Near and Dear: Jacob Dinezon

by Nachman Mayzel
From Noente un eygene:
fun Yaakov Dinezon biz Hirsh Glik
(Near and Dear:
From Jacob Dinezon to Hirsh Glick
)
Yiddisher Kultur Farband, New York, 1957
Pages 13-20
Translated from the Yiddish by Mindy Liberman

 

1

Yiddish literature continues to grow older. One hundred years have now passed since the birth of our beloved and kind Jacob Dinezon, who is classified among the uncles and great uncles of modern Yiddish literature. Jacob Dinezon had a connection to the creation of Yiddish literature when it bore a patriarchal character in general and led a genuinely Jewish family lifestyle. There was the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature, Mendele Mocher Seforim, the “father,” I. L. Peretz, and the “grandson,” Sholem Aleichem. The term “grandson” was a stretch because Sholem Aleichem was, in fact, born when Mendele was twenty-three years old, and he entered into Yiddish literature at the point when Mendele was just beginning his own career. Along with the “grandfather,” “father,” and “son,” Jacob Dinezon, Yitskhok Yoel Linetzky, Moyshe Aaron Shatskes, and Mordkhe Spektor were the uncles and great-uncles. They were certainly at the center of the distinguished family of writers, but a secondary branch of the pedigreed dynasty.

Jacob Dinezon was born in 1856[1], five years after Peretz, three years before Sholem Aleichem, and two years before Mordkhe Spektor. But in truth, he was more of a student and follower of Isaac Meyer Dik (1807-1893). While young, Dinezon had met him in Vilna through the famous Printing House of the Widow and the Brothers Romm, for whom he “composed” his first novel For the Sins of the Fathers, which was lost. Afterward, his sentimental novel The Beloved or the Pleasing, or The Dark Young Man was published in Vilna in the year 1877 when I. L. Peretz was still unknown, and Sholem Aleichem was still a young man teaching in a village somewhere.

Jacob Dinezon’s work belongs to a kind of evening that preceded the literature. It was a herald of Yiddish literature that began to develop suddenly a few years later—especially in the years 1888-1890, when significant and serious anthologies by Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz appeared, providing new subjects and new scope for modern Jewish literature: Di yidishe folksbibliotek (The Jewish People’s Library) and Di Yudishe bibliotek (The Jewish Library).

We can also include Mordkhe Spektor’s anthology Der hoyz-fraynd (The House Friend) that played a certain role at that time during the blossoming of Yiddish literature and its growth and development in the 1880s in Russia. Certainly there was also a connection and a direct influence from the Hebrew anthologies Ha-Asif and Knesses yisroel put out by Nahum Sokolov and ShF”R (Shefer) that appeared in Warsaw at that time, in which the young Peretz also took part, by the way.

We must also add that without a doubt, the serious Russian journals of those years, from which Mendele, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem also benefited, provided a push for the large Yiddish anthologies too.

Yiddish literature really began to blossom with Mendele, Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and all the others. Just as young and then younger writers and poets steadily flourished in the Yiddish literature garden and created in a variety of formats alongside the founders of the new Yiddish literature, so Dinezon belonged in a way to Yiddish literary history, even though he outlived Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, and Mendele. He experienced the lively, boisterous Warsaw during the First World War and died a little after the war in 1919. In his work, as in his life, Jacob Dinezon was for himself and those around him a bit of the past.

2

His personal life blossomed during his very young years when he went from his shtetl Nay-Zhager, near Kovno, to the once very enlightened city of Mohilev (on the Dnieper) and lived in the wealthy and enlightened household of the Gurevitches (Horowitz), who later played an important role in the Russian revolutionary movement. And there was a story at the time, truly as in a sentimental novel, of unrequited love for the affluent daughter of the well-known Woman of Valor Bodaneh Gurevitch. Jacob Dinezon, the quiet and tenderhearted, very likely withdrew, devastated and resigned, and afterward bore his young love quietly all his remaining years and took it with him to his grave.

Jacob Dinezon, who wrote his first youthful novel in just a few weeks, also withdrew from literature. Only thirteen years later did he publish his second novel, Even negef, oder, a shtein in veg (Stumbling Block, or, A Stone in the road) (1890), again sentimental (in black and white moreover!), then his Hershele (1891), then finally his Yosele (1899). All of the later years, and precisely during the years of the tremendous upswing in Yiddish literature, he stood on the sidelines. He took care of Yiddish writers, and especially his favorite—Peretz—rather than write himself.

Sholem Aleichem, who was even at one time jealous of Jacob Dinezon, and reproached him for his exaggerated love, admiration, and enthusiasm for I. L. Peretz, once, called Dinezon, in a letter to him, “Father of the Orphans” to all the Yiddish writers. But in truth, Dinezon was more of a “mother” than a “father” to the Yiddish writers. He worried more about them than he mentored them and paid more attention to their physical lives than their intellectual growth. Because of the exaggerated loyalty and devotion to his children, and especially to his beloved temperamental child Peretz, he abandoned his own writing and his own creating.

In 1908, I went to Warsaw and brought with me the manuscript of Arum vokzal (At the Depot) by the then-unknown Dovid Bergelson. Alone and afraid to call on Peretz himself, I visited the goodhearted Jacob Dinezon who lived in his poor, small, old-bachelor room on Dzielna Street. And indeed, it was as if I had come to a dear great-uncle, who was happy to receive a young fellow, somewhat like a distant relative just arrived from the non-Jewish city of Kiev. He welcomed me warmly, heard me out, counseled and advised me about whom to see. He himself showed no interest in the work as such. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one to show up unexpectedly with manuscripts to print. To me, the young man from Kiev, Jacob Dinezon was an old man whose early novels and days of creating belonged to a far distant past. And this was at a time when Peretz, who was older than he, had just set a goal of writing extraordinary new works, which he proceeded to write with such youthful and passionate enthusiasm.

In those years, little was known about Jacob Dinezon’s inner life, and we might not have known about it later if not for the lucky accident that letters written in 1909 from Jacob Dinezon to a female friend were saved. He says very sentimentally and with apprehension: “How much should I tell you? Suffice it to say that my idealism led me to a certain phase of asceticism, and as a result, I remained quite alone in my life right to the present day. Perhaps you don’t know; listen then to this inconsolable fact: I stayed unmarried and haven’t had or known affectionate tenderness and femininity in my lonely and half-ascetic life, which only a devoted, loyal wife would have been able to give me. My life would not have been so cold and without consolation as it is now. My nearest and most intimate friends don’t know this.”

Jacob Dinezon was fifty-three years old when he wrote these moving lines.

As is well known, Jacob Dinezon was devoted heart and soul to his intimate friend I. L. Peretz, for whom he had so much love, enthusiasm, and also more than a little patience and perseverance.

This remarkable and close friendship lasted all the years of Peretz’s literary creativity, from 1888 until Peretz’s death, and endured with intense longing and intense grief for his beloved Peretz during the years from 1915 until 1919 when Jacob Dinezon exhaled his last breath. Much has been written about the warm friendship between Peretz and Dinezon. We have many contradictory stories and descriptions about this, which were often based simply on conjecture or superficial impressions of writers who say things for no reason. In my book Yitskhok Leybush Peretz un zayn dor shrayber (Y. L.Peretz: The Writer of His Generation), New York, 1951, I dedicate a chapter to the mutual respect between I. L. Peretz and Jacob Dinezon and bring to it lots of material about just that interesting issue. I refer anyone interested in this in particular, to the book. I’d like to stop here at just a few details and characteristics, which reveal the contradictory relations between these two very different writer personalities.

3

First of all—we must dispute the well-known assertions of various writers, that Peretz looked down on his dear friend Jacob Dinezon and that he often even found him odious. This is absolutely false!

It’s sufficient to acquaint oneself with the close to one hundred letters that Peretz wrote to Jacob Dinezon in the years of their friendship-brotherhood—when Peretz was away from Warsaw, or Dinezon was not in the same city as Peretz—to see how Peretz related with great love and deep respect to Dinezon, who was for him much more than a beadle or servant. The moving letters from Peretz to Dinezon have been published in my book Peretzes briv un redes (Peretz’s Letters and Speeches), New York, 1944.

Sh. L. Tsitron (Zitron) tells a story in his memoirs about how Peretz once came to a certain city accompanied by Jacob Dinezon. At the grand banquet arranged in honor of the guests, fiery speeches were made in honor of Peretz while Dinezon was overlooked. Peretz said in his own speech in response: “You have completely forgotten one thing, the main thing. No one mentioned my ‘inspiration . . .’ And Peretz indicated Dinezon. ‘He, here, is my inspiration[2]. He!’”

It has been said in Dinezon’s name that he had said in jest (and in jest, there is, after all, some seriousness and truth) that “Peretz was a severe man with regards to Dinezon, and as Peretz’s little wife, he often had a bad lot with that husband.”

This is somewhat exaggerated because Peretz himself, as we see from all the letters, needed Dinezon badly, perhaps more than Dinezon needed Peretz. In the “weak” Dinezon, he had a strong supporter in several difficult moments in his life. And when necessary, if Jacob Dinezon saw some possible harm to Peretz in something, Dinezon rebelled against Peretz and asserted himself. Peretz had no choice but to give in, often dissatisfied and angry with Dinezon, who took pains to have him follow his own wishes and opinions.

In one letter where Peretz defends himself to Dinezon and asks him to help him out, Peretz says, “You without me are a zero, but I without you—even less. I am a minus. When will you come already (Dinezon was in Kiev at the time) so that from that moment on, the zero will become some kind of number?”

When a quarrel broke out between Peretz and Sh. Niger in 1914, in connection with his memoirs that the Yidishe velt (Jewish World) published somewhat unwillingly, Peretz even wanted to break with the journal. When Niger suggested something about fury and punishment in a letter, Peretz wrote to the Yidisher velt, “You write about fury and punishment. Both seem to me to be too far-reaching, too incomprehensible. And I knew that Dinezon had a hand in this. He gave a wink. I get it. He writes to you behind my back.”

And about the fact that many people have said that Dinezon gave up writing because of Peretz—that is also not correct. Already in 1893, several years after they met and became friends, Peretz reprimanded Dinezon in a letter with words from deep in his heart: “I don’t understand your ways and your actions. What has happened to you? Can a mother forget her child? Write to me what that means.” And in a second letter, Peretz again demanded that Dinezon write and send something for the next issue of the anthology Yudishe bibliotek (Jewish Library)[3].

And it’s very interesting that Jacob Dinezon once wrote to the editors of Yidishe velt with whom he almost quarreled (this was in 1914, as mentioned earlier): “Reading over your worthy letter, I wonder why you took Peretz’s momentary anger so seriously. Don’t panic; one can say about him: his anger lasts no more than a minute. He soon realizes, however, that the other side is also right. I was by chance not there when he wrote the postcard or letter in that moment of irritation and knew almost nothing of the whole story. Only later did he tell me about it, and I raked him over the coals, probably more than he deserved.”

And about just this matter, Jacob Dinezon says categorically: “Should they continue to print his memoirs? (Peretz had forbidden going ahead with their printing!) Of course, print them! And print them however possible. I accept the responsibility and enough talk!” That’s how influential Jacob Dinezon was and how firm his opinion was with Peretz regarding his decisions.

Y. Y. Trunk, a frequent visitor to Peretz’s home who closely observed the mutual respect between Peretz and Dinezon, relates: “The deeply devoted brotherly friendship from Jacob Dinezon to Peretz could serve as a model as to how one writer can show devoted respect, esteem, and friendship to another.” And Trunk says: “Whenever someone praised Dinezon and talked about his popularity among ordinary folk, Peretz smiled happily and derived great pleasure from it.”[4]

And Sh. An-ski observes very fittingly and poignantly about the Peretz-Dinezon friendship: “Their closeness even exceeded the level of friendship. That intimate bond occurs only for an old married couple who, having spent half a century together with love and devotion, blur the boundaries between them.”

4

In the literary world, there was always a watchful eye and heart on Jacob Dinezon. And let me emphasize that this was not because of Peretz, but certainly also on his own account. People remembered very well what he meant to the previous generation of Yiddish readers who were brought up on I. M. Dik and Shomer. Jacob Dinezon was, as a matter of fact, a step ahead in his language, his content, and the way he accepted and expressed the tragic and suffering life of the Jewish child, the Jewish woman, the honest Jewish man, and the manual laborer. Jacob Dinezon brought a warm, lyrical, poetic tone into Jewish literature after the harsh notes and vehement material of the Haskalah writers. This brought the love for him that lasted many, many years. It was a natural phase, a transition from the folk literature to the more exalted style of Mendele and Peretz and Sholem Aleichem.

Of the various statements by Jacob Dinezon in defense of the Yiddish language, which was persecuted and demeaned in earlier times, let me share at least one, which Zalman Reyzen includes in his Leksikon (Biographical Dictionary), Vilna, 1928, p. 1: “When Dr. S. T. Skomorovski turned to H. Graetz for permission to translate his Popular History of the Jews into Yiddish, the famous historian replied with a refusal that sullied the Yiddish language, J. Dinezon forcefully and bravely came out with an article titled ‘Prof. Graetz and the Yiddish Jargon, or, Who Needs to be Embarrassed by Whom?’ (Supplement to Yudishes folks-blat (Jewish Jewish People’s Newspaper), 1888, p. 2.) He defended the Yiddish language with a slew of arguments and was also not afraid to attack Graetz as a historian, who in his History generally disregarded the Russian Jews (pp. 702-703).”

Jacob Dinezon also distinguished himself in his time with his pure Yiddish language, which completely avoided Germanisms. That placed him in a special position in the growing Yiddish literature of the time. Aside from his popular novels and stories, Jacob Dinezon also wrote fine articles about the role of Yiddish literature and bold memoirs. In addition, he translated and popularized Graetz’s History of the Jewish People and the first volume of his World History.

Along with I. L. Peretz, Jacob Dinezon was also the co-founder of the Jewish orphanages in Warsaw, Poland, with which he was occupied the last years of his life. Subsequently, as is well known, the school committee bore Jacob Dinezon’s name.[5]

I. L. Peretz once published an interesting and touching article about Jacob Dinezon on the occasion of his Jubilee. Among other things, Peretz wrote: “He (Dinezon) is an honest, loyal swallow. An honest, loyal swallow who is prepared every second to rip out the very last feather of his breast for a bed for its young so that the nest will be warm . . . who is ready to tear open his own breast to nourish them with his own warm blood.” So Peretz watched over his Jacob Dinezon, whom he called “My Brother.”

In a letter, Sholem Aleichem labeled Dinezon and his writing thus: “I am exactly your opposite, Dinezon. You cry and wail and gush like a birch and finally conclude with a sweet word and good, hopeful feeling. And when they leave you, they are overloaded, a little soaked, but content, happy, warmed, soothed, and comforted in the best way.”

These are a few characteristics of the kindly Jacob Dinezon, the person and the writer, who occupies his own distinct place in the Yiddish literature of the 19th century, the place of a precious, good-natured uncle or great uncle in the distinguished literary family.

Why not issue a volume of selected works by Jacob Dinezon?

1956


[1] New research suggests Dinezon was born in 1851.
[2] Ruekh-hakoydesh. Literally “holy spirit.”
[3] Peretz edited the literary anthology Di yudishe bibliotek (The Jewish Library). Three volumes appeared between 1891 and 1895.
[4] See J. J. Trunk’s “Peretz at Home: A Young Writer Meets the Great Yiddish Litterateur,” translated from the Yiddish by Lucy Dawidowicz.
[5] In the final years of his life, Dinezon actively supported the secular Yiddish schools movement in Poland.
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