Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Three

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral
Chapter Three
A New Type of Maskil:
Instead of Insulting He Laments
The Beloved and Pleasing
For the Sins of the Fathers. — The tragic conflict between parents and children. — Dinezon’s meeting Isaac Meier Dik. — The prohibition of the censor. — A disappointing mistake about his second novel. — He finds out in Moscow about the publication of The Beloved and Pleasing and its great success. — The new elements that captivated. — Style, approach, and implementation of another Enlightenment. — A new way of pleasing the public: the evildoer is victorious and the refined folks depart this earth. — The popularity of crying.

In confronting life, Jacob Dinezon, as a maskil, observed that in the conflict between children and their parents, the parents were more to blame. In fact, the children, who were presented as unabashedly insolent, were merely victims of their fanatical, obtuse parents who refused to understand that time doesn’t stand still.

Life supplied him with this sad testimony: a true story. A rich man in the city of Mohilev forced his gifted, sensitive daughter into marriage with an uncouth boy. The daughter belonged to the circle of intelligent youth that found a home at the Horowitzes where Dinezon was the tutor and, later, bookkeeper. She was steeped in literature, wrote poems, and evoked her personal drama in poetry. From the outset, she waged war with her father, but in the end decided to marry the uncouth lad, hoping that she would be able in time to change him so that he wouldn’t embarrass her in public. Shortly after the wedding, however, there arose a great scandal: while they were out in public together, he made a terrible scene that so affected the sensitive young woman that she escaped to a horse stall and hanged herself.

This true story was used by Dinezon for his first novel, which he entitled, Bevn Oves (For the Sins of the Fathers). This was in 1874. Dinezon at that time happened to travel to Vilna on a mission for the Horowitzes to their relatives the Romms. He traveled to their home as if he were a member of the family. At the Romms, there were always visitors, including such notable Hebrew and Yiddish writers as Isaac Meier Dik, Kalman Shulman, Adam Hakohen Lebenson, and Samuel Joseph Pin. Dik was a gold mine for Romm’s press, although he barely earned anything from this to live on.[1] However, Dik’s popularity was greatly accepted even by the well educated.

Dinezon’s meeting with Dik, their conversations, and Dik’s praise about writing in Yiddish, therefore, made a deep impression on the young writer.[2] Especially when Dik, having read Dinezon’s first work, offered such warm opinions, the young author blushed hotly. It was actually on Dik’s recommendation that For the Sins of the Fathers was accepted by the Romm Press to be published in book form. What’s more, the Romms gave Dinezon his honorarium way in advance, paying him exactly what they paid the famous and beloved Isaac Meier Dik.

Yet, Dinezon’s disappointment was great when a while later he was told that the novel couldn’t be published because the censor’s reading of the manuscript rendered it forbidden. Why? S. L. Tsitron, one of Dinezon’s oldest friends, describes how the censor, whose name was Vohl, saw in his reading the tragedy of his own relative. So he used his privileged position to forbid the circumstances from becoming widely known.[3]

But Dinezon’s disappointment over his first written novel did not come to the same end as the first romance in his life.

*    *    *    *    *

When Dinezon presented his For the Sins of the Fathers to the Romm Press, he also brought a second novel, The Beloved and Pleasing, or The Dark Young Man.

A bothersome error has been spread regarding this novel: that Dinezon—as is stated in several important books—wrote his second novel most likely to pay off his debt to the publishing house. According to one source, first surfacing in 1920, the novel “was finished in less than one month.”[4] Eight years later, the curious story was further spread in this form: “In order to cover the honorarium that he received for the censored For the Sins of the Fathers, Dinezon, in the space of six weeks, from Passover to Shavuot, finished off his second novel, The Beloved and Pleasing, or the Dark Young Man, Vilna 1877, 240 pages.”[5]

This particular error leaves room to imagine Dinezon’s approach to literature as being different from what it was and is not true. He himself laughed off those who “write literature for a ruble, for a gulden, and for a kopeck,” as long as they are told, “Write and take an honorarium!”[6]

In truth, Dinezon wrote his second novel even before he knew that his first would be censored. What’s more, Dinezon made this matter perfectly clear in his autobiographical letter to S. Niger in 1911. He writes: “Purchased from me by the publishers, the Widow and Brothers Romm, exactly just this For the Sins of the Fathers. The Dark Young Man they took from me entirely due to For the Sins of the Fathers, but not to print. I was told by the business manager, Mr. Feigenson, who explained that it was just to remain at the press’s archive should the appropriate time arrive for it to be worth publishing also.”

The picture becomes even clearer in Dinezon’s memoir, where he describes how he found himself in Moscow “serving as a clerk in a popular tea company” and “couldn’t know that there in Vilna, truly at the famous publishers Widow and Brothers Romm, there lay about a few of my ‘manuscripts,’ and perhaps one of them was already being printed and being circulated in the world. And the more I thought about it,” he confesses in full, “the more I wanted no one close to me to find out about it.”[7] Under these circumstances, a day later, to his great astonishment, he happens to hear this story from a Moscow bookseller:

“Just a few weeks ago, a Hebrew-translation (Yiddish) book was published with the name The Beloved and Pleasing in Hebrew, and immediately with a commentary, or the Dark Young Man. And there occurred something of a run on it: the first hundred copies were immediately snatched up from me in merely three days. So I sent a dispatch to Vilna: ‘Send me, through livery, as I indicated in my first dispatch, another three hundred. In less than a week not even one remains.’ And they sent me another one hundred and fifty pieces with the notice that there are no more left in Vilna either.”

And the bookseller, in his great desire for success, calls out: “It all depends on luck, even a little Yiddish book! Heaven and earth and The Dark Young Man.”[8]

The bookseller was especially surprised that the writer was an unknown and that this little book was his first. In other words, why did he not know such an author? In those days, every author would tread the thresholds of every bookseller when his piece of literature was published. And here comes an unknown who has such success!

Jacob Dinezon, the most unassuming of all, unwittingly became the most successful novelist of his day, even before there were daily Yiddish newspapers, and before Jewish life in hundreds of shtetls was awakened from its habitual slumber.

*    *    *    *    *

Dinezon’s enormous success with his first published novel derived from the new approach that readers, especially female readers, encountered in his work. In a drawn-out style, slowly and in detail, Dinezon hit an intimate tone. Using folksy language, mixing in Russian words that were in common use among the masses, and with Hebrew passages that were known to every observant Jew, Dinezon immediately interjected into his narrative a sense of familiarity that came through the homey relationship readers had with the characters he described.

With sugar-sweet prose, the novelist presented his beloved heroes—beautiful, warm, truly righteous—in opposition to whom he presented a type of bad guy, a Dark Young Man, for whom all means were kosher so long as he reached his goal. As the evil one’s plot unfolded, the dramatic tension built and captured the reader.

For those who were not yet raised with artistic literature, what was captivating and disturbing was the primitive form of presenting extremes: black and white opposites wrapped in great sentimentality and executed with the ease of a true folk writer.

But what was so new was the writer’s approach to his protagonists. In contrast to vulgar writers who mostly wanted to satisfy the desires of the mass reader, and, therefore, punished the evildoers and gave happy outcomes to the good folks, Dinezon demonstrated that, as a result of violation and torment, good folks often have quite a bad end while the evildoers live well, because despite their sins and offenses, they are the most important bosses of the town.

Dinezon, however, did not incite against the evildoer. Instead, he showed him in the blackest colors so that the evildoer was engraved in the memory of the reader for the rest of his life. But he did not elicit rage. Instead, he calmed his readers by arousing tears for his beloved, honorable, and gentle heroes.

The title is enough to know where he places his emphasis. At first Dinezon gives the title, The Beloved and Pleasing. Only then comes The Dark Young Man.

Joseph, the yeshiva boy, has every virtue. Rosa is a refined maiden. Her brother-in-law, the Dark Young Man of the title, can’t abide the tender couple’s falling in love. So he tells on them. The girl’s parents then force her to marry a worthless fellow, and Joseph, exactly like the biblical Joseph, serves time in prison. But he returns, and Rosa’s sister, Rekhama, becomes his lover. Once again ideal! But the Dark Young Man is still in opposition. Just when their luck seems imminent, the evildoer sets the house on fire. Joseph catches a fever and perishes, his lover languishes and dies of sorrow, and the Dark Young Man becomes an important man about town.

Other maskilim, in telling such a story, would strike a different chord by insulting the unsavory characters that drive the honorable ones to their early graves. Dinezon, on the contrary, put his emphasis on the unfortunate ones: he lamented them. So is it any wonder that the pages of the novel became soaked in readers’ tears?

The ten thousand copies of the novel that were shortly spread over Russia allow us to see: one, that the Jewish masses found their writer in Dinezon; two, that they yearned to find something that mirrored their own lives and bitter conflicts; and three, that one could win over the public with goodness more than with curses and damnations.

[1]    “Contract with Romm Publishing,” No. 2, From the Recent Past, Warsaw 1937.
[2]  In an afore-cited letter, Dinezon says about Dik, “More natural would be if the butcher women at the butchers or fishmongers at the fish market all spoke, swore and cursed in Hebrew, in true Isaiah-language, rather than in good, dear, all around loyal, and warm Yiddish in which Isaac Meir Dik spoke to his Vilna Jews and Jewesses.”
[3]  “Though he scratched out and found quite a different excuse” for the government. S. L. Tsitron, Three Literary Generations, Vol. 1, pp. 68.
[4]  Ibid, pp. 69. Dinezon’s friend, the socialist revolutionary Alezer (Eliezer?) Zukerman, told of this happening, however, in the form of a diary, known as “Upside Down World,” in Ha-Shakhar (The Dawn), Year 6.
[5]  Zalman Reisen, Lexicon of Yiddish Literature, Press, and Philology, Vilna 1928, Vol. 1, Column 701.
[6]  Memories and Scenes, Warsaw 1937, “Deception,” p. 209.
[7]  “Sholem Jacob Abramovitsh and Mendele Mocher Sforim,” in Memories and Scenes, p. 179.
[8]  Ibid., pp. 184-5.
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