By Shmuel Niger
From Di Tsukunft (The Future)
New York, 1929, Pages 620-629
Translated from the Yiddish by
Jacob Dinezon wrote this letter in 1911 in response to an inquiry from the Jewish literary historian Shmuel Niger.
Very distinguished and beloved colleague Sh. Niger:
With pleasure I answer your question: what and how much I know about dear unforgettable Isaac Meir Dik, deceased. I met him in 1877 in Vilna when I came, a beginner, with my first text, to ask Romm if they might publish it.
Dik and I spent not more than twenty days together, but even one day would have shown how he gave so much to those around him, how he loved and respected all who respected and had a relationship with him.
One could believe from his appearance (the light in his eye) that he was a simple, ordinary Jew of the street; a broker, at best a teacher of small children; a Jew in a long kaftan with cap, beard, and peyes. However, on second glance, one noticed both wisdom and a love of people in his eyes—an ocean. A sweet smile was always on his lips. He spoke quietly in simple, clear, “ruddy-from-frost” Yiddish, not at all as he spoke with his “beloved readers” in his storybooks.
When I knew him, he was already an old man, seventy-five if not older, but he seemed to everyone younger, as if he were fifty. He didn’t yet have one grey hair, but even more to be admired was his very young soul, his limitless love for and respectful attention to all that was young and new.
Walking along the Vilna streets, I didn’t see one Jew, young or old, who didn’t greet him with love, and whom he did not greet quickly by name. There wasn’t a street in Vilna whose history he did not know; he knew every house, who owned it, who was living there, who built it, and how many times the head of the household and neighbors had changed. I remember having the impression that it wasn’t that he belonged to Vilna, but that Vilna belonged to him.
He lived freely, like the ancients of the Enlightenment, but he carried true Jewishness. His wife, who was then still living, was not only an observant Jewess, but moreover, observant in the Vilna manner, you know, as Vilna Jews characterize themselves, with a special style in all that they are, in cleverness as in foolishness, in religiousness or freethinking. People know Dik’s witticism, “I make kiddush for the serving maid’s sake. That is, when the serving maid isn’t around, maybe I won’t make a kiddush.”
His job as beadle in the synagogue “Purity of the Sacred” was just an honorary one to him. When the shul first opened, people wanted him to be warden (treasurer), but he refused the position. “I would prefer to serve everybody all the time rather than dominate even one person ever,” he said. I think he had no salary, but he was not overly worried about his livelihood. For bringing a minimum of one and a half folded sheets of writing to the Romms to be published, they paid him three rubles a week. In addition, he had some earnings from his money-brokerage in the town.
He lived on Stepanovski (Stepen Street). In total he had a kitchen and two rooms, but very clean and pleasant. In both rooms were hundreds of books, Polish and German, which he read constantly.
In his younger years, he was also a teacher from time to time. He taught Polish and German to rich daughters and girls of marriageable age and imbued in them a love and respect of the Jewish people, of the Torah, of the Jewish wise men and prominent men.
He had begun to write somewhat earlier, in the ‘60s of the previous century. He wrote in Yiddish because nothing else was possible; it was all he could do, a person from the street and from nature, from his soul to his intellect. Why should a folk-mentsh read and speak other than the way people speak and write? Naturally, if the butchers’ wives in the butcheries and the fish sellers in the marketplace were speaking, swearing, and cursing in the holy tongue, in “Isaiah’s language,” he would have written in Hebrew, but they weren’t. Why would the beloved-by-everybody Isaac Meir Dik not speak Yiddish to the Vilna Jews and Jewesses?
He did not publish his first storybook, the book called The Fifteenth Day of Kislev, with the Romms. It was a very successful satire of the burial and Jewish hospital societies. That little book was Dik’s first literary child, as he told me often. If you want the exact year when Dik began his literary career, I suggest you ask Feigenzohn, the business leader in the Widow and Brothers Romm publishing house. It’s more than fifty years, it seems to me. You’d better ask others for the precise year.
Not much later came the first editions of the following little works: “Shmaya gut-yontev biter,” (“Shmaye the Holiday Well-Wisher”), “Khotskele All By Himself,” “Chaitle Son of Yente,” and “Guardian.”
An unusual satiric talent appeared in them. Some of our critics had the habit of designating various writers “the Jewish Pushkin,” “the Jewish Gogol,” or even “the Jewish Milton” (as Dr. Eliashev said about Shneyer). So also they called our Mendele “the Jewish Cervantes.” It disgusts me when I read or hear such a foolish, inappropriate measure or comparison. Moreover, even in the best case they’re never comparable to the original, but people always compare this way. So I would say Dik earned one thousands times over the designation of “the Jewish Cervantes” for his famous “Shmaya gut-yontev biter,” than Mendele for his work The Travels of Benjamin the Third.
The greatness and genius of Cervantes lies in the effect which his immortal work, Don Quixote, had on his time; had on a special type of knight and idle loafer, as well as on the poets and novelists of that time. The same effect was had by Dik’s little work “Shmaya gut-yontev biter” in Vilna and all Lithuania. The gut-yontev biters (holiday bidders) were a true plague of the state. Because of them the holiday brought suffering to upstanding householders until Dik let loose his satire on the whole “profession.” His satire hit the spot and he made it so pointedly ridiculous that the audience realized they were embarrassed for themselves. It got rid of the foolish and beggarly custom and the biters hid themselves for shame. As Cervantes had laughed the lazy knights out of existence with Don Quixote, so did Dik with his “Shmaya gut-yontev biter,” which laughed the gut-yontev biters out of town.
In general it’s important to note that in all of Dik’s little works from the first to the last, one sees a rare originality with big hints of talent and giftedness, though it is often difficult to find even a spark of it in his later books, which are mostly revised and revamped translations of other peoples’ literature. It seems to me we should seek the cause of this not in him, but around him. On the one hand, because of the three rubles a week the Romms paid him, he had to be a story contractor, producing at least several pages every week. Sometimes that was more than too much for him.
As great and profound as a writer’s talent may be, he is still not deeper than a well. A well goes dry if one dips too often into the source. In order not to become bankrupt, one borrows, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes knowingly, adding a twist so people won’t realize the plagiarism right away for as long as the wheel keeps turning.
On the other hand, he was influenced by the environment of the Enlightened and by the Widow and Brothers Publishing, which used to speak out strongly concerning what the writer should write and how he should write. Particularly an author such as Dik, since he received for his works a definite salary, three whole rubles a week.
This reminds me of certain heads of households who used to tell the preacher or itinerant orator what he should say in his sermons, whom he should pick out to reprove, what he should cry out against in the village that the world has gone topsy-turvey …
The same is noticed in his language. In his first works, Dik’s Yiddish is more Yiddish; clean and simple. Back then he wrote as he spoke and as he heard it spoken, not having the goal of improving his readers’ mastery of language. In the later works, however, in which the preacher and moralizer almost conquered the writer Dik and took his place, that same preacher and moralizer wanted to be a language instructor and wanted at every opportunity to return Yiddish to the German from whence it sprang.
“The more German words readers encounter in my work, the easier it will be for them to learn the German language!” he explained to me after I once made him aware of his Germanifications in every sentence. Nevertheless, one can’t deny that in a certain sense his books improved and refined the “zhargon” in those spheres in which his books were read eagerly. If you speak even now with one of Dik’s readers of that time, you quickly sense how much the books influenced every utterance, and sometimes it seems the person speaks out to you as if from Dik’s storybook. When I was in Vilna on account of my first work, the Vilners told me they had Dik to thank for their fine Yiddish.
The later introduction into his works of Russian words and expressions instead of German brought together disparate tendencies. I’m reminded of an article in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Shahar (The Dawn) in which the journalist strongly reproached Dik for introducing German words instead of Russian ones, which would be so much more useful and expedient.
As I remarked earlier, Dik’s early work showed belief in authority and correctness of the younger generation. “The future belongs to the young, therefore they have authority in all which pertains to the future,” he suddenly told me, and because the Ha-Shahar was at that time considered the young people’s organ, he believed in the journalist and began, instead of Germanifying, to Russify his Yiddish.
Many people estimate his works to be up to three hundred in number, but it seems to me they are less than one hundred and sixty, unless you also include bunches of translated works like The Mysteries of Madrid, From the Harem, and others like that. It’s a disgrace that the name Dik or I. M. D. was published on them.
To the present day, such an illustrious personality as Dik has very seldom been written about or discussed even though so many of his personal friends and admirers still live in Vilna; people who knew him so well and remember him and have so many interesting and educative things to tell.
Not long ago I took the opportunity to read through Dr. Pines’s dissertation, which Dr. Eliashev translated into Yiddish, presenting the whole history of Yiddish and Yiddish literature. Imagine how it sickened me, encountering them, that the respected doctors summed up Dik and his importance in barely three little pages, while Elyokem Tsunzer’s work took up a whole sixteen pages and Shimen Frug and his mediocre work, always half derived from folk tradition, took up almost a whole section, and similarly Yehudah Leib Gordon with his Everyday Conversations also took up not less than thirty pages. And this is how people appraise the first pioneer, the founder and builder of Yiddish literature! And this is how men write history!
I wrote to Dr. Eliashev about reading over Pines’s work and was reminded of this saying: “If one wants to know how much El mole rachamim helps the dead, the answer is in how much the misheberach helps the living.” If one wants to know how much truth there is to find in the history of long-dead generations, one needs a sign; look to see how much truth there is in the history written about those who are still alive.
Dear friend, “if you want to understand a poet you must go to the poet’s land.” You lived long years in Vilna and at that time Dik probably didn’t interest you. Now you live elsewhere, in Switzerland, and now it seems you’re interested in him. And you appear to be satisfied with the brief, incoherent, vague information about Dik such as what you’ll get from me, for example, or from others. No, my friend, if you want to know what is correct and truthful about Dik and his times, and to put your knowledge into an historical work, here’s some advice: try to find the people in Vilna who knew Dik personally and understood him well and use their recollections. Or put off your work until you have the opportunity to be in Vilna again.
In Vilna there are hundreds of Dik’s sayings, jokes, and teachings still circulating. Now one can gather them together, rescue them from oblivion, but until now there hasn’t been anyone in Vilna with the good sense to make such a collection. The hope is that one may still find a man with taste and sense enough and who will gather together everything that was said, told, and remembered in Dik’s name.
I don’t have any friends or acquaintances in Vilna, maybe you have one or more. Correspond and talk it out. Maybe you’ll find somebody who will acknowledge his work to be as important as you and I recognize it to be.
Now to your other question, which is about me, myself, here’s what I want to tell you: They call shimenesre (the Eighteen Benedictions) the “whispered prayer” because it’s forbidden to read out the blessings in a loud voice, and do you know why? Because in shimonesre there is also vide (confession). One cannot say vide in a loud voice. It is for God alone, we needn’t reveal our sins to other people.
Dear Niger, don’t you know then that to speak or write about all one has done, or even only dreamed of in the younger years, is—for a man who doesn’t want to deceive himself—certainly a kind of confession of khates-neurim (sins of youth)?
To speak of all I wrote in my youth, and afterwards as a young man, and let be published, believe me, it doesn’t come any more easily to me than to shout out the quiet prayer. Should the whole world hear how I beat myself in the heart for my sins? So don’t complain to me if the information I share with you herewith is short and dry, a type of “murmuring prayer” and no more.
I began to write when I was barely ten years old. Why I wrote I don’t exactly know. But for as long as I can remember, everything which would move another to cry out, to speak, to complain, or even to laugh, moved me to take the pen in hand and write.
I remember, when as a ten-year-old I received by chance a Robinson Crusoe in Yiddish to read over; what an immense impression it made on my childish soul. For such a long time I couldn’t be calmed, until it occurred to me to write out a new “Rabinzu,” with what I would have wanted to be under such circumstances. When I found even a groshen in my soul, I put it on paper, and wrote and wrote, one half year after another, until therewith my awakening heart spent itself and became peaceful.
Similarly, in later years, under significantly darker circumstances, I wrote and wrote, and never thought that what I wrote could possibly ever be published.
I first saw one of my essays, printed with my name below it in typeset letters, in Ha-Magid (The Preacher), thereafter in Ha-Melits (The Advocate), Ha-Karmel (Mount Carmel), and finally Smolenskin’s Ha-Shahar (The Dawn). I wrote in Yiddish when I wanted to be playful and entertain myself and my friends. Little by little I came to the conviction that nothing could be more natural than to write in Yiddish for the Jewish reader. And Yiddish began to satisfy both my artistic feelings and my Jewish conscience, which had been tormented realizing I’d been writing in the holy language for only a small circle of friends, to whom I didn’t really have anything to say, while the thousands and tens of thousands of brothers and sisters to whom my writings might possibly have been useful and to whom my tales might have brought pleasure, couldn’t hear my words, my stories, because I wrote in a language which only scholars and the Enlightened understood, but not the simple unlearned people whom we looked down on from above.
My artistic soul couldn’t remain satisfied with writing in Hebrew; it felt somehow forced and not free. Not because I lacked words and expressions; I had more than enough words in the Tanakh. The words and impressions available in the Tanakh were “too much.” The too-available and too-prepared words and expressions remained immutable as they had been introduced, and instead of speaking as myself, I spoke with the words of Isaiah, Job, and Kohelet. In my Hebrew writing I clothed my heroes in strangers’ clothes, barely adjusted, and the clothes hung secondhand and awkward, and I myself was no more than a seller of secondhand clothes.
I felt completely different in Yiddish. Nobody else speaks for me, not Isaiah, not even Ezekiel. Here I myself speak, and not only I myself. My heroes also speak here with their own language; each as he feels and as he is accustomed to speaking. I need not seek words and expressions for them, especially those which they have never lost …
The first work I wrote with publication in mind carried the name “For the Sin of the Patriarch; or, a Mirror for Jewish Women Shopkeepers and Tavern Keepers.” The dual title, which I also used on my later works, is not the only foolishness; in the body of the work itself I find more and greater foolishness.
The publishers Widow and Brothers Romm only bought ”Patriarch” from me. They accepted The Dark Young Man from me simply as an auxiliary to “Patriarchs,” but not to publish, said the business leader Mr. Feigenzohn, but just to have adrift in the printers’ archive; and perhaps in some future happy hour it would be rediscovered and found worthy of publishing.
“Nevertheless, don’t lose heart!” I remember I. M. Dik consoling me. “You have brought into your Dark Young Man no less heart and feeling than into your “Patriarchs.” The difference between them is, that your “Patriarchs” has a direction, that is, a point, a purpose, and one can say of it: it is both pleasant and useful. The Dark Young Man is, unfortunately, merely pleasant to read, it can’t be useful to the reader. A rich man who lacks for nothing can purchase a story for the story’s sake, even if it is no more than a jewel; a rich man can buy for pleasure alone, nothing pleases him more than jewels. However, our common man of the rabble is, regrettably, poor, very poor. What pleases him is a shirt on his naked skin, a shoe, a dress. To write books for him which are nothing but shiny jewels, which don’t also clothe his nakedness, is not only superfluous, but also almost injurious.”
Art for art’s sake had not even become known any where in Europe. Among our Jews such a thing had not even been heard of.
I was then still young, barely eighteen years old, a beginner in Yiddish, and I. M. Dik was already an old man, a prominent person, an expert with a world-renowned name, and I didn’t have the nerve to ask him questions or to explore with him whether one might write a story wholly without “a point” as long as the story’s essence is written well and correctly. I lacked not only the nerve but also the simple words and concepts to express the thoughts I already felt as if from under a fog: what a writer, a novelist, must be, and where the strength of his craft must lie, so that his work should have a deserved success.
The Widow and Brothers Romm published my The Dark Young Man after the censor had forbidden the publication of “Patriarchs” and had confiscated the manuscript—the first and only copy I had penned—and they, the printers, had no other way to recoup the several rubles they had paid me for “Patriarchs,” money I no longer had to give back to them.
I believe you have more or less the idea concerning the success of Der shvartser yungermantshik (The Dark Young Man). It was almost that same year I finished my novel Even negef (A Stumbling Block.) However, I had no desire to publish it due to the dead silence of the collective Hebrew-language press regarding The Dark Young Man, despite the fact that tens of thousands of copies were sold and there was almost no Jewish house in which it had not been read. In addition, the success of my work stimulated all kinds of inferior writers to knock out all kinds of novels and storybooks on the model of The Dark Young Man, especially Shomer with his card sharks, rich beggars, and the like—fully dozens every morning. It oppressed me so much; I felt guilty for the whole flood of vapid and dismal novels drowning the Jewish reader. I couldn’t stop writing, but it didn’t cost me effort or mental strain not to publish the finished works.
It was only after I befriended Peretz, who strongly encouraged me, that I began again to publish at my own expense, those works written long before.
Soon after with Peretz, I edited the first two volumes of the Di yidishe bibliotek (The Jewish Library), where my Hershele was published. A couple years later, I published my novella Yosele when the publisher Ahi’asaf began to publish Der Yud. (The Jew) I began to write again, stories and recollections under my own name, and sometimes timely articles under the pseudonym “Echo.” A couple of my stories were also published in Dos Yidishe Folksblat (The Jewish People’s Paper) published by Zederbaum. At the same time I also wrote for American newspapers, principally for Saracen’s daily paper. In the same year my story “Yosl Algebrenik” was published in Tsukunft (Future). For three years in a row I worked at Der Fraynd (The Friend). My novel Alter was published by installments over the course of a whole year in the supplement to Fraynd. A whole series of long and short stories and articles appeared in Fraynd itself, for example: “The Crisis,” “Falik and his House,” “Raphael Ironmonger,” “Just Pictures,” and a whole array of holiday stores, like “As a Sefer Torah,” which was translated and published in Russkoe Bogatstvo (Russian Wealth),; “A Chanukah Lamp,” “Why Only Two Days?” “Two Passovers,” and so forth. I no longer remember by heart the names of all my stories in Fraynd I also published, in the supplement to Fraynd, various stories with the name “Childish Souls.”
I stopped writing for Fraynd due to a conflict with the editorial board over a long narrative named “A Childish Novel,” the first three chapters of which they published according to a prearranged agreement. Concerning the publishing of the remainder, they had wished to make a new agreement: namely, to buy from me at a cheap, bargain price.
I also wrote and published allegorical stories like: “Shimshon Shlomo and His Horses” (now forbidden), “The Forest Burns,” “The Sea and the Stormy Wind,” “The Wristwatch,” and others.
To my literary work one may also add my translation of Gretz’s “Folkloric History of the Jews,” published by Zaks in Warsaw. Zaks bought the first part already set in matrices (frames ready to be printed) from that apostate, that enemy of the Jews, Lerner, from Odessa. He maneuvered such that the censor forbade publication of my first part of the history. And instead, he added the three sections, which the censor had not forbidden; Lerner’s part, for which he had already prepared matrices. Because of that, I did not give Zaks permission to use my name on my three parts of Gretz. I didn’t want to be associated with an apostate, a betrayer of the Jews. In Warsaw, people know that I translated the second, third, and fourth sections of Gretz in Zak’s edition. I worked perhaps two whole years on it. And in the end I don’t even have my name under the three sections.
The same thing happened with the “World History,” which I began to write for the publisher Ahi’asaf. Ahi’asaf had paid me very poorly and after finishing the first part, I was compelled to refuse working further.
I would gladly send you my stories which at different times were published here or there. But where can I get them?
The verse is correctly said about me: “I tended other vineyards but I did not tend my own.” Nobody made me a guardian of others’ vineyards, I took it upon myself. But that which was never hard for me to do for Peretz, for example, or for other colleagues of mine, the business of issuing a full collection of the work, is for me to do for myself, maybe an impossibility. Why this is so, I can’t even explain to myself.
I’ll send you Dik’s letters if I can find them in my archive; I had a couple of tens of them. So be healthy and have no grudge if the output which I give you here is meager and pale. Another time, perhaps more.
P.S. Soon I plan to publish my recollections, which I hope will be very interesting to you.