Among the Yiddish writers of the 19th century Jacob Dinezon was unique. He was unique in character, unique in his life, and especially unique in his writing.
He was a maskil—a proponent of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment)—and yet entirely naive, bashful, modest, sentimental, and virtuous. He demonstrated how Hasidic fanaticism led to tragedy, yet did so without rancor or displaying any bitterness toward the corrupt people he described.
When his first novels initially appeared in the 1870s and 1880s, Yiddish writers were either loudly condemning and “tearing out pieces” of the old-fashioned behaviors, or laughing uproariously at the bleakness and societal transgressions in the Jewish shtetls. It was still fashionable to be bitterly condemning, as was Ribal (Isaac Baer Levinsohn), the theorist of the Haskalah in Russia. They were not yet free of the impression that Linetski made by his insulting and sullying of Hasidism. And if Mendele Mocher Sforim’s sharp satires weren’t as shocking, it was only thanks to his writerly craft, mastery of style, and playfulness by which the learned man scorched. In general, however, there roiled the same acrimony in literature as in life.
“One need only look back at Jewish life from earlier times. One need only remember and truly imagine: Beggarsville, Povertytown, Seven-Muddies, Hypocriteville, and the total chaos of old Jewish ‘cities and shtetls.’”
It was at this time that Jacob Dinezon arrived and, instead of acrimony, he brought sentimentalism. Instead of the letter of the law, he brought leniency.
“He speaks brother-to-brother, quite often like a mother to a beloved child. The way one needed to speak to the sick ghetto-children.”
His novels described shady characters, but in juxtaposition to each dark figure, he presented a positive character. He even refrained from expressing his hatred of the people he presented as devils who brought sorrow, troubles, and tragic death to his beloved heroes.
Jacob Dinezon was a gentle, refined Jew who couldn’t tolerate any offense. Therefore, he protected himself: he avoided giving offense or being offended himself.
Dinezon was far removed from socialist theories. The idea of class warfare was foreign to him. However, one can find in his works many pages which were used by socialists, anarchists, and communists in the form of ideas and suggestions to counter social injustice in Jewish life.
Although he limited his hatred against dark characters, he drenched with affection those that he loved: characters with honorable, naive, childish natures—victims of bloated egotists and wild fanatics.
“J. Dinezon is the optimist in our Yiddish literature. For him, wickedness is merely an accident, and he is certain that goodness will always triumph over life’s unfortunate circumstances.” This is how he was considered at the beginning of the 20th century. This is also how he appears today from a distance, many years after his passing. At present one has to fathom the distance—what a span it is from his writerly beginnings!
In his day, Jacob Dinezon was utterly unique in his optimism. “Enlightened ones,” therefore, regarded him with a smile that implied, “What a naive person!” However, Jacob Dinezon was on the outside exactly as he was on the inside: a sweet person in a trying time. He didn’t feel embarrassed being a childishly modest man among circles of keen sages.
The tale of a single novel characterizes Dinezon as both writer and person.
Dinezon, born in Nay-Zhager, near Kovno, in the true Lithuania, became an orphan at age twelve, and after his father’s death, he went to live with an uncle in the Greater Russian city of Mohilev. Stemming from a pedigreed family, he was soon introduced to the world of Holy Scripture and books. In Mohilev, he studied in the synagogue’s yeshiva and, under the influence of maskilim there, devoted himself to secular studies, which included Hebrew literature, Russian, and German. These particular bodies of knowledge led him to take up teaching, in which he was fortunate. As a young man, he was accepted as a tutor in one of the richest and most important families in Mohilev, the Horowitzes, for whom he later became the administrator, bookkeeper, and business manager.
Bodaneh Horowitz, the lady of the house, had a splendid pedigree. She was a native of Vilna and came from an important and rich family of maskilim. Her sister was the wife of Romm, the famous Vilna printer of holy books.
Bodaneh Horowitz made her home an important cultural and social center for awakened youths and intelligentsia. All the heavy hearted would seek support there, and there was no shortage of heavy hearts at that time. While in this city near the Dnieper River there was no great concentration of Hasidim, and the Orthodox Jews were less fanatical than in the small towns, there were, however, constant bitter conflicts and dramatic clashes between parents and children.
Revolutionary spirits captivated the young; the respectable Haskalah beckoned and drew to it young men and women. Many parents who “caught” their children reading “little gentile books” were immediately convinced that they were heading, God forbid, directly to conversion. So the clashes were such that the escape of children in the middle of the night became a frequent occurrence, and there were worse misfortunes, even to the point of suicide.
Bodaneh Horowitz’s home became a center for this awakened youth. Gathered there were influential maskilim and idealistic men of business who comprehended the conflicts and sought ways to help with money, advice about family matters, papers to travel abroad or, if they were dealing with talented young people, opportunities for stimulation, learning, and morale boosting.
It was in this home that Jacob Dinezon became tutor to the Horowitz’s only daughter, an accomplished young girl who demonstrated great skill as a pianist. And it is with this girl that the tutor fell in love.
The tutor, however, did not reveal to anyone what he felt for his student. He kept it a holy secret and didn’t say a word to the girl. He suffered, but never disclosed anything. He was in an agony of distress, but never said a word to anyone.
Most likely, Dinezon kept to the pedagogic principle that a teacher cannot take advantage of his student’s trust and sense of authority. And exactly for that reason, because of his privileged position, he was obligated to keep a distance—especially since he was a trusted employee of the entire family. As the tutor, he was privy to consultations regarding the most intimate family matters. He was also called upon when decisions had to be made about sending their only daughter to Vienna to study with a great professor of piano. He had to give his opinion, yet he didn’t say one word about what was weighing on his heart. This is how he bid her farewell, although afterwards he did seek to unburden his heart by traveling to Vienna.
Dinezon also wanted to travel to Breslov to enter the seminary for rabbis. For maskilim in those days, such travels for the purpose of studying were very common. The Horowitzes, however, did not permit it. He was such a trusted manager, they needed him for their own affairs. And he didn’t have the strength to hurt them. So he stayed until their only daughter, after three years of study in Vienna and Paris, returned to Mohilev. And when she returned, they began to arrange a match for her with a young cousin who was one of Romm’s sons. And who should they send to iron out all the details of the match if not their tutor who was such a trusted man?
The aggrieved tutor remained silent at this juncture as well. Trust is trust. A mission is a mission. They, after all, trusted him implicitly! Since there was no indication of his love or his sorrow, should he affront them with his affection and demand his right to love?
The tutor remained silent until the end. He journeyed and carried out the mission that had been set before him. He came to an agreement as to when his beloved would marry another. Upon his return to Mohilev he spent several weeks in bed.
This is the kind of teacher Jacob Dinezon was.
Did Jacob Dinezon think well of “whispered prayer”?
Certainly he must have had his unfortunate love affair in mind when, many years later, in 1911, he wrote in a letter from Warsaw to the critic S. Niger in Switzerland: “‘Whispered prayer’ is how the shmone esrey prayers are referred to, because one is not permitted to say them out loud. And do you know why? Because in shmone esrey there is also
confession: ‘Forgive us our Father because we have sinned, pardon us because we have transgressed!’ Sins cannot be confessed out loud; before others we must not expose our sins. Don’t you know that speaking or writing about everything that one did or even just dreamt about in one’s youth is, for a person who doesn’t want to fool himself, a type of confession of the sins of youth?”
Only gentle souls can think like this. It’s rare that people are tender to such a degree. This is the kind of gentle person that Jacob Dinezon was, and this is the kind of stirring humanity that he contributed to Yiddish literature and the literary canon of Jewish writers.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentinian Division of the International
Congress of Yiddish Culture
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