Jacob Dinezon – Chapter Twelve

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral
Chapter Twelve
A Wonderful Example of Friendship
The Dinezon-Peretz romance: A page of literary history. — Contradictions. — For and against. — The too serious one. — An object for kibitzers. — Various temperaments and worlds: misnagid and Hasid. — Dinezon the famous one and Peretz the debutant. — The generous gesture for the first book. — Editors together, ready to emigrate together. — The contrasting views in the light of Hirschbein, Mukduni, Leivik, Trunk, Hirshkan, Kaganovski, Ansky, Meizl, Peretz-Laks, Tsitron, and Nomberg. — The contradictions of discrepancies and correspondence. — The “passive one” who attacks. — The “ignored one” that Peretz listens to. — The miser who doles out “discrete death.” — Dinezon, the mother for young writers, and his conflicts with Peretz. — Like “an old couple.” — Peretz’s behavior to Dinezon the writer. — “My inspiration.” — Peretz purchases three burial plots and Dinezon swaps for his wife’s burial place. — The most moving letter about a friend and his farsightedness. — The concern over legacy and the plan for the Folk Museum. — The mother and father of Yiddish literature.

The friendship established between Jacob Dinezon and I. L. Peretz is also an important chapter in Yiddish literature and culture.

It’s not clear to everyone. For some the opposite holds true. “In literary circles the opinion was often given that I. L. Peretz entirely swallowed Jacob Dinezon,” and “the Peretzes made Dinezon into the housekeeper of their household though this is certainly a mistake.”[1] There is also the opinion that “Dinezon’s devotion often led Peretz astray.”[2] And there is the opinion that from all the bevy of friends who came to Peretz’s house, Dinezon was the only one close, and aside from Dinezon—no one else!”[3]

In light of all the facts brought to illustrate these opinions, Dinezon’s image becomes cloudy. This results certainly from his own nature. The nature of this modest, honorable person who allowed his own self to recede can easily be misunderstood. This is why Dinezon’s friendship with Peretz is not well understood, just as his literary endeavors are not well understood. He even became a target of bohemian kibitzers for whom a quiet, refined person who didn’t play games appears to be old-fashioned and provincial. The “modern” making fun of the humble.

*    *    *    *    *

Dinezon hated this sort of mockery in general.

“Peretz never allowed himself the least joke at Dinezon’s expense even though Peretz loved to make jokes about people like Dinezon. And none of Peretz’s friends during this time permitted any jokes about Dinezon.”[4]

Dinezon was very earnest and he encountered the same earnestness in Peretz. This certainly inspired him, because Peretz, even when jesting and using irony, was serious. Peretz would enter into childish rapture exactly because he took everything in plaintively holy earnest. This sort of solemnity heightened Peretz’s Hasidic zeal and rabbinic attitude, which the mockery-driven Sholem Aleichem and the ironical David Frishman took as pretense. It was natural, therefore, that for years there was a quarrel and estrangement not just between these two and Peretz, but also with Dinezon who bore a grudge against them. In this Dinezon didn’t need to follow after Peretz—just the opposite.

What is certain, is that Peretz’s intimates who wrote about Dinezon following after his great friend like a helpless, stumbling child are quite exaggerated. There are plenty of episodes in which Peretz depended on Dinezon for his understanding of literary questions.

At the same time, they were from different worlds, different temperaments, different convictions about literature and art. Dinezon was a misnagid (opposed to Hasidism), like a typical Jew from Lithuania: enlightened and business-like. In literature—entirely naturalistic.

Peretz was a Hasid, a typical Polish Jew: revolutionary and bohemian. In literature—fundamentally romantic.

Such contrasting natures, and yet they co-existed so wonderfully for a quarter of a century!

*    *    *    *    *

Dinezon was four years younger than Peretz, but he lived exactly as long as Peretz: to the age of 63.

And just as Peretz loved to intercede on behalf of young Jewish writers in helping them enter the field of Yiddish literature, Dinezon interceded on behalf of Peretz.

In 1888, when Peretz debuted in Yiddish with “Monish” in Sholem Aleichem’s first volume of Yiddish Folk Library, he came up against the editor who battered his ballad before printing it. But even that which remained of Peretz in “Monish” under Sholem Aleichem’s editorship was enough for Dinezon to become enchanted.

In 1889, Peretz wrote his first letter to Dinezon: short and in a telegraphic style without entreaties.

At that time, those in S. L. Tsitron’s circle read Peretz’s short Familiar Images, which no publisher wanted to publish. Dinezon was enthralled by the stories.

Dinezon is the acknowledged popular and beloved novelist known by kith and kin. Peretz is a beginner in Yiddish. Dinezon is old-fashioned and Peretz is ultramodern. Yet Dinezon decides to publish Familiar Images on his own. He also adds an introduction in which he says that “Peretz doesn’t write to cater to the coarse taste of the lower class of reader; on the contrary, he wants to refine and improve him.”[5] And he sends the entire printing of Peretz’s book directly to the author’s home! This is in 1890.

This fact alone is enough to impart a picture of Dinezon’s personality. Add to this, that even in his best years, Dinezon was not a rich man, and when he did have a few rubles it was due to his bachelor tendencies to be frugal. He lived very modestly in a separate, shabby little room in his sister’s house in Warsaw, and didn’t even permit himself to spend an extra kopeck. So it’s even clearer what it meant for him to self-publish a book by a beginning writer, and furthermore, one with a style and outlook so different from his own.

Through his friendship with Peretz, Dinezon demonstrated that he possessed an instinct and orientation that others with greater pretentions didn’t possess. When one sees how Sholem Aleichem and David Frishman sinned against Peretz, and only in later years gave due respect to his worth and work, one understands that Jacob Dinezon was far from being just some follower and imitator.

*    *    *    *    *

In 1891, Dinezon and Peretz published two volumes of Yiddish Library. Sholem Aleichem, as we know from his letters to Dinezon,[6] was terribly angry at Peretz for publishing an anthology similar to his Jewish Folk Library and with a similar name. An intimate of Peretz’s said, however, that “Peretz began to publish Yiddish Library at Dinezon’s initiative.”[7] Sholem Aleichem could probably not yet imagine that the quiet Dinezon could accomplish so much on his own.

In 1892, the plan became real for the friends to emigrate to Argentina. Peretz lived in Warsaw and Dinezon in Kiev. Peretz’s letters are therefore the best witnesses to Dinezon’s initiatives. Peretz says that he is helpless when he needs to do something for himself—so Dinezon does it for him: speaks, deals, writes, and plans. Peretz authorizes him: “I permit you,” he writes, “and wholeheartedly, to speak on both of our behalves.”[8]

Nothing handwritten remains by either of them about their working relationship from the later years when Dinezon finally settled in Warsaw. There are only the words of memoir writers who are frequently too close to themselves and too far from those whom they write about.

*    *    *    *    *

There were young writers among Peretz’s intimates who looked unfavorably upon these “soul mates.”

“The friendship between Peretz and Dinezon,” one of them even writes, “was not healthy because it was a friendship between two greatly unequal people. The friendship actually degenerated over time into servitude on the part of Dinezon in a pathetic and unnaturally one-sided over-devotion from Dinezon’s side. The most uncomfortable for Peretz was Dinezon’s not permitting Peretz to serve or please him in return. Dinezon, aside from rolling cigarettes for Peretz, would also write letters for him. He did it with great pleasure. Dinezon was a passionate letter writer. He would write long, sentimental letters to his readers, but his readers passed away and he didn’t get any new readers because he practically stopped writing altogether. Dinezon took advantage of the opportunity to write letters for Peretz. But he didn’t do any great favors for Yiddish literature; Yiddish literature, instead of getting Peretz’s letters, was bequeathed Dinezon’s letters.” And also, “Peretz was greatly uncomfortable with Dinezon’s absolute passivity in questions of literature and art in general.”

Dinezon also “haggled” with Peretz when it came to money, especially for others. “Sometimes a needy writer would borrow a few rubles from Dinezon,” but he “would always haggle him down. The requested amount would shrink so much that it had barely any value and the writer was not helped by it at all.”[9]

How can one then explain that the same intimate of Peretz later recounts that at a gathering of the “literary society” in Warsaw in 1910 while discussing a planned event, Dinezon asked for mercy: “Don’t be misled by Peretz, as, God forbid, a tragedy can occur. Poles will first of all not give the ‘philharmonic’; and if they do give, they’ll attack the gathering, and God knows what can happen.”[10]

And how can one explain that the same intimate relates afterwards that in relation to the performance of the Peretz Hirschbein Troupe in Warsaw “at a gathering of ‘friends’ at Peretz’s home, I had to withstand heavy attacks by the softhearted J. Dinezon, who was far removed from theater and protested that one needs to be gentle to the acting troupe.”[11]

Do these facts demonstrate “Dinezon’s absolute passivity”?

*    *    *    *    *

Another intimate in the constellation of young writers circling Peretz relates: “It was often asked in literary circles: ‘How would I. L. Peretz’s life have gone if the practical Jacob Dinezon had not materialized on his path?’ . . . If I. L. Peretz needed some dozen rubles from somewhere in order to help some young needy writer, he entrusted Dinezon with the secret. Often Jacob Dinezon gave it to I. L. Peretz from his own pocket. Dinezon favored ‘hidden deeds.’”[12]

This is how one writer contradicts the other.

Another of this constellation of gifted writers recounts that “everything that came out of Peretz’s pen was in Dinezon’s eyes pure gold.”[13] And another states: “Peretz always shares with Dinezon his literary plans and themes, but if Dinezon attempts to offer a critical word—Peretz always puts him off: ‘What do you understand, Yankl?’”[14]

It’s therefore worth confronting these two opinions with something told by a close friend of Peretz’s and a partner of many years in his cultural society ventures:

“Peretz read out loud the first chapter of a novel—he wanted utmost to write a great novel. The chapter was written very beautifully, but it was already a thing in its entirety, just as Peretz the storyteller was used to writing; there was hardly anything left to develop. Dinezon made comments on it.

“‘Listen,’ Dinezon told him, ‘in the first chapter there’s already the pining groom, the pining bride, and another young man who loves her. There are even parents of the young folk who are fighting each other. What else can happen here?’

“Peretz regarded him thoughtfully and said, ‘Dinezon, you are correct.’ He opened his desk drawer and threw in the manuscript. He never spoke about the novel again.”[15]

With respect to the assertion that “if Peretz was too cold to someone, Dinezon’s behavior to them was also cold,” it’s worth recounting an episode in which Peretz hastily dissuaded a beginner from the writerly life: “After several lines, Peretz stopped him: ‘Enough! You don’t have any talent.’

“The young man was slaughtered. But always in such moments, old Jacob Dinezon was on the sidelines, and with little childlike steps he quietly approached the slaughtered one and said in a hushed voice, ‘Go home, write something else. Maybe it’ll be better.’

“Then Peretz would speak up and argue with Dinezon: ‘One shouldn’t be mild in these cases. They need to be cut off in one stroke. Otherwise, you ruin that person’s life. With literature, beginners shouldn’t be mothered, but fathered. A mother covers up the bad ways of the child and thinks she’s doing it a favor.’”[16]

Dinezon, as we see, didn’t just trot along behind Peretz. As much as he loved Peretz, Dinezon remained Dinezon—the mother.

*    *    *    *    *

“There is a folk saying about the highest form of friendship and love between two people: ‘One soul in two bodies.’ Regarding Peretz and Dinezon the same saying could be given in reverse: ‘Two souls in one body.’ . . . Such an intimate bond exists only with an old couple.”[17]

Peretz’s affection for Dinezon is evident even in his letters. Peretz was lazy about writing letters. And if he did write, he would forget to send them off. But there was one person he was not lazy about writing, even when parted from him for just a few days, and this person was Dinezon. It was to him that he wrote the greatest number of letters, postcards in rhyme, and witticisms; about ninety of these have been collected. Had Dinezon not kept up his correspondence with publishing houses, writers, and institutions, without a doubt we would have fewer of Peretz’s accomplishments in all the fields that he plowed. Behind the fiery Peretz stood the quiet, organized Dinezon who didn’t permit many opportunities to be lost, who calmed him after his storms, and, like one who sees without being seen, assisted wherever and however he could.

When Peretz doesn’t want to have any personal relationship with Sholem Aleichem, Dinezon does it for him. Young writers can’t make it through another day, and yet Peretz encourages them to remain in Warsaw. But how? Dinezon responds to this “query” and often Peretz gets the credit. Peretz is impulsive and drives away such and such a beginner; then Dinezon stands up for him and befriends him.

From the beginning, Dinezon saw that Peretz was the greater writer who was more competent and a master wordsmith with the sway of a leader. So Dinezon passes along all the honors to Peretz.

“He carried on quiet ‘love affairs’ with an array of Yiddish writers, but his true and constant love with whom he lived for dozens of years was Peretz.”[18]

“One evening Peretz said to him, ‘Dinezon, how would I live without you?’ Dinezon smiled in pleasure. And in contrast to Peretz, who was in his lifestyle free and always looking for change, Dinezon was backward and faithful to the old traditions. Peretz in this respect didn’t adhere to Dinezon and would often make easy fun of him.”[19]

Dinezon also managed all kinds of wonders for the security of Peretz in his old age. Along with Mrs. Peretz, he often solved many material issues. When he saw how his exalted friend was beginning to have trouble breathing and was clutching at his heart, Dinezon arranged with Peretz’s wife to have them move to an airier apartment far from the Jewish neighborhood, which led to Peretz’s house no longer being the daily address for Jewish writers, artists, and cultural activists.

When the First World War broke out, Dinezon tried to escape from Warsaw without Peretz (because Peretz didn’t want to leave). But after a little while he came back; he couldn’t be without him.

This quotation from The Beloved and Pleasing was often cited about them: “One could not survive without the other.”

*    *    *    *    *

And those memoirists are wrong who describe Dinezon only as Peretz’s “housekeeper,” especially when they add: “It was unheard of for Peretz to ever speak about Dinezon’s oeuvres; in actuality he did not hold them in high regard.”[20]

Certainly Peretz had quite a different attitude toward literature. But what Peretz in Warsaw writes to Dinezon in Kiev at the end of 1893 is enough to make one tremble:

“Why don’t you write anything?” he complains, then assails him with “You hide yourself and your voice, and you have cut off the flow of your pen and stand at a distance. I can’t understand your ways and your deeds, what happened to you? Can a woman forget her child? Have you thrown literature behind you? Write and tell me what this means.”[21]

There were years when Yiddish writers from Russia were sought to collaborate on North American projects with the offer of decent honorariums. Peretz tells this to Dinezon in order to arouse in him the desire to collaborate on American publications. And Peretz writes in 1903: “It’s hard to imagine a Jewish reader who doesn’t know Dinezon’s things.”[22] But Dinezon keeps to his old theory: it’s hard to break the habit of writing, but not of publishing. In time he also broke the habit of giving readings of his own works, and even stopped telling people if he was writing anything at all. And yet, after his death, a half dozen manuscripts for new books were found.

He freed himself from seeking to publish.

He was someone who preferred to remain invisible.

*    *    *    *    *

Here is a characteristic episode in which Peretz visited a city with Dinezon accompanying him. After Peretz’s lecture, the local writers prepared a banquet at which they lauded Peretz with speeches. Dinezon was not remembered by anyone. Therefore, Peretz, in his response and thanks, points out to the speakers that they forgot to mention an important thing: his inspiration.

“Everyone present looked at Peretz in astonishment.

“‘My holy soul is this one—this one,’ said Peretz and pointed to Dinezon.

“Dinezon, the most humble, couldn’t bear this, so he stood up and called out: ‘No, no, friends! Don’t believe him; the inspiration is he, he, he himself; not me in any form.’”[23]

*    *    *    *    *

Therefore, it may be surprising what an intimate, a prominent man of Yiddish letters wrote: “Then Dinezon died. It was enough that some weepy little person who hung around with a lot of famous names declared: ‘He should be buried near Peretz,’ and no one objected.”[24]

This story about “some weepy little person” appears strange because no one other than Peretz’s relative who lived for a number of years in his house recounts that “Peretz had purchased plots for three tombs—for himself, his wife, and Dinezon” and that “Dinezon, before his death, asked Mrs. Peretz to change places with him so that he could lie closer to Peretz,” and “Mrs. Peretz agreed.”[25]

The emotional letter that Dinezon wrote to Ansky right after Peretz’s death is typical, calling him, “Dearest, most beloved, and after our blessed Peretz, my one and only remaining friend. . . .

“I’m ashamed that I continue to live. But my life would truly be a disgrace if I were as bad as all the others and believed as they do that Peretz, both of ours, and especially my Peretz, really died! I can’t begin to believe this. When I stand next to his grave, he is alive at my side and reads along with me the little temporary grave marker. And as a hot tear seeps from my eye he notices it right away, and with his reassuring smile he laughs at me for having a woman’s tendency to weep so easily. ‘Nu, why are you crying?’ he asks. ‘What do these few words on the grave marker tell you? Silly man, they were written by your gravedigger who doesn’t know about life and death any more than a dead man! For him perhaps Isaac Leibush Peretz died. For you, however, he is still alive!’”[26]

And Dinezon, as aggrieved as he was, without hesitation immediately assumed the two pressing assignments which Peretz’s death brought about: One,  “Peretz has a son. But not only a son, an inheritor to whom belongs all the rights to everything that remains of his illustrious father, whom he, the inheritor, didn’t know and didn’t want to understand and know in his life, and even less now after his death.” Two, “Is it not possible to have Peretz’s workroom with everything in it that he loved and held dear be purchased by the Jewish Folk Museum wherever it gets established, whether in Petersburg or in Vilna? Peretz’s workroom, in which he created so many beautiful and noble treasures for the Jewish people, working so devotedly and truly for Yiddish literature, I want it to remain in the ownership of the people.”[27]

Jacob Dinezon was not accidentally I. L. Peretz’s lifelong friend. He helped him achieve his prominence as an artist and his place in Yiddish literature. Therefore, just as in his life, Dinezon also found himself after his death beside his friend in the “Peretz Mausoleum.”

Peretz, the father of Yiddish literature; Dinezon, the mother.

[1]  Peretz Hirschbein, On the Road of Life, Memoir, NY 1948, p. 274.
[2]  Dr. A. Mukduni, In Warsaw and Lodz, Memoir, 1955, Volume 1, p. 143.
[3]  S. Ansky, Collected Writings, Vol. 2, Memoir, Warsaw 1922, p. 165.
[4]  Dr. A. Mukduni, Memoir, Vol. 1, p. 142.
[5]  J. S. (Dr. Jacob Shatski), “An Unfamiliar Introduction to Peretz’s Familiar Images” in Pinkas, 1928, Vol. 1, No. 4, J. S. refers to Dr. A. A. Robak’s proof of this.
[6]  YIVO Pages, Vilna, 1932, No. 4-5, pp. 347-349.
[7]  Dr. Gerson Levine, Peretz, Some Recollections, Warsaw 1919, p. 61.
[8]  Letters and Speeches, p. 81.
[9]  Dr. A. Mukduni, Memoir, Vol. 1, pp. 139-43.
[10]  Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 197.
[11]  Ibid., p. 218.
[12]  Peretz Hirschbein, On the Path of Life, pp. 275-277.
[13]  I. I. Trunk, Poland, Book 5, Peretz, New York 1949, p. 69.
[14]  Tzvi Hirshkan, Under One Roof, Warsaw 1931, The Peretz-Dinezon Romance, p. 50.
[15]  Dr. Gershon Levine, Peretz, pp. 44-45.
[16]  Ephraim Kaganovski, Yiddish Writers at Home, Lodz, 1949, p. 13.
[17]  S. Ansky, Memoir, Vol. 10, pp. 164-165.
[18]  Nachman Meizel, Isaac Leibush Peretz and His Generation of Writers, NY, 1951, p. 255.
[19]  R. Peretz-Laks, Around Peretz, Warsaw 1935, p. 61 and p. 66.
[20]  I. I. Trunk, Peretz, p. 69.
[21]  Letters and Speeches, p. 86.
[22]  Literature and Life, p. 136.
[23]  S. L. Tsitron, Three Literary Generations, Vol. 1, p. 104.
[24]  H. D. Nomberg, I. L. Peretz, Vol. A, 1946, p. 78.
[25]  R. Peretz-Laks, Around Peretz, p. 68.
[26]  Life, Redi Moshe Shalit, Vilna, 1920, No. 3-4.
[27]  Ibid.
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