Jacob Dinezon – Preface

The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers
By Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Miri Koral

Jacob Dinezon was one of the most important Jewish writers of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. He was a very successful novelist, and his sentimental potboiler, The Dark Young Man, is credited with being the first Yiddish bestseller.

Dinezon was also a major figure in the advancement of Yiddish as a literary language. He befriended or mentored almost every major Jewish writer of his day, including Abraham Goldfaden, the Father of Yiddish Theater; Sholem Abramovitsh, the Grandfather of modern Yiddish literature; Sholem Aleichem, the renowned humorist; S. Ansky, ethnographer and author of the supernatural play, The Dybbuk; and the poet, playwright, and master short story writer, I. L. Peretz, who became Dinezon’s publishing partner and closest friend.

After a prolific career as an author—his collected works published after his death comprised eleven volumes—Dinezon spent the final years of his life caring for displaced children orphaned during the First World War. He also spearheaded the development of a secular Jewish schools movement in Eastern Europe.

When he died in 1919, tens of thousands of mourners poured out onto the streets of Warsaw to grieve the passing of their beloved folk writer and community philanthropist.

So, the question that always plagued me was how someone who was so closely associated with all the major Jewish writers of his day could be so completely neglected by contemporary literary historians, scholars, and academics? And you might say Jacob Dinezon and his mysterious disappearance from the discussion of modern Yiddish literature has become an obsession for me. When I first discovered his name while doing research on Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz, I found my curiosity so aroused that I set forth to learn everything I could about this forgotten Yiddish writer.

What made the search for information about Jacob Dinezon so daunting was that none of his Yiddish novels or short stories had ever been translated into English. Important biographical entries, literary essays, and obituaries were also only in Yiddish. And because I don’t speak or read Yiddish, it was necessary to find experts who could provide English translations.

Early in the research phase, it became clear that there was only one full-length biography about the life and work of Jacob Dinezon, and it, too, was in Yiddish: Shmuel Rozshanski’s Yaakov Dinezon: Di mame tsvishn unzere klasikers (Jacob Dinezon: The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers).

What a strange title I thought, especially for someone who has been called the “Father of the Jewish Realistic Romance.” Yet in his day, Rozshanski was a noted Yiddish literary historian, and his heavily footnoted work on Dinezon’s life and career seemed an invaluable resource for future scholars.

Now, with permission from the Confederacion Pro Cultura Judia—Fundacion IWO, and the encouragement of the Rollansky family in Israel, we are able to bring this Yiddish volume into the 21st century through the English translation of Miri Koral, founder and executive director of the California Institute for Yiddish Culture and Language and lecturer in Yiddish at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Shmuel Rozshanski (Samuel Rollansky) was born in Warsaw in 1902 and moved to Argentina with his family in 1922, three years after Dinezon’s passing. Although he doesn’t mention it in this biography, Rozshanski may have observed the outpouring of grief accompanying Dinezon’s funeral in 1919.

Settling in Buenos Aires, Rozshanski (1902-1995) became a successful newspaper columnist, theater critic, short story writer, scholar, and editor of works in Yiddish. For many years he contributed a daily column to Di yidishe tsaytung (The Jewish Newspaper), and served as the director of the YIVO Institute for Yiddish Research in Argentina (IWO) and the Buenos Aires section of the Kultur Kongress (Culture Congress). He was also a central figure in the founding of organizations and activities advancing Yiddish literature and culture in Argentina and Latin America.

Shmuel Rozshanski’s greatest legacy may be his contributions as editor and writer of introductions for the hundred-volume series, Musterverk fun der yidisher literatur (Masterwork from the Yiddish Literature), which featured works by important Yiddish authors and introduced readers to a vast collection of Yiddish literature.

Although not a part of the Musterverk series, Rozshanski published Jacob Dinezon: The Mother Among Our Classic Yiddish Writers in 1956 as a way of placing Jacob Dinezon in league with the three authors who had become known as the “classic writers” of modern Yiddish literature: Sholem Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz.

In a tribute to Sholem Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem had dubbed him “der zayde” (the grandfather) of Yiddish literature, and added himself to the lineage as “grandson.” Scholars completed the “family tree” by calling I. L. Peretz the “father.” In a bold move, Rozshanski suggests Dinezon should be considered the “mother” among these classic writers due to his kindhearted, gentle, and supportive nature.

Our purpose in publishing this English translation by Miri Koral is to add to the growing archive of information about Jacob Dinezon that is now available online at www.jacobdinezon.com and also in book form. Our hope is that this volume will lead to additional research on Jacob Dinezon and other Jewish writers who played major roles in the creative explosion of Yiddish literature and culture at the turn of the 20th century.

Scott Hilton Davis
July 2016