Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Thirteen

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral
Chapter Thirteen
The Co-Founder of Children’s Homes—
For His Heroes
Dinezon: the mother of the Jewish folk school. — The curator of the first children’s homes in Warsaw. — “A Surprise.” — Treasurer of compassion and love for the Jewish child. — Nomberg, Patt, Mendelson, and Kasden about Dinezon’s school endeavors. — The storyteller who ceded the greatest position for orphans. — From his own experience in the cheder. — The child was entirely orphaned. — The letter to the Jewish National Worker’s Union in 1913. — Dinezon, the pioneer of Yiddishist schools, the foundation of “ZISHO.” — The scandal of the $20,000 that Farbstein hid from Dinezon. — “My children’s homes and schools.” — Why Dinezon did not allow the first children’s home to be named after Peretz. — An expert about teachers and a child among children.

Jacob Dinezon, just as he played the role of the mother in Yiddish literature, also played the role of the mother in the Jewish folk schools.

This quiet, unassuming, outwardly passive person, who was the initiator of a great number of important works that hold a place in the history of Yiddish literature, especially with regards to I. L. Peretz, was also a pioneer with the courage to stand up for the first Jewish children’s homes in Poland. From these arose the network of Jewish secular schools organized after the First World War under the name “ZISHO.”

There were those who didn’t believe their eyes when they saw Dinezon at his new work begun in partnership with Peretz, but with which he resolutely stayed and directed in the last years of his life. “If someone had prophesied before the War,” one of his close associates conceded, “that there would come a time when the quiet-loving and quietly-loving Jacob Dinezon would become a public person, a curator of a network of schools, a fighter for a matter of the people—he would have been laughed at. Dinezon himself would have smiled. And then the War came and Dinezon became a father of around a thousand little children, a representative of a certain system, a fighter for the Jewish folk school.

“Unexpected, he took on the role. In the difficult, bitter days when the flood of homeless reached Warsaw and the first Jewish children’s home and folk school was established, Peretz took him by the hand and said: ‘Dinezon, be a curator!’ And Dinezon must have sensed this as more than a ‘whim’ of the great Yiddish writer. And the Dinezon-schools became an embodiment of an idea. And Jacob Dinezon, in his old age, became a partisan, and the first of the partisans. In the history of the battle for the Jewish folk school, Dinezon’s name will figure among the first and most active. In his new role, Jacob Dinezon was for himself and for us all, truly a surprise.”[1]

For others organically involved with the Jewish schools in Poland, it was, however, not such a “surprise” that Dinezon was among the first builders of the new school system necessitated by the bitter deprivations of the War. On the contrary, “it is interesting and important that I. L. Peretz was selected as director of the first Jewish children’s home in Poland, and as treasurer, Jacob Dinezon. They both became school activists, organizers, and fund-raisers. Jacob Dinezon, the writer of Yosele—the book of the plight of the orphaned Jewish child, the book of compassion and love—was the treasurer.”[2]

And truly, through the first Jewish children’s home and folk school, Jacob Dinezon gave value to compassion and love for the orphaned Jewish child.

Who else but Jacob Dinezon portrayed with so much heart the forlorn Jewish child in his novels and stories?

*    *    *    *    *

In Yiddish literature there is no other Jewish storyteller who portrays in his novels and novellas so many orphans, stepchildren, and so many evil stepmothers and stepfathers. The Dark Young Man makes life miserable for his sister-in-law Rosa who loves the orphan Joseph. In A Stone in the Road, there are the hero-victims: orphans like Moshele and Rokhele. In Hershele, Mirele is first of all an orphan. In Yosele, the child is an orphan even before his father dies. In Two Mothers, Becka is an orphan right from birth. Alter is the drama of a Jewish boy, an orphan, who becomes a religious schoolteacher because of his father’s death. For the same reason he allows himself to be talked into a match. Only because he is an orphan does he not for one moment live his own life.

Dinezon was most likely drawn to portray the drama of orphans because he, too, was orphaned at a very young age. Although he was not really left to the streets, he was immediately taken from his home in Zhager and sent to Mohilev by the Dnieper. That is, he also did not live his life. The child in him ceased to be a child before its time.

And even before he became an orphan, the cheder made him feel that a cheder boy was like an orphan: “How can one have the heart of a Tatar? Surely of a Tatar, to beat a small child like that!” his father yelled. “But God in your heart? That, you certainly have not! You may be pious, but for such piousness I don’t give even a sniff of tobacco! Whoever heard of such a thing, giving a child black and blue marks over his entire little body, and then having the gall to come to the child’s father to ask him to let the child continue going to his cheder so the hangman can have someone to keep beating!”[3]

Jacob Dinezon saw the frightening backwardness of the cheder, especially along his path as a teacher, instructor, and educator. In the badly organized societal life, the child in the cheder was, he observed, accustomed to being neglected like the orphan at home and on the streets.

Dinezon’s involvement with the early Jewish children’s homes, and later with the first Jewish folk schools, really should not be a “surprise” but a consequence. Rather, it would have been more of “a surprise” had Dinezon not offered assistance and taken the opportunity to help develop Jewish folk schools where the mistakes of the cheder and of the unjust Jewish society could be remedied.

As early as 1913, Jacob Dinezon wrote a dedication to the “Jewish National Workers Union” in New York on the publication of a number of books especially for children by I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Ansky, Sholem Asch, etc.: “You, children, dear, beautiful Jewish children, you are our future. Be Jews and be proud of your Jewishness! Learn Yiddish and Jewishness, and you will be convinced that you can be proud of yourselves.”[4]

*    *    *    *    *

It was destined that right at the time of the greatest neglect, the new Jewish folk school should arise. This was at the start of the First World War. “Children’s Education” in the three-class folk school, the first school with Yiddish as the pedagogical language in the territory of Poland, flickered out; of seven teachers only one remained.[5] At that time, Warsaw was deluged with homeless children, a portion of them of homeless parents, and other orphans that had lost their parents in the wanderings during the evacuations. That was when the advocates of Jewish education in Yiddish opened, on March 23rd, 1915, the first Jewish children’s home (kindergarten), which became the foundation of the Jewish secular school system in Poland. It became clear over time that “at the cradle of the Jewish secular school there stood on one side the working class, and on the other side, I. L. Peretz and Jacob Dinezon. This coming together was not accidental. On one hand, the school was replete with seething chutzpah and an organic connection to socialist and nationalist existence. On the other hand, a noble belief in the life-skills, life-givingness, and ‘celebratoriness’ of modern Jewish culture.”[6]

These are the exact two words: “life-givingness” and “life-skills.” Dinezon, precisely like Peretz, believed in this. And while this looked to skeptics like “a surprise,” Dinezon not only proved himself with his belief and a holy faith in the life-givingness and life-skills of the Jewish school, but also with the courage to involve himself and do battle. The quiet Dinezon resembled a first-class partisan. “And truly, during the years 1915-1919, Dinezon became the central figure in the efforts for the schools in Warsaw and later also in Poland.”[7]

*    *    *    *    *

The first children’s home was established by dozens of people. In barely a month after the opening, a terrible tragedy struck: Peretz died from a heart attack while he was writing a poem for the children. So the entire effort fell to Dinezon.

“The end of 1915. In Warsaw, three children’s homes are already functioning in the Yiddish language. Dinezon is their curator. He tries to obtain the needed means. Himself beloved and welcome in rich Jewish homes, Dinezon pulls these elements into the aid work. But the privation in the city is staggering. Dinezon is truly desperate.” So he writes movingly to Sholem Asch for his help in influencing the American organizations to not allow the children’s homes to go under. “This is how it fell to the quiet and unassuming Dinezon to become the advocate and the community spokesman for the new school movement. The schools became Yiddish, Yiddishist; the Jewish citizenry couldn’t stand them, and Dinezon wound up putting himself in the center of this Jewish battle.”

His battle became especially enflamed when the Jewish People’s Relief Conference in New York, following Sholem Asch’s intervention, immediately agreed to send to Warsaw $20,000 specifically “slated for the Dinezon-schools.” But since the leader of the “Relief Union” in Warsaw, Farbstein, to whom the monies arrived, was an opponent of the folk schools, he hid the document and “neither Dinezon, nor any of his children’s homes were even told about the entire matter.”

At that same time, Dinezon would run to just this leader “to ask, if not beg, for help for the children’s homes,” but “Farbstein told Dinezon not a word about his children’s homes having received monies from America.” When the story became known, H. D. Nomberg published a fiery protest article (in The Warsaw Daily of February 25, 1916). In New York, labor activists of the “People’s Relief” raised the alarm; and since the “Joint” (the Joint Distribution Committee) didn’t want to fix the injustice and defend the folk schools, the labor leaders made the first move and disbursed $10,000 that they sent to Warsaw, not to the earlier committee, but to three names that comprised the continuing school committee: Jacob Dinezon (in the name of the Yiddish writers), Vladimir Medem (“Bund”) and Israel Reichman (“Labor Zionists”). The first meeting of the committee took place on February 7, 1917 and “Dinezon was voted president and treasurer.” The committee would also generally be called the “Dinezon Committee,” just as the schools became known as the “Dinezon Schools.” And so it remained until July 1921 when the “Central Yiddish School Organization” (ZISHO) was founded.

This was not merely an honor that was given, but a result of his unparalleled devotion. In those years, when he no longer had Peretz nearby, he even quietly stopped writing. “I am in these recent years,” he replied to a request to assist in an anthology to memorialize Kadosh A. Vayter, “so far removed from my writing desk that I simply have no time or energy to sit back down at it. My children’s homes and schools, and all sorts of other business matters thrust and fallen upon me, take up not only my time, but also my heart and mind, and writing, which I want and still have much to write, I put off for later; later, just as if I am truly certain that I will continue to live and live at least a full one hundred and twenty years.”[8]

He couldn’t do otherwise: if yes, to devote himself, then he needed to do it with his entire being. He hated the societal “polygamy” of which many are very fond, flying and buzzing around like flies in summer.

*    *    *    *    *

It is interesting that Dinezon, just after his friend’s death, was opposed to calling the first children’s home by Peretz’s name.  “As long as its existence is not assured,” he argued, “let us leave Peretz in peace. We may not bang on the donation box with Peretz.”[9] From such “banging on the donation box,” the entire matter would have become clouded. The problem of the folk school would have become an irritation for some people. For others, Peretz would have needed to be more important on his own merit. As dear as the children’s homes were to Dinezon, he had no less affection for the idea of perpetuating Peretz’s literary legacy by way of a museum that he planned, and he truly wanted to provide for Peretz’s widow so that she would not become a burden to anyone and thus, God forbid, diminish the importance of the great writer himself.

Dinezon, the man of compassion, joined his compassion to ideas. “It would be a mistake to think that Dinezon had in mind only the philanthropic side of the children’s institutions. In the concern for the child’s body, he also remembered about the child’s soul and about Peretz’s spirit.” When Peretz was alive, Dinezon left the programmatic side of things to him. But when his dear friend was no longer, he undertook this work as well.

“Dinezon,” writes a prominent school leader and pedagogue, “was knowledgeable about the teachers as well as the textbooks. If a teacher spoke a bad, unnatural Yiddish, not a colloquial Yiddish, Dinezon would greatly insist on this: ‘I care not for her pedagogy—let her better speak as her mother spoke. And what’s more, the current workbooks are no good. Many of us don’t understand that spiritually one mustn’t feed the children with garbage! Even a horse needs to be given clean water!’ He often played with the children, entering their circle, taking them by the hand, and dancing with them. He remembered the child that was sad the day before, and if today the child was lively again, it was for him truly a celebration.”[10]

Jacob Dinezon transferred the sentimentalism and idealism of his novels to the Jewish children’s homes where the pioneering experiments were conducted for the modern Jewish folk school, lit through with Peretz’s spirit.

[1]  H. D. Nomberg, People and Work, Warsaw 1930, pp. 69-71; Jewish Education, World Center for the Jewish School at the International Congress of Jewish Culture, No. 3, NY 1950.
[2]  Jacob Patt, “I. L. Peretz and the Jewish School,” in Pages for [Translator’s note: remainder of reference is missing in the original].
[3]  J. D., “Reminiscences,” in the Vilna Yearbook, The Notebook, 1912, Column 159.
[4]  Jewish National Workers Union Anthology, 1910-46, NY, p. 370.
[5]  C. S. Kasden, The Story of the Jewish School System in Independent Poland, Mexico, 1947, p. 21.
[6]  Shlomo Mendelson, His Life and Works, NY 1949, “The Jewish School System in Poland”, p. 235.
[7]  C. S. Kasden, “From Cheder and ‘Non-Jewish School’ to ZISHO (The Russian Jewry in the Struggle for School, Language, Culture),” Mexico, 1956, Culture and Help, p. 414
[8]  “Life,” No. 1, Vilna 1920, From Dinezon’s Last Letters (written to Mendl Elkin).
[9]  C. S. Kasden, “From Cheder and ‘Non-Jewish Schools’ to ZISHO,” p. 411.
[10]  Ibid., pp. 416-417.
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