The teacher becomes, in this manner, the most unscrupulous person: he causes the girl to be sold as one would sell a cow.

It is poverty that thwarts the teacher’s mind and conscience.

Poverty is what leads to wrongdoing.

*    *    *    *    *

But just as poverty leads to irresponsibility, so does wealth and money lead to transgressions.

And who in A Stone in the Road lets himself be misled by money? The Hasidim—those who appear to be immersed in spiritual unity with God.

Here we see how, still in 1890, Dinezon was governed by the Haskalah. It is among the Hasidim that he especially observes how they allow themselves to be led astray by earthly temptations.

Dinezon is far from Linetsky’s tendency to flog and tear out strips, far from the bloodthirsty satires about Hasidism. Dinezon describes the Hasidic society in a controlled manner with gentle enmity. Eschewing insults, he doesn’t even openly criticize. He is satisfied with merely describing how they comport themselves, these Hasidic Jews; how they behave in the rabbi’s court, how they agree on matches with their relatives. This relaying of the facts is enough to discern the gentle maskil.

The rabbinic governance, the court, the rabbinic family, as Dinezon describes them are, on the surface, enveloped in modesty. But it’s enough to look closely at small things in order to notice their smallness. Dinezon portrays the Hasidic environment in its moral downfall.

The first synagogue official, Reb Pinchasl, is a politician who plots in every direction. As soon as Chayale is widowed, he casts his eye on her. He, too, is recently widowed but has no patience to wait. Her wealth tantalizes him. In addition, she’s young and beautiful. He talks with everyone to seek their support. He works the court to such an extent for the sake of his own match that not only does the rabbi involve himself, but even the rabbi’s daughters and daughters-in-law throw themselves into the politics of the court. Even on the matter of marrying off Chayale’s daughter, they all get involved, because on this depends the marriage of the first synagogue official!

We have here, also lightly sketched, the intrigues in the rabbinical family: the clashes among the daughters and the daughters-in-law. Dinezon describes the reception that the rabbi, blessed be he, makes in honor of the rich Hasidic woman who brings presents for everyone. Right from the entrance, one senses the hierarchy and the quarrels at both the rabbi’s table and in the women’s section. “Everything is calculated. Honors cost money. Everything is a business dealing!”

In contrast to the corrupt aristocrats, the idealized characters stand out. Feyge, the old, loyal, simple servant (a second generation at the Hasidic court) is a gem of goodness and love passed from one generation to the next. Even lying on her deathbed, her thoughts are for the unfortunate Rukhele who loves her cousin Moshele and who escapes from her father’s house exactly when they’re celebrating an agreement over her match with the worthless lad. Rukhele hides until she breaks down and perishes. Tragically alone does the good servant die, and tragically alone does the good wealthy daughter die. If one is that good, it seems, one is tragically alone.

However, the broken Moshele has a noble end.

We recognize Dinezon in Moshele when he calls out after all his disappointments: “Oh, I believe in the good hearts of my brother Jews. A Jew can’t observe a calamity and not want to help the unfortunate one. A Jew can’t hear a bitter cry and be unmoved by the one who cries out in pain. One must only show Jews those wounds; one must only bring them to another’s field in order for them to see for themselves how many beloved children there are under the little hills, like little flowers plucked along the side. . . . To tears must I bring them! Not only are the gates of heaven open in order to allow entrance to innocent tears, also our hearts do not lock them out!”[4]

In A Stone in the Road, as we see, Dinezon had not yet liberated himself entirely from his Enlightenment propaganda and proselytizing.

He also formulated here his literary belief system:

To tears must I bring them!

Jacob Dinezon sought to improve people through tears. Through tears he also bound his readers to his novel.

[1]   All the Works of Jacob Dinezon in Eleven Volumes, Akhisper Publishers, Warsaw 1937, Vol. 2, pp. 485-7.
[2]  Ibid., p. 7.
[3]  Ibid., pp 9-10.
[4]  Ibid., pp. 489-90.
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