Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Ten

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral
Chapter Ten
Childhood Love in Two Mothers
and the Curse of Money in Alter
Life is beautiful, but the rules are no good. — Melodramas over traditions and order. — Where money decides. — Between being and being allowed. — Childhood joy that gets disturbed. — The tearful Dinezon begins to smile. — Meitshik and Becka who are not allowed to be as they are: in love. — Alter, the very young religious teacher who holds his switch like an orchestra conductor’s baton. — Money also destroys the Jewish world. — When it comes to marrying in order to keep a cheder. — The protest against interfering with love. — “Should a heart be broken, there is no cure!” — Conflicts between eras.

Two Mothers and Alter (first published in 1903 in the Petersburg Friend) are novels in which Dinezon is closer to his other works of that decade than to his previous sweet compassion for his hero-victims. These novels are less drawn out than A Stone in the Road, although the overdone sentimentalism doesn’t allow the characters to be seen, just as one can’t see well with tears in one’s eyes.

In Two Mothers, two children are depicted who are raised so tenderly under one roof that they feel like brother and sister, although they have different parents. Everyone sees them as soul mates. In Alter, the same thing occurs, but in an opposite way: the boy and the girl for whom a match is being arranged feel from their very first meeting as children and neighbors that they are in love.

In both novels, however, the couples are separated. The separations are different, at different ages, and, of course, with different effects, but the context is the same: life separates those who should be united, because by being together they would bring joy to themselves and others.

In Two Mothers, Meitshik and Becka are distanced while still in childhood when the separation can merely leave them with a deep, gnawing yearning, perhaps for their entire lives; but no more than sweet memories and deep yearning. In the other novel, in contrast, the separation between Alter and Khanele leads to a tremendous melodrama. Both lives are broken. Neither will find any happiness during their entire lives because they are prevented from building their happiness together.

But while in Two Mothers, Dinezon describes only dear characters who are not responsible for the sufferings of others because they can’t prevent what happens, in Alter we see a Dinezon who demonstrates that the source of everything evil is—more than bad character—the social order in which money changes people in an instant.

*    *    *    *    *

In Two Mothers, a misfortune has simply occurred: two mothers go into labor at the same time, but one of them, Minele, doesn’t survive. Her child, Rivkele, whose name becomes “Becka,” is taken in by Sarale, who has given birth to a boy, Meier, whose name becomes “Meitshik.” Sarale intends to raise both children as her own, but the upright ladies of the town get involved and prevent it.

 “Feh, Sarale,” says the rabbi’s wife admonishing her, “I wouldn’t have expected it of you! How can it be that she doesn’t know who her mother was? Before, you see, this was only a transgression. Her mother, may she rest in peace, was busy enough for her own sake during her heavenly tribunal. When did she have the time to give thought to her little orphaned daughter here in this foolish world? But now she is already purified and is certainly sitting there with our ancestral mothers in Paradise; and now she’s thinking and remembering her child, and she’s probably very embarrassed that her child calls you ‘Mama.’”[1]

As we see, the child is not allowed to exist as a child. No one cares that the child’s soul will be prematurely disturbed and unable to find its balance, or repose, or joy, which for the child is like sun, air, and play.

And of course, the child’s life is upset even more when her widowed father remarries, brings home a stepmother, and then naturally comes to retrieve his “Beckale.” Can one blame him? No. The child, whether harm is intended or not, suddenly loses her little world and her peace of mind because she is a tender soul who Dinezon describes as being sensitive and unable to bear the least untruth. Just like Meitshik, Becka is plunged into sorrow when, because of “societal mores,” the two are separated.

“They departed,” Dinezon writes “after several difficult days, and Becka already knew that there are two sorts of mothers on earth: a mother that carries and births her child, that nurses, raises, and loves her child like something precious, and never stops being a mother as long as she lives, and remains a mother to her child even after her death, as long as the child lives.”

And there’s another type of mother, her grandmother explains: “When the first one, the true and devoted mother dies and the father remarries, that is, he acquires a girl or young wife who’s a stranger, and he calls his child over and says: ‘You should call her mother!’ . . . Such a mother, my child—you and all good children shouldn’t know from her—is no sort of mother and sometimes she’s a lot worse than a stranger . . . A blood enemy is sometimes what such a mother is to the child, and hardly knows herself why the child doesn’t deserve to eat, be healthy, and live in the world . . . Such a mother is called ‘stepmother’ or ‘stingmother.’”[2]

Becka is actually the type of child that adapts better than most to this type of situation. But, as Dinezon further describes, “gradually the idea dies in her that she is a child that belongs in this household.”

Yet, here Dinezon is not the writer who inundates the reader with sorrow. On the contrary, from this longing he brings forth a ray of light: the children separate, but a spark of young love is kindled between them.

“When the neighbors looked upon them, they whispered: ‘Yes, a bride and groom are growing up here. The engagement documents can be drawn up already. They won’t be able to live without one another.’ And the neighbors smiled in pleasure.”[3]

Two Mothers, which begins with a death scene, ends with smiles and the pleasure of living.

The teary-eyed Dinezon allowed himself a smile.

*    *    *    *    *

Life, which results in tragedy, brings joy to the misfortunate in Two Mothers. Life itself.

In Alter, however, Dinezon reveals how life itself is good, and how a person can be good, but due to needing a livelihood, and as a result of the fatal effects of money, people can be ruined and ruin their own lives.

Alter, a young orphaned lad, wants to assume the leadership of his father’s cheder. But as long as he has neither a wife nor a beard, the parents won’t send him their children. So he becomes a cog in the machine called Jewish life.

Although he doesn’t want to be a religious schoolteacher, Alter becomes one because of his father, Reb Oyzer the teacher, who has been ill for a long time and entrusts his son to take care of the cheder. “And the children loved him,” Dinezon tells us, using a lovely literary analogy and introducing a new pedagogic principle: “because Alter made use of the rod not for hitting, but as a conductor of an orchestra would use his baton.”[4]

Alter becomes a candidate for getting married, not because he wants a wife, but because without a wife he can’t get any students to attend his cheder. A teacher needs a beard and a wife.

In spite of this, Alter would prefer to remain a bachelor if not for the matchmaker, Reb Fishl, who needs to make a living. Landing a match is as much of a business venture for him as selling a cat or a turkey. On the other hand, there are those who keep an eye on Alter—his father’s trusted neighbors, Reizl and Samuel. They look after his wellbeing and search for a solution. And a solution for them means Alter getting married and being done with it! Who cares about love? For respectable Jews the main thing is to have a dwelling, raise the children in the ways of the Torah, and bring them to the holy wedding canopy. Isn’t that enough?

Yet there is such a thing as money, which also destroys the Jewish world.

The very same Feivl, who at first was very happy to consider a match between his accomplished and beautiful daughter, Khanele, and Alter, does a swift about-face after making a good business deal from which he amasses a thick purse. And after a few more good business deals and establishing an office, he’s not even ashamed to ignore Alter when he sees him on the street. When he can’t avoid coming face-to-face with him, Feivl rummages around in his purse in a manner that demonstrates to the young man that for him even bills of a hundred rubles are insignificant.

For the sake of money, the scholar Reb Fishl is prepared to manipulate the match in every way possible. He remains silent about Alter’s military conscription in the hopes of getting paid. But as Alter doesn’t want to yield to this, or can’t give him as much as he’s asking, Reb Fishl underhandedly ruins the match with the beautiful Khanele and instead palms Alter off on Zlatke’s spinster daughter, a woman twice his age whom Alter can’t bear to look at.

And good Reizl, even though she prefers Khanele, is upset with Alter when he can’t forget her, even though he’s engaged to someone else. Reizl wants to know why this is.

“And what if I just can’t forget her?” asks Alter, his whole heart for once completely open to Reizl.

“You’re a Jew, Alter?” asks Reizl.

“What else am I?”

says Alter.

“You’re a Jew,” explains Reizl, “so you must know even if you don’t know! What do I do if I can’t fast? Do I not fast in misery anyway on the Ninth of Av and on Yom Kippur?”

“But Reizl,” replies Alter fervently as heated sparks from his eyes pierce the pall of his face, “I will fast a hundred times, but I will never forget Khanele!”

“Have you lost your senses?” yells Reizl. “I wish this upon my enemies’ heads, on their hands and feet!”[5]

Yet Alter gets married and Khanele gets married—neither with their heart’s desire. The only difference is that Khanele makes peace with the tradition and becomes a good mother, even though she can’t forget her love; while Alter, the religious schoolteacher, pious as he is, expresses his protest by letting his wife be lonely, though it is essentially not her fault. Why is it her fault that Alter falls off the roof and breaks his leg while gazing at Khanele going by on the street? She is simply a victim through no fault of her own.

There are some people, however, who are, indeed, at fault in this misfortune. Alter knows and says, “Coarse folk, those who aren’t smart! A leg, they think, can be broken and hurt. That a heart can be broken and hurt even more, they don’t understand at all . . . Stupid people! If a leg breaks, you can bind it and make it whole again. When a heart breaks, there’s no doctor and no cure!”[6]

The story of Alter, Dinezon’s religious schoolteacher, is a Jewish version of the woes of Goethe’s Werther, where aside from love’s sorrows, the conflict is between generations and eras.

[1]  Two Mothers, p. 12.
[2]  Ibid., pp. 101-104
[3]  Ibid., p. 114.
[4]  Alter, p. 7.
[5]  Ibid., pp. 130-131.
[6]  Ibid., p. 202.
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