Leo Wiener’s Book

Jacob Dienesohn

From The History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century
By Leo Wiener
Instructor in the Slavic Languages at Harvard University
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899

Of an entirely different tendency are the writings of Jacob Dienesohn, although akin to “Isabella” in the sympathy he shows for the older generation.

Dienesohn had begun his career in 1875, when he published a novel “The Dark Young Man,” after which he grew silent. In 1885 he took up his literary work, since when he has produced two large novels and several shorter sketches.

His first work was very popular. He depicted in it the machinations of an orthodox young man of the older type, who felt it his duty to lay stumbling-blocks in the way of one who strove to acquire worldly knowledge.

Dienesohn occupies a peculiar place in Judeo-German literature. He is the only one who has attempted the lachrymose, the sentimental novel. He began writing at a time when Dick had prepared the ground for the romantic story, and Schaikewitsch [Shomer] had started on his sentimental drivel. But while these entirely failed to produce something wholesome, Dienesohn gained with his first book an unusual success. He drew his scenes from familiar circles, and his men and women are all Jews, with a sphere of action not unlike the one his readers moved in. Readers consequently were more easily attracted to him, and carried away a greater fund of instruction. His feminine audiences have wept tears over his work, and the author has received letters from orthodox young men, who assured him that although the description of the Dark Young Man fitted them, they would not descend to the vile methods of the hero of the book in pursuing differently minded men.

During his renewed activity, which began in the Volksblatt ten years after his first novel had been printed, he dwelt on that period in the history of the Russian Jews when they were just commencing to take to the new culture, when it still meant a struggle and a sacrifice to tear oneself away from the ties which united one with the older generation. In the “Stone in the Way” he describes the many hardships which his hero had to overcome ere he succeeded in acquiring an education. In “Herschele” (still unfinished) the same subject is treated in the case of a young mendicant Talmudical scholar, who is beset, not only by the usual difficulties, but who is, in addition, trying to suppress his earthly love for the daughter of the woman who furnishes him with a dinner on every Wednesday.

Dienesohn treats with loving gentleness all the characters he writes about. (l) Like Spektor, he attacks no one directly, and, like him, sarcasm has no place in his works.

His most touching and, at the same time, the most perfect of his shorter stories is the one entitled “The Atonement Day.” (2) He introduces us there to a scene in the synagogue where an old woman is praying fervently. Her devotion is interrupted by her thoughts of her daughter at home whom she had enjoined to fast on that awful day, although she had just given birth to a son. For a long time her religious convictions outweigh her maternal feelings, but, at last, her natural sentiment is victorious, and she hurries home to insist on her daughter’s eating something. In this way the newborn babe is saved.

Thirty years pass. The old woman has died, and her daughter Chane is brought before us on the same Atonement day. She has grown old, while her son has, in the meantime, finished at the university, and is a practicing physician. She, too, is praying fervently, and thinking with awe of the day when young and old, the pious and the sinner alike, come to the synagogue and invoke the mercy of the Lord with contrition of spirit. Her eyes search in vain for her son among the crowd congregated below. The hours pass, and he does not appear. Faint with hunger from the long fasting and grieving at her son’s apostasy, she falls sick and soon dies. In her last agony she makes her son promise her that he will, at least once a year, on the Atonement day, visit the synagogue. After that, one can see every year, on the awful day, the physician in deep devotion in the house of the Lord.

(1) Other articles by him: Jud. Volksblatt, Vol. V, pp. 329 ff; Vol. VIII, (Beilage), pp. 33-43; Hausfreund, Vol. I, pp. 1-21; Vol. II, pp. 75-99; Jud. Volksbib., Vol. I, pp. 244-248; Jud. Bibliothek, Supplements.

(2) Hausfreund, Vol. II, pp. 75-99.

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