and the Clash Over Mendele
Jacob Dinezon’s return to the novel in 1890 was not just his own impulse, but a result of the zeitgeist. The blossoming of Yiddish literature in the 1880s banished his disappointment.
It appears that he wrote A Stone in the Road years before publishing it. That’s what one needs to grasp when one compares this particular novel, printed in Vilna in 1890, with his work Hershele, which appeared in Warsaw in 1891. It is inconceivable how such meaningful progress could have occurred for a writer in just one year. Such a swift development was the result of many factors.
In the years of his shattering disappointment, Dinezon worked in Petersburg on the Yudishes Folks-Blat (Jewish Folk Journal; 1881-1889), which initially was a side publication to Ha-Melitz, edited by Alexander Tsederboim, and later directed by Yisroel Levin—a tragicomic figure in the history of the Yiddish press. In his own paper, Levin, who wanted to have as his coworkers the most important Yiddish writers, ended up as a psychopath in his war against the Yiddish language.
In this weekly, Dinezon printed in 1885, “A Letter to a Writer,” signed with the initials M. M., in which he intimately describes in a series of a dozen entries written in epistolary form how a girl from Mohilev became a victim of her old-fashioned upbringing. The girl suggests her misfortune be described in a novel. Let the whole world know! She knows that novels are read everywhere, and believes that for an event to be known far and wide, it is best to portray it in a novel. But the writer M. M. disagrees:
“You will ask why this is my opinion,” the writer begins. “I will explain it to you. Generally, the educated Jew considers it to be an embarrassment to read a novel in jargon (Yiddish), and if he does happen to read it, he considers the jargon writer to be a person without taste or skill (this is how a famous editor once expressed himself in a journal), and because no one has responded to his stupidity until now, it is, therefore, clear that all educated Jewish writers agree with him. Therefore, it’s enough for me to have written one book in jargon and let the public know that I am a writer without sense and without talent. Why should I do that a second time? When one can hope for respect, it may be worth trying. But if from the first try one hasn’t succeeded, why should I be such a fool and not be satisfied with the first disrespect that I’ve already received? . . . Yes, the mass public is always on my mind; for it I would withstand disrespect at least ten more times and try for its sake if I were convinced that I could bring it something useful, and that my words would not be uselessly discarded. Unfortunately, I’m always lacking in this area, especially lately as taste has become so corrupted by bad and unacclaimed writers.”
For a large measure of this insolence, Dinezon blames, “Our learned Hebrew writers, who want to know nothing about the majority of their millions of brothers and sisters who can’t read Hebrew works. . . . They don’t remember that the entire public speaks only jargon and also has the right and desire to enjoy a righteous pleasure on Sabbaths and holidays.”
His second complaint to the Hebrew writers: Why don’t they speak out against all the lowbrow fare that is out to capture the reading public? Accordingly, he describes how he, too, dealt with doubt. “I was truly the first writer,” Dinezon confesses, “with a jargonist work that has close to 29 printings, but the indifference that our authorities showed me then impeded my energy, broke my spirit, and stifled the impetus to come out with a new work.”
The times awakened Dinezon’s slumbering “impetus.” The times called writers to create, workers to battle, people with societal pressures to organize themselves, those interested in culture to form a new circle, and new conditions for Jewish life—social, political, and national.
Closely associated with the notion of a renaissance in Yiddish literature was the friendship between Dinezon and Sholem Aleichem.
In 1887, Dinezon thought to issue a periodical. (It was never published.) He was in Warsaw at the time (where he had been visiting his sister since 1885). By way of a letter, he approached Sholem Aleichem in Kiev about working together on the project. It is this letter that begins a rich and abundant correspondence where one finds many valuable details about the history of Yiddish literature and the press, as well as the characteristics of various writers. Unfortunately, Dinezon’s letters have not been published to this day. But we discover a lot about Dinezon from Sholem Aleichem’s letters. Firstly, about the friendship that bound them in spite of their clashes. The number of letters that were collected in YIVO’s Archive, Number 142, speak clearly (and it turns out their correspondence was much greater).
The first letter, in October 1887, begins with “Mr. Kanig” (in Russian “Milostivi Nosudar”), and Sholem Aleichem asks Dinezon: “Write me soon.” In January 1888, his salutation is “Dear Mr. Dinezon,” and he himself writes several pages because, “with your letter you moved me so much that I have to reply immediately.” In August 1888, he begins a letter with “Dear and Best Friend.” And exactly a year later, in October 1889, Sholem Aleichem is already referring to him as “Dear Brother.” And here and there begin to show up: “darling” and “most loyal,” “devoted one,” and “dearest that I love.”
It’s curious that Sholem Aleichem, who had a reputation for exactness, called his friend by lofty names in the early years: “Dinezohn” or “Dineszohn.” This can perhaps be explained by what Sholem Aleichem permitted himself to write in his letter of December 1887 from Kiev—ten years after Dinezon captivated the public with his The Beloved and Pleasing, or the Dark Young Man—permitted himself to write: “You know that I have not yet read anything of yours? Send me what you have. Hebrew you write well. If you’re writing jargon somewhere, I love you, then you’re my brother!” Can one imagine that Sholem Aleichem had not heard of the Dark Young Man? Or should this serve as an indication that the author of the Dark Young Man didn’t interest Sholem Aleichem, but Dinezon, in the intimate way he appeared to him in his letters, was for him the “beloved brother”?
In his letters to Sholem Aleichem, Dinezon immediately began to reveal his qualities, which later made his reputation throughout the Yiddish-writing world: his forthrightness, his warmth, his readiness to serve, and his love for the Yiddish language.
Dinezon formulated his principal attitude to Yiddish in his coming out against the historian Gretz. This took place during the early months of his correspondence with Sholem Aleichem. During this same period, Sholem Aleichem convinced Dinezon to travel to Petersburg to meet Yisroel Levi, who invited him to come to work on Yudishes Folks-Blat (Jewish Folk Paper). Levi already then suffered from his illness of attacking Yiddish (although he drew the greatest writers to work on his weekly paper). But Sholem Aleichem believed that Dinezon could salvage this position for Yiddish literature where expression was being given to the then most important “jargonists.”
On this question Sholem Aleichem went as far as begging: “I am, in truth,” he wrote to Dinezon at the end of 1887, “crazy for the jargon, but heed this madman who is in this case sincere, openhearted, and devoted to jargon practically unto martyrdom. God willing, you will go, go, go!”
Dinezon didn’t go. He couldn’t.
But it happened that he came to Kiev, and from this meeting his friendship with Sholem Aleichem took root, especially thanks to the story involving Solomon Skomorovski who printed in Ha-Melitz in 1887, No. 278, “Exchange of Letters Between Myself and Dr. Gretz.” In it he relates that he, Skomorovski, approached the historian with the question of whether he would allow the translation into Yiddish of his work, Folk History of the Jews. Gretz responded to this that “jargon is a great embarrassment for the Jewish folk” and he declined to permit the translation of his work into Yiddish. Gretz also requested that he, Skomorovski, “guard against shaming his history.”
This “Exchange of Letters,” which was published on the cover page of Ha-Melitz as a lead article, angered both Sholem Aleichem and Dinezon. Unfortunately, we don’t know what Dinezon wrote in his letters (which do appear to be preserved, but not yet researched), but Sholem Aleichem’s correspondence to Dinezon suffices to get a clear idea of how they both addressed this issue. Sholem Aleichem lampooned what provoked Gretz’s stance against Yiddish. He refers to Skomorovski not as he was called, but as “Skomoroshka” or “Skomorovits,” and adds a pointed epithet, and then another. Skomorovski’s aligning himself with Dr. Gretz gave him the same impression as his announcing in the journal, “Give me a bride with fifty thousand pieces of gold, I’m a doctor!” (By the way, two years later, in 1889, Dr. Skomorovski published a work in Sholem Aleichem’s second volume of the Jewish Folk Library entitled, “The Crime of Gunta in Uman and the Ukraine”).
For insulting Yiddish, however, both Sholem Aleichem and Dinezon sharply criticized Gretz, especially openly in Jewish Folk-Paper (No. 2, 1888). “Thank you!” writes Sholem Aleichem to Dinezon on January 18, 1888. “Thank you? Thank you very much for your passionate defense for the wrong against jargon! Here I see for the first time your writing—and I like it and I don’t like it: I like it because it’s passionate, and I don’t like it because it’s more German than Yiddish; but I arrived at the excuse: for us in Poland, this is German, and for you in Lithuania, this is Yiddish.”
Dinezon’s approach to Yiddish in 1888 can already be divined from the title of his polemical article, “Professor Gretz and the Yiddish Jargon, or Who Needs to Be Embarrassed by Whom?” In it, Dinezon sets out to prove that Gretz not only hates Yiddish, but also the Russian Jews—he ignores the Eastern Jews exactly as he ignores their mother tongue.
In 1888, such a public stance in defense of jargon, and furthermore, against the most famous Jewish historian, was in actuality a revolutionary step, especially when done by such an unassuming man like Jacob Dinezon. Not only for Sholem Aleichem did Dinezon become the “dear brother.”
In that same year, 1887, when he established a friendship with Sholem Aleichem through correspondence, Der hoyz-fraynd (The House Friend) began to appear in Warsaw under the editorship of Mordechai Spector, and Dinezon became a worker on this important yearbook. Sholem Aleichem, who considered Dinezon to be his advisor and trusted friend, confided to him about his own plans to create a surprise with a new type of journal—one with the broad content of books of collected works—intended to appear monthly under the name Jewish Folk Library, and requested Dinezon to work on it by submitting articles, translations, or novels, and promising the finest honorarium.
The Jewish Folk Library appeared in 1888, and in its first volume the ballad “Monish” was printed in which I. L. Peretz transitioned entirely to Yiddish literature. In the same year, Sholem Aleichem surprised the public with Shomer’s Trial, and also published his novels Reb Sender Blank and His Household and Stempenyu, which presented him as the humorist of the style and manner that became classic in Yiddish literature.
Certainly Dinezon couldn’t remain on the sidelines with his storytelling talent and continue to believe that the decision he made years ago not to write novels was still correct. Yet the years in which he was cut off were a stormy and fruitful time for Yiddish literature.
Had Dinezon not cut himself off, he likely would have—among the circles of those who eventually set the tone for the new Yiddish literature—joined in the process of modernization, the leader of which was Mendele Mocher Sforim, the oldest of the classical Yiddish writers, who already, prior to the 1890s, was the ripest, most focused, and deeply rooted artist.
The years when Dinezon was disappointed in his novel writing were the most decisive in the fate of Yiddish literature. That fracture probably laid havoc to the many possibilities internal to the novelist Jacob Dinezon.
When Dinezon returned to the novel, with the publication of A Stone in the Road, he wrote to Simon Dubnow:
“The simple reader is tired of reading all these works where the old ways are made fun of. . . . You probably know that the greatest attribute that our folks-person admires in a cantor is that his singing makes him weep. What was the Kelmer Maggid famous for if not for his sermons over which his public wept bitterly? . . . I think there is no other folk for whom the ‘causer of weeping’ is considered so holy and dear than by our folk, because a Jew’s entire life is a sea of tears.”
Telling a story through tears was evidently for Dinezon not just a zealous need, but also his approach to Yiddish literature. As close as Dinezon was to the newest wordsmiths, and as deep as his own love of the Yiddish language, as a writer he was, even on the eve of 1890, far from the verbal artistry and way of thinking of Mendele Mocher Sforim who provided the highest expression.
Dinezon still belonged to those maskilim for whom the essence of literature was the moral lesson, and who often didn’t observe or expect aesthetic values or artistic feats. He did not even see the higher functions of the Yiddish language which were beginning to come forth when there was no longer any question of whether the language was a means or an end. Even though he had the courage to emphatically come out against those who insulted Yiddish—Smolensky, Gretz, his two beloveds—he concluded that it was too great a luxury to devote himself to art for art’s sake in Yiddish.
Regarding this position he speaks clearly in his autobiography: “Art for art’s sake,” he states in the process of presenting Dik’s opinions about literature, “was not known everywhere even in Europe. For us Jews, it wasn’t even heard of from afar.”
By way of example, he explains: “A story for the sake of the story itself, even when it’s a gem, can be purchased by the wealthy, who are not lacking in anything but gems. Our majority, however, is poor, lacking in a shirt on its naked back, a shoe, a dress. . . . Writing books for such as these that are pure gems that shine but at the same time do not cover their nakedness, is not only an excess, but also practically harmful!”
In the process of presenting Dik’s opinions, Dinezon might not have realized that he was closer to Dik, who was his elder by forty-eight years, than to Mendele, who was only older by twenty years.
This was the reason for Dinezon’s clash over Mendele, the founder of the new Yiddish literature. This was also one of the reasons for his years-long quarrel with Sholem Aleichem.
The clash came about over Dinezon’s handling of “The Yiddish Language and Its Writers.” This was an overview about yesterday, today, and a glance toward the future.
“Our Yiddish-German,” writes Dinezon in 1887, “has just the opposite fortune than the Hebrew language. Whereas in Hebrew one writes and intends that the books and articles be read only by Hebraists, only for writers and maskilim like the author himself, Yiddish-German is exactly the opposite; no writer imagines, whether this way or another way, that for him awaits an honor or a shaming from another writer who will critique him in his book. And in truth, the writer of the Yiddish language reads less in this language than in all others, and I myself have not until now been in this matter better than any other. For this we are simply lacking the information to accurately know which good books appeared in this language in recent years that are worth reading and critiquing.”
And in this confession he describes the disappointment he had with the distributors. “So I perceived,” he arrives at the conclusion, “that they are beneath the value of critique.”
But it was not just their little books that made things worse for him, he writes, because “they are beneath the value of critique.” His discontent also conjures up Mendele Mocher Sforim.
“Mr. Abramovitz,” Dinezon writes, “won’t have any objection to my allowing myself to openly say . . . if his goal was truly to acquaint Jews with their present troubles and sorrows, as one can conclude from reading The Old Nag, or to praise them and tell them tearfully their historical martyr story and encourage them to further poverty and suffering for their holy belief, as any discerning reader can tell from Yudl, if this was his goal, Mr. Abramovitz, pardon me, worked in vain, for the folk has not evolved enough in its education to understand and learn something from it.
“If both books, The Old Nag and Yudl, became famous, their fame does not derive from the majority, but only from his friends, the maskilim and writers of Hebrew. The folk don’t buy these books and don’t read them, and similarly when they are read out loud, one in a thousand understands what they’re about. And I don’t believe that Mr. Abramovitz was so foolish as to think that when he wrote these books that he was writing them for the masses and the masses would understand them.
“Therefore, this question remains: For whom did he write The Old Nag and Yudl in jargon? I especially observe according to my eyes and feelings that right after his first triumph with The Meat Tax, Mr. Abramovitz stopped being earnest in his writing in Yiddish-German and earnest in thinking about the language itself. In all of his latest works, his humor and satire is overmuch and too thickly wrapped in foolish and often useless and humorless satire that hides any drop of moral lesson and knowledge. And when I read his latest Yiddish-German works, for example The Travels of Benjamin III, I get the feeling that the author is playing around, making tricks, and insulting and laughing; and is dancing on a wire for his friends and fellow writers while concerning himself little with the folk that use and express themselves in the Yiddish language.
“So I don’t know how to explain his concern for jargon and show how he needs it. I don’t believe that he should be so pedantic and consider the language as a set language of which every word has its origin and source in the language itself; and he is, regarding the origins and sources, greatly convinced that everything he does not find in them is not holy and not needed and, therefore, writes a pure Yiddish. Just as a Hebraist, a pedant who writes and wants that others write only pure biblical Hebrew, or is from the start a foe of jargon and wants to undermine it by way of displaying its coarseness and corruption so it becomes an embarrassment to proper folk.”
“I permit myself,” Dinezon concludes, “to make these observations because I respect his talent and knowledge more, countless times more, than any other present-day jargon writer. Perhaps he, as a knower of souls, also recognizes the feeling that his last works aroused in the heart of one who is earnest about his Yiddish writing and desires to give the folk something beautiful and useful.”
As we see, Dinezon, who came out as the most modern of modernists in his fanatical support of Yiddish against Gretz, actually appears old-fashioned in his antagonism toward the founder of the new Yiddish literature, Mendele Mocher Sforim.
Therefore, it’s no wonder that Sholem Aleichem’s Folk Library, in a polemical article, made fun of Dinezon’s opinions, especially after they were printed in Der hoyz-fraynd (The House Friend) which had Spector as its editor. At that time, Sholem Aleichem was at odds with Spector over the Jewish Folk Paper.
In coming between our classical writers, Dinezon was confused from the onset. He had left one world, but had not yet arrived in the other.
There were moments during the clash between Dinezon and Sholem Aleichem over Mendele in 1887-1888 that are provocative from the standpoint of Yiddish literature—curious and dissonant. Dinezon defends Yiddish, but doesn’t take part in it, as important as it is, because of his justification that Yiddish must create a truly artistic literature at a high intellectual level.
Sholem Aleichem’s periodical, therefore, attacks Dinezon for his criticism of using creativity in Yiddish as a profession for the masses, in accordance with “one can best affect the masses only with the fundamental Yiddish language.”
Dinezon, who didn’t understand why such a great learned man and artist like Mendele wrote in Yiddish when he might have been better off writing in Hebrew, was speaking, however, about Old Yiddish and Old Yiddish literature, emphasizing in this manner that Yiddish language and literature has a tradition of hundreds of years. He is referring, thereby, to Eliahu Bakhur and his Baba Bukh (Book of Baba).
At the same time, along comes Mendele’s most ardent follower, Sholem Aleichem, the critic in the periodical he edits, who bitterly attacks Dinezon for his failure to acknowledge Mendele’s role in Yiddish literature, but who doesn’t know himself the old tradition of Yiddish and its literature, and, therefore, can’t understand the source of Dinezon’s assertion that Eliahu Bakhur is the author of Baba Bukh.
The dissonances are loud.
Dissonance in that period was a normal phenomenon.
There is also something ambivalent in the relationship between Sholem Aleichem and Dinezon.
Sholem Aleichem writes him a warm letter, but permits himself to say, ten years after Dinezon’s Dark Young Man was the most-read book of the day, “I have not yet read anything of yours.” From Dubnow’s memoirs we learn, however, that “Sholem Aleichem made fun of the ‘Weepy Philosopher.’ Dinezon himself told me at that time that Abramovitsh-Mendele, after reading Dinezon’s novel, called out, ‘Little one, why are you crying! Little crumb, why are you crying?’ (A gossipy way of referring to Dinezon’s small stature).” Dubnow observes: “Perhaps this witticism was coined by Sholem Aleichem in a conversation with Mendele.” And Dubnow adds, “I considered making fun of Dinezon, who wrote his works with heart, as a great transgression.”
This carries forward to 1890, when Dinezon published his A Stone in the Road, and is likely the reason why the exchange of letters ceased between Sholem Aleichem and Dinezon. This evokes the question: “Is it possible that for ten years Sholem Aleichem and Dinezon did not correspond?” Certainly that’s possible.
Sholem Aleichem’s first letter of the renewed correspondence is no more than a validation of what Dubnow related. “Between us, as it turns out,” Sholem Aleichem begins his letter in 1900, “there ran not a cat but a tomcat. I don’t begin to understand why you have distanced yourself from me and hidden all this time.” Then, after addressing an array of matters related to Peretz with whom he had sharp exchanges and was in great conflict since “Monish,” Sholem Aleichem finally deemed it necessary to express his opinion: “I especially need to tell you that I like your present writing a lot more than the earlier; there were too many tears before. To tell you the truth, I have forty or fifty of your letters which are bound together with the letters of my nearest and dearest friends; in them you thought more highly of me, a lot more!”
That was in 1900, immediately after the publication of Dinezon’s Yosele (1899), about which Sholem Aleichem writes in this same letter, “I heard that it’s a worthy thing.” Dubnow also writes about this same period: “I showed this new work to Mendele and he also admitted that there was something in it that can move the modern reader.”
Let us underscore these words: “He admitted . . .”
This was a result of Dinezon’s closeness to I. L. Peretz.
Thanks to Peretz our greatest wordsmiths saw what Dinezon could become. In Peretz’s circle, Dinezon became modernized.
What Dinezon’s seeking could not find with Sholem Aleichem and Mendele, he found without seeking with Peretz.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentinian Division of the International
Congress of Yiddish Culture
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