Prologue to Yosele and The Crisis

By Shmuel Rozshanski

From Yosele – Der krizis: romanen
(Yosele – The Crisis: Novels)
Musterverk fun der yidisher literatur
Shmuel Rozshanski, Editor
Buenos Aires: Yosef Lifshits-fond beym
kultur-kongres in Argentina, 1959
Translated from the Yiddish by
Ruth Fisher Goodman


Jacob Dinezon—Intelligent and Compassionate

From Phenomenal Success to Silence (Oblivion)

Jacob Dinezon, “The mother among our classics” [1] was born in 1856—the same year that Solomon Ettinger died, and who had the opposite luck than that of “the great-grandfather of the new Yiddish literature.” [2]

During his lifetime, Ettinger wasn’t privileged to see even one line of his creative works published. On the other hand, Dinezon, at age 21, experienced the greatest success of any writer. The novel The Dark Young Man, according to Dinezon’s own words, “sold 200 thousand copies in just a few years.” [3] Ettinger became known only after his death, while Dinezon realized success during his lifetime. Peretz’s heart went out to him [4] (“We know the new poetic tone that J. Dinezon introduced to the current ‘Jargon-Literature’” [5]), but the interest in his works declined after his death. “It appears that they are not being read at all.” [6]

Dinezon’s bitter fate was the result of two reasons: One of the reasons was that Jewish literature was going through a transformation.

The transformation that Jewish literature experienced in a short time in other nations took hundreds of years to accomplish, and that is why at the end of the 19th century, the judgments and tastes of the readers of literature quickly changed.

If one were to consider dividing the 75 years of this era, one would have to divide them into five stages and five centers on three continents which were subjected to great upheavals and destined to exchange roles: either we were too static or we were too dynamic. Yiddish literature changed so rapidly from being very old-fashioned to being ultra-modern that the reader and even the critic lost his sense of ownership, origin, tradition, history, and eternal vocabulary.

Our institutions of the Yiddish language were created primarily between the two World Wars and also were the first laboratories of idealistic scholars who began to correct past mistakes, protecting what was worthy, rehabilitating what wasn’t, and carrying forth the sense of tradition. Elia Bokhur, Solomon Ettinger, and Israel Aksenfeld were the first to be rescued from oblivion, dusted off, given exposure, and receiving the status they deserved. This important work was interrupted during the Holocaust, and one of the victims was Jacob Dinezon.

And there is another reason. It was not an external reason that placed Dinezon in the shadows but an internal one, and it was Jacob Dinezon’s fault: He was angry with Yiddish literature, and particularly [7] at a time when he was the most widely read author and the best-known. [8]

In the thirteen years that Dinezon did not want to publish between 1877 and 1890, just when his first published novel captured a huge reading audience, his luck was falling apart. But he did this with full awareness: with “goodwill and directness.”

When he came to the realization (as he wrote in a letter to the greatest Jewish historian in 1889), “With this book, The Dark Young Man, I think that I brought more harm than good to Yiddish literature because others tried to imitate me, especially Shomer, and have corrupted the taste of the common reader.” [9] Dinezon showed that he accepted responsibility with a candor seldom seen in writers. He who conducted himself with compassion, sentimentality, and tears in life and portrayed the characters in his novels in the same way was willing to sacrifice himself and accept whatever the consequences.

He also made sacrifices on behalf of his friend, Peretz, who was a modernist with wings, while he, Dinezon, was a realist with a soft heart “who belonged to a different era of writing Yiddish literature.” [10] Inspired by Peretz, he forgot about himself, though he had a full desk of unpublished manuscripts and was perceived by others as being strangely shy. “Somehow, one is reluctant to give Dinezon, the writer, positive recognition in the highly developed literature.” Though there were reservations and he was not being considered on the same high artistic level as other writers, it must be perfectly clear to the sophisticated reader that “we have had two true folk writers: Dinezon and Sholem Aleichem.” [11]

—Shmuel Roszshanski

For History and the Reader

Jacob Dinezon’s writing is important not only as a literary document of his time but also for history. “Several of his works are worthy of remaining as old folktales where young and old can shed their tears and kindle within themselves the empathy for those who are abandoned and separated from life.” [12]

Jacob Dinezon is a pioneer in Yiddish literature. He is the first Yiddish writer of the long novel. “The Romantic Sexual Motif,” which “was almost altogether missing,” was through Mendele’s Fishke der Krume (Fishke the Lame) and Dinezon’s The Dark Young Man almost unknown in Yiddish fiction in the “Enlightenment Epoch” and “in this regard, Dinezon’s novel is certainly new.” [13] And most certainly, the tone of sentimentality is new, bringing the reader to tears. Dinezon introduced this into Yiddish prose.

Dinezon did not have the ambition of an innovator. He was too modest and shy. Even so, in forging his own path, he effortlessly made an impact on his generation and can also influence the young modern Jew who is distanced from Dinezon’s decency and naïveté. Delicate human feelings impact even those who don’t have them and don’t want them. Dinezon, in his novels and even in his short stories, brought face-to-face the tyrants and evildoers with gentle souls who don’t lose their gentleness even when confronted by tyrants. The yeshiva boy, Joseph, and the delicate girl, Rosa, are not broken by her brother-in-law in The Dark Man. No matter what troubles he caused them, they still remained the same genteel people until their deaths.

Dinezon describes in A Stumbling Block in the Road, the tyranny in a Rabbi’s household where the refined Rachel was “sold” like a cow into marriage by the honest teacher who served as the broker for a pittance and can relate to the sorrows in raising children. The wronged rich daughter “Mirele” in Hershele does not lose her genteel nature, nor does her beloved teacher who is taken away in chains.

The orphan, Yosele, who is beaten and goes to his grave before his time, never has his moral spirit broken despite the lies, hunger, and homelessness he suffers. The merchant, Abelman, who sees “bankrupters” all around him, for whom The Crisis provides a good opportunity to get rich by defrauding others, wrangles with his own conscience because of his fascination with gambling and doesn’t want to sink himself.

Dinezon, more than any others among the intelligentsia, carried forth the tradition and inheritance of the “ethical era” of Yiddish literature, especially the Torah of lev tov (good heart). In this way, Dinezon was the first of the intelligentsia to form a bond between intelligence and morality with his pen. Therefore, ethics is more important to him than aesthetics. The good person is the beautiful person. Dinezon is a religious endower of ethics. He placed clemency and ethics above wisdom, like a naïve person, a child. Such childlike purity was portrayed in his novels—goodness to the core.

On the other hand, his novels expose tyranny and evil; Dinezon showed boldness in his approach and was just the opposite of all other writers of that time, where tyranny and evil were at the center.

The Enlightenment, in its entire critical rationalization, was not as one-sided as the Chasidic Movement, which only showed the negative side of Jewish life. Dinezon was the first of the intelligentsia to show the opposite of the negative Jewish types portrayed by other writers. He showed the positive side of his characters. He pitted goodness against tyranny. In his pioneering effort, he fought evil with good. He used primitive means to accomplish this effort. Whether it was the tyrant or the holy man or the use of the primitive approach to literature, Jacob Dinezon was the one who led the way for succeeding writers who found fault with religious people and tyrants to find sparks of goodness.

Dinezon, who was part of the circle of classical writers, stands out uniquely on a distinct standard. He is a storyteller who discusses issues tastefully. He tells the story and does not mince words. He allows characters to talk long and freely. Plays on words that are characteristic of classic writers are foreign to him. It was for this reason that he had run-ins with Mendele and Sholem Aleichem in his first period. He said, “You’re not supposed to disguise a drop of morality from the senses” in writing and not stretch it as long as “Benjamin’s third voyage.” He held a grudge against Mendele because: “He’s playing around and being derisively mocking and laughing.” [14] Dinezon felt that some of the writers of his day used too much “luxury” in Yiddish. Even later, when they sought his influence in the theater because he was the closest person to Peretz, he wrote: “Actors should not be taught how to act, but what to act.” [15]

Goodness was more important to him than beauty. He was learned, educated, and, most of all, full of love. He hated “in the name of love.”

On the contrary, to the literary trash writers, he showed that bad people could have good lives while the good could leave this world mostly forgotten, alone, having suffered victimization and bemoaning their burdens. And if we were to read his novels today, our hearts would still be touched, and we would cry over injustices in life.

The Good Person and the Responsible Educator

The fact that Jacob Dinezon had voluntarily and with full awareness interrupted his great success as a novelist is an example of the good person he was and of his influence as a leader in his field. The high point of his creative accomplishments is his striving for goodness. In portraying realistic Jewish life in Russia at the end of the 19th century, he brings his reader to repugnance and, at times, disgust of the evildoers, and by creating a succession of characters and married couples, especially portraying children (and adults who remained children) with love, he brings forth empathy for the abandoned and suffering honest people. In a letter to a female friend in 1909, he wrote: “God gave me more heart than mind which is ever present and in all places; my heart holds more sway than my mind; it is self-evident in the struggle for existence, and even more in the struggle between right and wrong; there, where the leveling of the mind needs to play a part, where energy, strength, and determination is more necessary than anything else; self-evident within me is that my heart holds a more prominent place and does not shrink from its role, and if my heart is the longstanding unlucky hero in the war, then I have no need to tell anything.” [16]

The last phrase, “then I have no need to tell,” is characteristic of Dinezon. He never hid any aspect of his life except one big secret. Even his best friend, I. L. Peretz never knew why he never married. That alone is a plot for a novel: how the young teacher fell in love with his student and never told anyone; quite the contrary, he helped to carry out the match her family made for her to another . . . and other milder variations. Dinezon portrayed this motif in Hershele and Alter naturally and with fewer curiosities, even though it was upsetting in his daily life. Except for Dinezon, no one portrayed such naïve and blameless victims in Yiddish literature. [17]

He writes about orphans in wealthy homes, as in Two Mothers, about abandoned orphans, abandoned but under the care of a good, dear, loving mother. Dinezon’s work brings forth so many tears that no other writer of his day spoke on behalf of the child who falls victim to false accusations, as in Yosele.

I. L. Peretz portrayed the Jewish child who philosophized that the moon should get bigger; Sholem Aleichem portrayed the child with joyful fantasies. Dinezon did not portray such children; that is why goodness, patience, and tolerance flow from them, and we are moved because the emotion is within us and is renewed and that: “aside from beatings and hunger, there is something that is more painful, and that is poverty and injustice.” [18]

Dinezon was a quiet, respectable Jew but was portrayed in literature as a radical. Yosele was used by radical groups for many years to attack traditional Jewish elementary schools and campaign for change. They also attacked the quality of the teachers who were put to the test of their earnings. Berel, like other teachers who were, in essence, honest but caught in the middle of the controversy and were wretched with worry for fear of losing their livelihood, was instinctively motivated to keep silent about the faults of the disruptive rich children and because of them, beat the poor, blameless Yosele.

Dinezon portrayed these faults, the result of Jewish poverty, in this novel in 1899 and in others. In A Stumbling Block in the Road (1890), he showed how Jewish education was greatly lacking, especially the wide gulf between the rich and poor. With all his heart and soul, he collaborated with Peretz in 1915 to build a good home and educational institution for children that became the forerunner of secular Jewish schools in Poland. It was not only a philanthropic endeavor to provide food and shelter for the little ones who, during World War I, had lost their parents and their homes and were starving, wandering homeless in the streets, but it was strongly connected to Dinezon’s concern for Jewish education and Jewish educators. There is no other writer in Jewish literature who chose the teachers for his heroes and—victims.

Dinezon doesn’t call to rebellion by force—he enjoins: “Why shouldn’t we pick up the stones from our streets so that no one will ever stumble over them?” [19] But he also warns: “Foolish people, if a foot is broken, it can be mended; if a heart is broken, there is no doctor or medication to heal it.” [20] Dinezon, a mender of hearts, takes pity on his heroes and covers them with hot tears. He imbues his reader with feelings of honor that will not be compromised and also with the importance of social justice. He pointed out to the “beautiful Jews” how they must complain to the police on behalf of the most defenseless yeshiva boy Hershele and to the Rabbi’s household and honor, which he trades for silk garments.

The general perception that Dinezon’s personality hinged on his relationship and friendship with Peretz is a mistaken one. His close friendship with Peretz quickly sullied his reputation. Certainly, he did serve Peretz, and he did stop publishing. He continued to write much but put his work in a drawer. Like an old-fashioned, devoted mother, he neglected himself because of “the children.”

Dinezon was not as helpless as was generally thought since many of Peretz’s important initiatives were heaped on him. The plan to settle in Argentina to found a Jewish daily newspaper with the help of YIKO in 1892 was planned and managed by Dinezon. Peretz got the credit for many of the works done for cultural organizations but were actually planned and implemented by Dinezon. Let it be known that this alone, that the responsible Dinezon was able to get along with and work with the stormy Peretz—that the romanticist and symbolist were not so distant from realism—and united them in a great dream of literature for the people who were striving to be free.

Throughout his first period, Dinezon dreamed of being a Hebrew writer. Even in his first novel, he writes about his educational orientation. He gives the title of his books, first in Hebrew, which is taken from a Biblical verse in the Torah (The Five Books of Moses) or from Psalms, and only after that does he give the Yiddish title. And even before Peretz finished his enlightened utilitarian education of Yiddish and before Sholem Aleichem published his “Judgment Over Conversion,” Dinezon came forth very strongly in favor of Yiddish. When Graetz declared that he “would not permit the translation of his popular History of the Jews because jargon was a disgrace for the Jewish folk people,” [21] Dinezon was the first of the classical writers to come forth in defense of Yiddish motivated by the modern national Jew. Precisely because he is “generally the one who best understands the dawning of our modern literature.” [22]

Jacob Dinezon played the role of mother in the circle of the classical writers, crying over his heroes and eliciting pity and heartfelt sorrow. He personally played this same role among the writers as he did among the children in the homes in Warsaw. He was for them, their mother. His letters, several thousand of them without exaggeration, are living witnesses. “His unused talent as a writer is incorporated in his correspondence.” It “has simultaneously a literary and historical meaning,” and it must be collected and published.” [23] Sadly, in the first 40 years after his death, this has not been done, but the few that were published show the great worth of this apostolic legacy from this writer who really should have been born either 50 years earlier or one hundred years later. [24]

[1] Shmuel Rozshanski, Jacob Dinezon, vol. A, 1956, from the Culture Congress, p. 132.
[2] Solomon Ettinger, Selected Sketches. First volume: Masterpieces of the Yiddish Literature, from the Joseph Lifshitz Fund, vol. A, 1957, p.  264.
[3] Moshe Starkman, “Philip Krantz Literary Encounters” from Philosophical Sketches from YIVO, vol. 3, Vilna, 1929, col. 60.
[4] Mark Schweid, Console My People: I. L. Peretz, New York, 1955, p. 208.
[5] Bal-Makhshoves, Selected Writings, vol. 1, Warsaw, 1910, p. 114.
[6] Sh. Gorelick Jewish Minds, Dresden, 1921, p. 99.
[7] Sh. Niger, Pages of History from Yiddish Literature, New York, 1959, p. 386.
[8] I. L. Peretz, “Literature and Life,” vol. 10, The Works of I. L. Peretz, New York, 1920, p. 136.
[9] Shimon Dubnov, From Jargon to Yiddish, Vilna, 1929, pp. 27–28.
[10] A. Mukduni, In Warsaw and in Lodz, vol. 1, 1955, p. 141.
[11] Alter Kacyzne, “The Problem—Dinezon” in Literary Pages, No. 22, Warsaw, 1924.
[12] Jacob Fichman, “Portraits” and “The Moment,” in Three Acts, Warsaw, 1924.
[13] Sh. Niger, Storytellers and Novelists, vol. 1, New York, 1946, p. 79.
[14] Jacob Dinezon, “The Yiddish Language and Her Writers,” in collection from House Friend, Warsaw, 1887, p. 11.
[15] Jacob Dinezon, Memories and Scenes, vol. 6, Complete Works, 1937, p. 244.
[16] Jacob Dinezon letter offering reason, Pinkos, YIVO, vol. 1, New York, 1927–8, p. 377
[17] Complete Works, vol. 7, p. 96.
[18] Yosele.
[19] Even negef (Stumbling Block), vol. 2, Complete Works.
[20] Vol. 7, p. 131.
[21] Solomon Skomorovski, “Flow of Letters Between Me and Dr. Graetz,” Ha-Melits (The Advocate), Petersburg, 1887, no. 278, and Jacob Dinezon, “Prof. Graetz and the Yiddish Jargon, or, Who Should be Ashamed of Whom?” Yudishe Folks-blat (The Jewish People’s Paper), Petersburg, 1888, no. 2.
[22] M. Litvakov in Umruh (Anxiety), vol. 2, Moscow, 1926, cited in Yiddish Literature, Moscow, 1928 p. 148.
[23] Sh. Niger, “Jacob Dinezon’s Letters,” Di tsukumft (The Future), New York, 1929, p. 620.
[24] Sholem Aleichem in his letters to J. Dinezon from December 8, 1901, printed in New York in the YIVO Bleter (YIVO Pages), vol. 3, no. 4-5, p. 350.
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