Rediscovering a lost giant

Rediscovering a lost giant

Jacob Dinezon (1856-1919), was a Yiddish novelist and short story writer, as famous during his lifetime as were his contemporaries, the three pillars of late 19th and early 20th century Yiddish literature, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Y.L. Peretz, and Sholom Aleichem. All of these masters knew and were impressed with Dinezon’s work.

During his period of literary activity in the latter half of the 19th century, Dinezon at times even outshadowed the three founding fathers, because his books, which touched thousands of readers, were more widely sold. In fact, one of his novels sold more than 200,000 copies, an unheard-of success in Yiddish literature. Dinezon achieved fame at 20 with the publication of his first novel, and remained famous until the day he died. He was so well known and beloved that every major figure of Yiddish literature came to his funeral in 1919.

imageEven encylopedias in English recognized him. The early 20th century Jewish Encyclopedia lists Dinezon as an important Yiddish writer (like other classical Yiddish writers, he also established a reputation as a Hebrew author), praise that is echoed in the contemporary Encylopedia Judaica.

Sometimes mazel plays a role in literary fame. But in Dinezon’s case it seemed to express itself in income and not in posthumous regard. And now that the worldwide Yiddish-reading community is vanishing, a writer’s lot can be determined by translation, which can bring fame, and to discovery, which in turn can prompt translation. If a writer doesn’t find his translator/editor in another language, he suffers the misfortune of neglect, which is what happened with Dinezon. If you ask any knowledgeable reader familiar with Sholom Aleichem and other famous Yiddish writers if he has ever heard of Jacob Dinezon the answer probably would be no.

Until now we have not had any work by Dinezon in English. But this lacuna has been successfully filled with the wonderful book of 11 Dinezon stories, beautifully translated by Tina Lunson and edited by Scott Davis, who has also provided an illuminating introduction.

Dinezon was a social realist, accurately depicting small town (shtetl) Jewish life. With a cinematic eye he zeroes in on his characters, deftly telling fascinating stories while at the same time giving an accurate portrait of the mores, attitudes, speech, and foibles of the men, women, and children whom he depicts.

Like Dickens, Jacob Denizon wrote about the downtrodden and about poorly treated students in Hebrew schools with such realism that he actually brought about reforms. A cross-section of Jewish society in Poland lives in his pages: the young and old, chasidim and enlightened Jews, simple workingmen and rich householders. Every single one of his stories breathes with life and verisimilitude.

In this book of stories, a collection published after Dinezon’s death in 1919, we have finely crafted tales – so in keeping with Jewish short-story writing at the turn of the 20th century – that recall vividly portrayed shtetl characters from Dinezon’s childhood years and memories of such literary figures as Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sholem Abramovitsh), I.L. Peretz, and the playwright Avrom Goldfaden.

Jacob Dinezon also played an important historical role in the development of Yiddish as a literary language. In fact, he mentored, advised, and befriended almost every major Jewish writer of his day. The list reads like a who’s who of late 19th and early 20th century modern Yiddish literature: Mendele Mocher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz (whose first book of stories Dinezon published), Abraham Goldfaden, Sh. Ans-ki, David Frishman, Shimon Frug, Sholem Asch, David Pinski, and Avraham Reisen.

In one of the superb stories, “Mayer Yeke,” we see how a boy’s great fear of the shtetl’s most righteous Jew, Mayer Yeke, turns to love and respect after he witnesses Mayer’s mitzvah in assisting the town drunk. “Sholem Yoyne Flask” shows a mild-mannered tailor transformed by the liquor in his flask into a fiery defender of the town’s poor folk. Then something happens when a surprising discovery is made about his flask.

With “Motl Farber, Purimshpieler,” we are introduced to a housepainter who languishes during the winter when he cannot work, but who at Purim time becomes the leader of a band of Purim players. When the troupe is arrested by the new Russian police chief, an unlikely “Esther” comes to their rescue.

Another story, “Yosl Algebrenik and His Student,” achieves the psychological depth of a Dostoevsky tale. It tells the story of Yosl, an outstanding Talmud scholar, a genius some said, destined to become a great rabbi, who has a singular passion for mathematics. But at 30, for reasons no one remembers, he tosses away the Talmud and its commentaries for the study of algebra and algebraic logic. From then on he spends all his time studying algebra, except for the few hours a week he devotes to tutoring children to eke out a living.

Another moving and profound story is called “Borekh,” after the name of the hero, a poor orphan living in the yeshiva. He doesn’t do too well in talmudic studies but he has a talent for wood carving, making dreidls, Purim groggers, and toy animals for the children of the town. One day he decides to leave the yeshiva and start a new life, with the hope of making a great Holy Ark, “one that people have never seen before.” And when he does that he will send the ark to his friend in the yeshiva whom he knows will become a great scholar. And then Borekh leaves the yeshiva without saying goodbye.

Some of Dinezon’s autobiographical sketches are as engaging as his fiction. In “My First Work,” Dinezon relates the childhood experience of reading his first Yiddish novel, a Jewish version of Robinson Crusoe. He is so taken by the book, he writes his own adventure story. In “Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh,” Dinezon tells how his debut novel, “The Dark Young Man,” was published, and how he acquired his first copy in Moscow. At the same time he learns that the Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim and the Hebrew author Sholem Abramovitsh actually are the same person.

It is not often that we are privileged to make a literary discovery of our own. With this book by Jacob Dinezon, the first in English, we happily encounter a master writer who deserves to be ranked with the great Yiddish writers whom he befriended and who admired him.

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