Reviving Jacob Dinezon

Reviving Jacob Dinezon

Writer, teacher, and Yiddishist Curt Leviant’s new novel, “King of Yiddish,” will be published this month.

Jacob Dinezon
Jacob Dinezon

Tekhiyas ha-meysim, resurrection of the dead, is not an everyday occurrence.

But it happens in literature when attention once again is focused on long-neglected authors. Scott Davis, editor and publisher of Storyteller Press, is one of those resurrectors. He has rediscovered the prolific and best-selling 19th century Yiddish writer Jacob Dinezon, who was friendly with the Big Three, the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature — Mendele Mocher Seforim, Sholom Aleichem, and Y.L. Peretz — and he has brought him back.

So far four works by or pertaining to Dinezon have been published by Storyteller Press: “Memories and Scenes,” a collection of stories and reminiscences (2014); two novels, “Yosele” (2015) and “Hershele” (2016); and now the 1956 biography “Jacob Dinezon: The Mother Among our Classical Writers,” by the Argentinian Yiddish writer Shmuel Rozhanski, translated by Miri Koral.

I must confess that even though I took an advanced degree in Yiddish literature at Columbia University I had never once heard him resurrected. But now when you scroll through an internet site for Peretz, you see not one but two photos of Dinezon; one with Sholom Aleichem and Peretz, the other with Peretz alone

Dinezon was friendly with Peretz for a quarter of century. In 1890 he published Peretz’s first book, “Bekante Bilder” (Familiar Pictures), at his own expense, when all other publishers rejected it, and he presented the entire printing to his friend.

Rozhanski’s book is not exactly a biography in the classical sense. (In fact, he doesn’t even tell us what year Dinezon was born.) Rather, the author focuses on Dinezon’s books and the interaction between them and the author’s life. It may more properly be called a literary biography, with summary and gentle analysis and evaluation of Dinezon’s works.

Jacob Dinezon, who was born near Kovno, Lithuania, and died in Warsaw in 1919, was one of the most popular Yiddish writers during the 19th century, when Yiddish literature flourished in Eastern Europe. His novel “The Dark Young Man” sold more than 200,000 copies. Every Jewish household had his books, but because of the sentimental nature of his work his reputation has fallen into neglect. He was considered passé because critics felt he pandered too much to women readers and other lovers of romances. Today he might be considered the author of soap operas or pulp fiction. But still, a respected Yiddish writer placed Dinezon and Sholom Aleichem on the same plane, calling the former lachrymose and the latter funny — and both writers of the folk.

In Rozhanski’s book we learn of the spiritual and linguistic struggle that Yiddish works had to undergo during mid to late 19th century, when proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, sought to highlight Hebrew belles lettres and diminish Yiddish. Among these maskilim were Mendele Mocher Seforim, who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, and Sholom Aleichem, who began in Hebrew but then switched to Yiddish.

a2-l-hershele-1223Dinezon too was torn between the two languages, and this inner battle is aptly depicted in one of his letters. There he says that when he writes in Hebrew and uses phrases from Isaiah or Ezekiel, he feels that the prophets are speaking for him. But when he writes in Yiddish he feels that he is speaking for himself, and that his protagonists are speaking in their own authentic voices.

This is perhaps the best description of the inner conflict that 19th century writers who knew both Hebrew and Yiddish had to face. The usual explanation for dropping Hebrew and returning to Yiddish — this was Sholom Aleichem’s position, for instance — was the more practical one. They said that the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe knew Yiddish far better than Hebrew and hence the readership in Hebrew was very limited. But Dinezon’s literary explanation penetrates to the heart of the artistic problem of choosing one or the other of two Jewish languages.

Rozhanski calls Dinezon “mother” for his gentle nature. Once, when Peretz devastated a young writer whose short story he had read by telling him “Enough! You have no talent,” Dinezon, who was present, called the young man aside and told him to try again. Perhaps his next effort would be better.

But yet Dinezon had the courage to criticize Seforim, whom Sholom Aleichem called the “zayde,” the grandfather, of Yiddish literature. Dinezon called Seforim too much of a purist regarding use of the Yiddish language. He felt the language of the plain folk should be used. And Rozhanski claims that Dinezon’s goals were more moralistic than artistic; hence Dinezon criticized Mendele’s satires, regarding them as humor without any moral lesson.

Indeed, it was the moral lesson and a practical uplift of society that Dinezon had in mind when he published “Yosele.” In this short novel, he criticized the cruel educational methods teachers used in small town cheders. This novel prompted calls for reform, helped modernize pedagogy, and led to the creation of more secularly minded schools for youngsters.

The biographer contends that Dinezon’s creativity shouldn’t be measured by books alone. His work for orphans, his translation of Graetz’s “History of the Jews” from German into Yiddish, even though Graetz didn’t want his work “desecrated” by having it in jargon, and his thousands of letters to writers and social activists — all these Rozhanski considers part of Dinezon’s creative accomplishments.

So modest a man was Dinezon that once, at a literary even in honor of Peretz, the Yiddish author said that his inspiration was — he pointed to Dinezon in the audience — “My holy soul is this man…this man.” At this Dinezon rose and denied Peretz’s kind remark by saying that the inspiration comes from within Peretz himself.

Dinezon was a lifelong bachelor. At one point in his life he was, like Sholom Aleichem, a tutor to the daughter of a wealthy man. Like Sholom Aleichem, he fell in love with the girl, and the girl’s love was reciprocated. But whereas Sholom Aleichem ended up marrying his pupil, Dinezon was denied his student. Despite this setback, he continued to serve the wealthy man in other trusted capacities.

In 1913, when Sholom Aleichem was ill in Europe — he would emigrate to the United States in 1914 — Dinezon wrote him a letter revealing a plan. When Sholom Aleichem would feel better, he would join Peretz, and they would go to Palestine and walk the land and write a book about their adventures. “So get well soon,” Dinezon concludes.

Of course this dream was never realized.

For this slim in-depth literary biography Rozhanski assiduously mined letters, newspapers, magazines, Yiddish writers’ memoirs, and critical evaluations, as well as all of Dinezon’s published works, and from them he drew information about the writer, in his own words and in the estimation of others.

Curt Leviant is an author and translator; his two most recent critically acclaimed novels are “King of Yiddish” and “Kafka’s Son.”

“Jacob Dinezon: The Mother Among our Classical Yiddish Writers,” by Shmuel Rozhanski, translated by Miri Koral, Storyteller Press, $15.95.

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