Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Fourteen

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral
Chapter Fourteen
Dinezon the Esteemed
and the Unesteemed
The mother among our classicists. — The fear of analysis. — Not in strange merits: where is the balance? — The fate of folk writers. — “The modern reader.” — Everyone wants to be Peretz. — The embarrassment with folk literature. — Dozens of years of critical mistreatment of Reisen, Rosenblat, and Segalovitch. — The story of Axenfeld and Ettinger. — The revision of an error. — Sholem Aleichem and Dinezon in 1901 and 1913. — S. Niger’s sketch for a portrait. — The ideal folk writer. — Strokes of critical appraisal: Almey, Kenig, Meizel, Shveyd, Bal-Makhshoves (The Thinker,) Litvakov, Katsizne, Oislender, Dobrushin, Natish, Krants. — In a difficult environment. — Medem and Reisen’s illuminations: from two extremes. — With faith in a world of deception. — The blessing of self-esteem.

Jacob Dinezon is, bottom line, the mother among the classicists of Yiddish literature and culture. Generally speaking, without entering into details, no one discusses that he deserves a place among our classicists and pioneers of the new Yiddish creativity. If one does go into detail as to why he deserves this place at the Eastern Wall, the opposing views about his work and worth can be heard.

Some avoid speaking about his significance for today’s reader. They bring up The Beloved and Pleasing and A Stone in the Road like embalmed exhibits of Yiddish literature on the threshold of a renaissance. And the single book that is recommended to read and study is Yosele (especially through school).

Further, come all sorts of merits. It doesn’t occur to anyone to remove Dinezon from the Eastern Wall, but mostly not on the merits of his literature. What is added to his value is Peretz’s merit, and at other times, the first children’s homes, and here and there he is remembered for his loyal service to young writers. “One often has the impression that he doesn’t belong to Yiddish literature, but to the Yiddish writers. Rather than being a priest he became a sexton in the ‘temple’ of the Yiddish word. The modern reader, who can no longer derive any pleasure from reading Dinezon’s writings, can still find it useful to study them.”[1]

It is, however, high time to pose this question: Is “the modern reader” truly the most important beneficiary? Should the taste and measure of “the modern reader” serve as the taste for and measure of the Yiddish writer? Is it at all a favor for Yiddish literature that “the modern reader” has become the compass and aim?

*    *    *    *    *

If one thinks about Jacob Dinezon’s life and works, one must consider the problem and fate of Yiddish folk writers in the 20th century.

Folk writing, which at first was considered a blessing for Yiddish literature given before the Torah, began to be considered a “remnant” of the primitive masses of the 19th century, and “the modern reader” became the spoiled child for most contemporary Yiddish writers. Therefore, everyone wanted to be like Peretz.

“The modern reader” became so in fashion and so privileged for the new Yiddish literature, that in focusing on him in order to win him over, the Jewish critics overlooked and nearly ignored many of those literary creations that did not appeal to the snobbery of modern readers.

On this account, Jacob Dinezon became the greatest victim.

Our critics, with their masculine bent and mostly with the imprint of Yeshiva-boys, simply became embarrassed with this storyteller due to his great appeal to women. Therefore, the reason shouldn’t be sought with Dinezon that his recognition became limited to Yosele. The Yiddish literary critics and historians are responsible for this, not Dinezon.

The theory that the high quality of modern Yiddish literature is its best safeguard is, on one hand, a significant feature of its development; on the other hand, this theory leads to the easy disregard for the mass reader and folk literature, thanks to which our writerly skill stood out and was surrounded by the adoration of the masses, although only understood by tiny circles, and often misunderstood.

*    *    *    *    *

Our critics, arising on the threshold of the 20th century, became so caught up in the sharpness of language and artistic wizardry, they were often ashamed to look around at true folk writers who captured the hearts of the masses with integrity.

Naturally, the critics didn’t intend to harm the folk literature; by overlooking the folk writer they merely intended to improve the lot of the intelligentsia, to elevate the level of Yiddish writerly skill, and to forge a path for literary masters who didn’t usually appeal to the masses. This is fair. However, at the same time, one injustice after another was perpetrated against great folk writers.

Jacob Dinezon is not the only one in Yiddish literature who was denigrated by our critics. This affected him so mercilessly that even when he continued to write, he hid his writing—wrote and put it away in his desk drawer. For himself! In Peretz’s time, Maeterlinck and Baudelaire were already looked up to.

In this manner, Abraham Reisen was disparaged by our critics for decades. For decades, Zusman Segalovitch was also minimized, though it was known that he was the most-read novelist in Poland. And even the modern H. Rosenblatt paid dearly for his love of down-home motifs.

With this kind of approach established, it was not relevant to “unearth” and make public the works of the meaningful Yiddish novelist Israel Aksenfeld (1789-1868). And it is truly a wonder that there lived the juicy writer of fables, epigrams, and comedies, Shlomo Ettinger (1803-1856). It may be that he was uncovered and later researched sooner than everyone else thanks to the curiosities of his life and his descendants.

Jacob Dinezon, who for the sake of countless people had elbows to make way for others but never for himself, was unjustly pushed to the side. And if one uses his name in the same breath as the names of our classicists and their grandiose pioneering works, there are those who have the impression that this is not due to his own self but because he forged himself into the golden chain of our initial primary writers.

From this error, which touches upon many names and works, we must free ourselves.

*    *    *    *    *

“In my opinion, it turns out,” wrote Sholem Aleichem to Dinezon after their reconciliation in 1901, “that you are too honest a man; you should have been born either fifty years earlier or a hundred years later (if we believe that we’re going forward ethically). . . .Why are you such a pauper?” In a subsequent letter in 1902, Sholem Aleichem complained: “You are after all something of a pioneer for us, your name is Dinezon, and no two Dinezons does our poor young folk literature have.”[2]

This is when Sholem Aleichem wanted to know when it was possible to celebrate Dinezon’s birthday and Dinezon didn’t want to tell him his secret.

In 1913, when Sholem Aleichem was very sick, Dinezon wrote to him with warm and loving feelings: “Remember, try as quickly as possible to recover fully.” And Dinezon again revealed his “weakness” regarding initiatives: “A plan is about to be born in me. We, that is: you, Peretz, and I, should travel to Israel, look around, and tell about everything that we see there with our own eyes and feel with our hearts, treading on the ground from which we stem, in which are hidden all our spiritual roots, and to which our prayers and hopes are directed. . . . So better be healthy, if only for my and Peretz’s sake.”[3]

This warm bond is not a pure accident. There was, in this affection, quite a mutual seed and source that kept them together. This particular bond is called Yiddish literature—our soul, our destiny.

*    *    *    *    *

It is, therefore, inordinately important and pertinent what S. Niger encapsulated on Dinezon’s tenth memorial day: “Jacob Dinezon awaits a skilled writer to describe his innermost portrait. He awaits someone who must not imagine that he can dispatch him with a few bold strokes, or fulfill his duty with a gross line. Dinezon was not at all plain and simple as many believe. He merely appeared that way. Only on the surface was he ‘an old child,’ as some say with sympathy, or an ‘immature person,’ as others mock. He was much more than that, though he was also that. Remember: he was a student of Isaac Meier Dik and a friend of Isaac Leibush Peretz—is not this contradiction enough to show that he was not such a straightforward person? Dik and Peretz—these are two different worlds. Dik is the Old World; Peretz the Modern Jewish World. Dik is the folk person, the primitive; Peretz, the intelligentsia, the complexity. How was it possible that the same Jacob Dinezon, who in his writing embodied the Musar elements of the once extant Haskalah movement, should, with all his other activities, help to elevate the father of modern Yiddish literature? Dinezon was not such an ordinary character as many believe. He was also not such a pauper or Bontshe the Silent as one might have imagined. He was, on the contrary, very ambitious. Here you have a characteristic fact: when the behavior of his readership or the behavior of his writer colleagues did not appeal to him, he, in his unique manner, protested. He stopped publishing his work.”[4]

Outwardly, this diminutive little Jew who became prematurely grey, was shrunken, walked quietly “as if in socks,” was often bent over by worries, and when he smiled, his smile was helpless; and only when he stood alongside Peretz did the Shekhinah rest upon him as upon a mother who is happily gazing upon her wunderkind. Inwardly, there was a healthy folk person of strong character who maintained the healthy inner principles of a refined maskil modernized by the nationalist ideals of the early 20th century. He was the ideal folk writer who provided the example of the ideal person. He avoided commercialization. He did not want to put himself in the public eye. Yet he was always prepared to do what was useful for the community in the framework of his writerly interests.

Dinezon, however, like Peretz, did not have a social circle around him. “Always at the center of the self-created Yiddish literature, practically of the entire new Yiddish culture, Peretz was terribly lonely. Peretz didn’t have a social circle, didn’t sense a foundation under his feet; everything was in chaos, not developed, not organized, ready to be disturbed or to vanish completely.”[5]

So what is so surprising about Dinezon being shoved into a corner?

One must remember the great injustice that our literary critics committed and continue to commit regarding the pioneers of the great Yiddish novel, Spector and Dinezon. Dinezon’s novels are full of refined, pitiable people: orphans and lonesome ones who evoke compassion and tears. Even his villains can barely stand on their own two feet. Who remembers them, these two great writers? Their memorial days are not observed and no one has written a monograph about them. Always these three: Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz. These three giants deserve all the monuments in our literature. But Spector and Dinezon certainly deserve not to have so disappeared. [6]

Dinezon had ambition. In several areas he achieved much more than other great and greater writers of his day. When he spoke about creativity in Yiddish, he did not limit himself, as others did, to writers of his setting, but even referred to Eliahu Bakhur and his Baba Bukh. As incorrect as he was in 1888, it is acknowledged, “that Dinezon’s critique of Mendele is one of the most interesting because it reveals his own thinking and the times in our literature.”[7] He already saw Peretz’s grandness in the dawn and defended it against Sholem Aleichem’s kibitzing and David Frishman’s mockery.[8]

When they wanted to publish Peretz’s collected works for his first celebration, Peretz didn’t have them, “but Dinezon tirelessly gathered them, searched for over a year in forgotten Yiddish anthologies, leafed through journals and newspapers with blackened letters, and assembled them line by line, page by page.”[9] Only a person with a broad outlook could have, at the start of the 20th century, so widely encompassed values and works. Only with his consciousness, with his ambition and faith, was it possible to be so stubbornly on his own.

“Jacob Dinezon is the optimist in our Yiddish literature. He is practically the sole one who loves the people that he describes in his novels. And he is certain that goodness will always triumph.”[10] This is how Dinezon appeared in his novels and stories; this is how he appeared in his thousands upon thousands of letters. “In Jacob Dinezon’s creations that crossover the paths that lead from A. M. Dik and Shomer, they shorten the further distance to Mendele and Sholem Aleichem.”[11] This path is not shadowed. It is also here today. A number of readers today are seeking the writers on this path, a healthy number, and writers of integrity. And if not any “modern ones”—do we not need them? Must we lose them?

*    *    *    *    *

Upon consideration, even the most modernist can arrive at this conclusion: “This frail Dinezon, the softhearted one with a feminine soul—earned the true, the ‘most consistent’ folk credit. He was the true writer of the people. It was not society that read him, but really the folk. Pious mothers, dreamy daughters, bearded fathers—entire families read him. Mitzkevitch longed for this; Dinezon achieved it.

“Two authentic folk writers were ours: Dinezon and Sholem Aleichem. It doesn’t occur to anyone to put these two writers on the same level. Yet it is so: in their main artistic accomplishments they are paradoxically alike. Dinezon is the lachrymose one and Sholem Aleichem is the clown. Both are effective by way of the same theatrical means, both crease the face of the folk and force it to play along. The former to weeping; the latter to laughing.

“Do not dismiss the sentimentality of the art. Authentic sentimentality is as justified as authentic humor. Both methods are primitive effects. You will cry as naturally reading Dinezon as you will naturally burst into laughter with Sholem Aleichem. The folk hate to remain neutral. Could there be a way, a possibility of lobbing the seed of individual higher truth and the seed of art from intuitive sworn writers over the heads of the snobs in limited reading circles directly to the folk?”[12]

This is not just a mindless question. Winning over the reader is not a small thing. “Some writers . . . turn back to the tendencies and methods of Isaac Meier Dik and Jacob Dinezon. Therefore, may they and their readers once again find use and appeal in the naive novel?”[13]

*    *    *    *    *

And certainly Dinezon brings a usefulness and appeal to those writers who seek material in literature for social stimulation. The Dark Young Man is a typical representation of Mendele’s “Knupye” characters. The general reader of the 1870s had the complete right to see in Dinezon’s novels a further development of the program from which Mendele’s “direction came into the literature. It is therefore no wonder that it was this reader who bestowed upon Dinezon the same sympathy which he, the general reader, demonstrated more than once in relationship to Mendele’s works.”[14]

Therefore, a revolutionary critic, in breaking with the past, expressed, “The Jewish sentimental literature is, like every sentimental literature, a truly readable, needed evolution of form. . . . The Dinezon opus is saturated with belletristic culture. . . . Dinezon’s homey words in the manner of Tsene Rene, faithfully mirrored the elementary familial and customary desires of those meaningful reading circles that gave him, seemingly, ready sentimental material.”[15] The conclusion: “The Enlightenment conflict which was for such writers like Mendele and Linetski of implacable consequence, was for Dinezon: compromise.”[16]

The compromise was not due to weakness, as many think, but actually because of human determination and thought.

*    *    *    *    *

“In the midst of the trivial tumult of life, in the midst of the noisy small literary world that was more full of shouting, more disquieting and ill-mannered than all the rest, he remained tranquil, pure, and genteel. A white dove among the black crows and puffed-up false peacocks.”[17] This is the characterization of a person who knew Jacob Dinezon for a long time as a daily co-worker and who was not quick to praise. Therefore, it is only natural that an exalted, sentimental person who liked to bestow compliments, in recollecting Dinezon’s affectionate correspondence, would say: “Of everything that’s good . . . hopes . . . words of comfort . . . clever speech . . . full of good-humored ideas, full of sincere humor . . . Received from Dinezon over a short period of time thirty postcards . . . Some of them I knew by heart . . . He wrote with zeal.”[18]

Tens of thousands of letters—doves—sent by Dinezon all over the world. Many of them infused writers and cultural activists with a fresh soul.

“A Jew who knows Hebrew and writes jargon,” Dinezon said in 1907 in one of his letters to Philip Krantz, “was sometimes considered worse than a Jew who converted to Christianity,” and therefore, “there is one law, one principle in our time: only to be strong.”[19]

If it is true what Philip Krantz relates in his series of articles about The Dark Young Man that “according to Dinezon’s words, this novel sold two hundred thousand copies over several years,”[20] one would’ve had to be the greatest hero after such a fantastic popularity to decide not to publish any further, and to keep one’s promise for thirteen years!

*    *    *    *    *

Jacob Dinezon was far from being an overly agreeable sort if in 1907 he wrote, referring to the placid “Hershele’s Songs”: “The habit of Yiddish writers is—why should we deny it—much din and racket. . . . So that it appears to thunder; and the public, the simpletons, should immediately say a blessing: He is the Creator or His might and power fill the world.”[21]

He had the courage to write Samson Solomon and His Horses, although writing such a story at that time in Tsarist Russia endangered one’s life.[22]

And he—who so sought the friendship of all Yiddish writers—did not feel disturbed by writing about Reb Leybele the wine dealer, which is a fable and parable about those types of popular writers in which the writers are compared to dealers who have barely one type of poor wine, but for the public, it seems, they possess all sorts of wines from around the world. There is nothing that they don’t have: Bordeaux, Madeira, Carmel wine. But the truth is the truth: “There is only faith, a strong faith in oneself, in the barrel, and in the other person’s ignorance. Faith in oneself, faith in the inkwell, and faith in the ignorance of the reader who doesn’t know the difference between Bordeaux, Sherry, or Madeira. How can one do this, I would ask myself, without deception? One cannot doubt for a moment that the one who drinks the wine, or the one who reads the literature, is an expert in these things: what is wine and what is literature.”[23]

Jacob Dinezon trusted the reader. Therefore, the reader must prove his loyalty through appreciation and respect.

[1]  S. Niger, “Jacob Dinezon”, in Literary Pages, Warsaw, October 11, 1929, N. 284.
[2]  YIVO Pages, Vilna 1932, Vol. 3, pp. 350-352.
[3]  All the Works of Sholem Aleichem, NY 1919, “A Week With I. L. Peretz,” p. 73.
[4]  Jacob Dinezon, L. B., 1929, No. 284.
[5]  S. Ansky, Memoir, pp. 165-166.
[6]  A. Almi, Moments of a Life, B. A. 1948, pp. 178-179.
[7]  Leo Kenig, Folk and Literature, London 1947, p. 44.
[8]  Nachman Meizel, “Peretz and Sholem Aleichem,” in Philological Writings, by YIVO, Vilna 1926, Vol. 1, pp. 268-269.
[9]  Mark Shveid, Comfort My Folk, NY 1955, p. 238.
[10]  Bal-Makhshoves (The Thinker), Selected Writings, Vol. 1, p. 116.
[11]  M. Litvakov, In Restlessness, Vol. 2, Moscow 1926.
[12]  Alter Katsizne, “The Problem, Dinezon,” in Literary Pages, Warsaw 1924, No. 22.
[13]  S. Niger, “Fifty Years After Jacob Dinezon’s ‘Dark Young Man,’” in Di Tsukunft (The Future), NY 1928, No. 5.
[14]  N. Oyslender, “Mendele’s Accompanists in the 60s and 70s,” in Mendele and His Time, State publication, The Truth, Moscow 1940, p. 115.
[15]  I. Zobrushin, “Thoughtway,” Kiev 1922, Chapter in Yiddish Literature, Kiev 1928, p. 151.
[16]  Michael Natish, “Elements of Dinezon’s Personality,” Introduction to A Year’s Work in Graduate Studies at YIVO, Vilna 1937, p. 31. Mendl Elkin, Librarian of YIVO in New York informed me (9-11-1956) that among the rescued materials was Natish’s manuscript, around 500 pages, “Written on pieces and crumbs of paper.”
[17]  V. Medem, From My Notebook, Warsaw 1929, p. 129.
[18]  Abraham Reisen, Episodes from My Life, Vilna 1929, First Part, pp. 29-32.
[19]  Moses Shtarkman, “Philip Krantz’ Literary Encounters,” in Philological Writings,” Vol. 3, Vilna 1929, pp. 70-72.
[20]  Ibid., p. 68.
[21]  “World of Books,” Warsaw 1922, No. 3, From Jacob Dinezon to Isaac Katzenelson.
[22]  “This remarkable period,” it says in the introduction to the new edition of 1909, “roused all of Russia . . . and it flies off the shelf.”
[23]  “Deception,” Memories and Scenes, pp. 209-210.
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