Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Four

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral
Chapter Four
The Author Who is Frightened
by His Great Success
A novel and slogan. — The profound disturbance. — New readers. — An opposite outcome: the more popular, the more sorrow. — An invasion of lowbrow imitators. — The fear of writing again. — Why did the Hebrew press ignore The Beloved and Pleasing, or the Dark Young Man? — Dinezon’s desire to show off for the Hebraists and Smolensky’s attack against Yiddish. — The difficult atmosphere for a Yiddish writer.

The Beloved and Pleasing, or the Dark Young Man widely disturbed the Jewish masses in hundreds of cities and towns across Tsarist Russia. It became famous. Shedding tears over the young folks in love—over Joseph, Rosa, Rekhama, the victims of backwardness and intrigues—became for girls, and even boys, a profound experience.[1] After reading the novel, young people couldn’t sleep at night and during the day they walked around in a daze.

The deep disturbance that the novel aroused in its readers was described at length in a strange scene in one of S. Ansky’s novels wherein someone wanted to console his friends who were heartbroken after finishing Dinezon’s The Beloved and Pleasing. The character comforted them by saying that only in the novel is it so sad. In reality, as he knows, the story ended quite differently. Firstly, Joseph didn’t die; he recovered from the fever and remained alive. Secondly, he married his beloved. Thirdly, the “Dark Young Man” didn’t improve his situation but came to a very bad end: he was sent off to do forced labor for swindling. “You hear this?” said one of the listeners who jumped up and ran off to “tell Khasye” because “it will make her happy!”[2]

To weep and become happy. The tears caused enjoyment.

Rarely has a book had such a profound effect on a reading public as did Dinezon’s first published novel. Thanks to him, the “jargonist” literature drew many new readers. The Dark Young Man became a slogan: this is what anyone willing to perpetrate a bad deed in order to reach his goal was thusly called.

*    *    *    *    *

But the more popular and adored The Dark Young Man became, and the more the book was sought after for purchase and reading, the less pleasure the author Jacob Dinezon experienced.

He was even more dismayed by the silence of the Hebrew press, which ignored his book even though it interested the widest public. He grew upset by the satiric words of the Jewish Enlightenment intelligentsia about this kind of sentimental novel that elicited so many tears. His hurt blossomed over the fact that they came from those from whom he most wanted to hear praise—because he wanted to belong to them just as his soul belonged—yet they ignored or made fun of his work. His mood grew bizarre: the greater his success, the greater his sorrow. He became plagued with this idea: should he have written it at all? Then he concluded: no more writing. Why? Because he had only shame and disgrace from his novel.

As if this weren’t enough, he began noticing the appearance of imitative works by those who were envious of his success. In the marketplace, wild storybooks showed up by authors who tried to gain an audience using his manner of writing. Ugly writings and lowbrow novels appeared that disgusted him and seemed to degrade the Yiddish language.

Dinezon writes about this in his autobiographical sketch to S. Niger: “Regarding the popularity of The Dark Young Man, I believe you have much less information. Practically in the same year I finished my novel Even Negef. I had already lost the desire to publish it. There was dead silence on the part of the selfsame official Jewish press about my work, though tens of thousands had been sold with barely a Jewish house where this work wasn’t read. In addition, there were all sorts of writing businesses that the success of my work created, and it was the inspiration for all kinds of novels and storybooks in a similar style, especially Shomer with his exaggerated praise of rich beggars and the like, to the extent of dozens every morning. Regarding The Dark Young Man, I was affected so badly that I felt guilty for this entire flood of empty and meaningless novels in which the Yiddish reader was drowning. I couldn’t stop writing, but not publishing what I wrote didn’t cost me any special effort or spiritual strain.”[3]

The immensely modest Dinezon neglected to provide in his autobiography the details which he related by other means. “Dinezon,” Dubnow states, “told me about writing his first novel as a young man, of which he himself didn’t think highly; how he became a maskil and joined the little circle of the first Mohilev revolutionaries in the seventies—Axelrod, Horowitz, Shur; how he escaped with them to Berlin, suffered poverty and hunger there, and had to come back to Russia.”[4] He had, in other words, the romanticism and idealism characteristic of that era.

Yes, Dinezon was soon disappointed in his first novel “of which he himself didn’t think highly.” When? When he looked about and saw that others who were the most important to him didn’t think well of him. He then became frightened of his own success and decided to remain silent.

*    *    *    *    *

It came as a result of his wanting to show off.

But justifying oneself is often worse than not responding. Jacob Dinezon, seeing how the Hebrew press was silent about his first successful novel, “wanted to show the Jewish Enlightenment world that his taking up writing in Yiddish did not mean that he had  cut himself off entirely from Hebrew, the language of the Enlightenment,” relates S. L. Tsitron. “And he intended to demonstrate this by writing a long article (printed in the sixth year of Ha-Shakhar (The Dawn) about ‘Habituation and Criticism’) in which he, in passing, praised to the heavens Smolensky and Lilienblum, Chaim-Zelig Slonimski, the editor of the Hebrew journal Ha-Tsefirah (The Morning), and others. He figured that with this article, in which he would be recognized as an outspoken friend and lover of Hebrew, he would be proven a maskil and could then quietly and confidently present his Yiddish works without offending his Enlightenment peer group.”

But quite unforeseen to Dinezon, the article brought him the opposite results. What’s more, his article not only did not make him equal to his friends, the maskils, or draw him any closer to them, it actually pushed him farther away. It also pushed him away, at least for a certain period of time, from Yiddish. Because “about Dinezon’s article in Ha-Shakhar where he refers to a particular Yiddish paper, Smolensky remarked: ‘A maskil that writes in Yiddish is like two contradictions in one person. Those who believe that one must have some sort of skill to write in this corrupt language are mistaken.’”

The impression these words had on Dinezon can be imagined from what he wrote to S. L. Tsitron: “At that time I was a child of my generation, a maskil with Enlightenment notions who arrived at writing Yiddish with a certain sense of fear that what I was doing was a blemish on the honor of the Enlightenment which, as is known, always looked down upon the ‘jargon.’ In me there always prevailed the folk-instinct, that instinct that is attached to and woven into one’s native tongue. Nevertheless, I couldn’t free myself from the thought that in writing and publishing my The Beloved and Pleasing, my Enlightenment, as if reawakened, could now serve as the muse for which I fought with such passion against the dark forces while I was a teacher in the Mohilev religious school.”

“True,” Dinezon concludes, “with his remark he impacted my desire to write in Yiddish, but on the other hand, I retaliated against Smolensky and threw away my Hebrew pen entirely and forever! And as a result, for a long time I went about disoriented.”[5]

This was the atmosphere for Yiddish literature in the 1870s. An outstanding maskil who sidled over to the language of his people had to be prepared to endure considerable despair and resist not a few temptations.

Jacob Dinezon endured a lot and resisted not a little.

[1]  Peretz Hirschbein, My Childhood, 1932, p. 261.
[2]  S. Ansky, “Pioneers,” A Chronicle of the 70s, Vol. 2, Vilna 1927, pp. 139-141.
[3]  Di Tsukunft (The Future), 1929, p. 624.
[4]  From “Jargon” to Yiddish, p. 25.
[5]  S. L. Tsitron, Three Literary Generations, Vol. 1, pp. 71-72.
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