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The ‘Mother’ of Yiddish Literature

Rokhl’s Golden City: A new set of English translations brings Jacob Dinezon’s books to new readers, 100 years after his death

Rokhl Kafrissen
August 28, 2019
Jacob Dinezon Photo:
Jacob Dinezon Photo:

If you’ve studied or read modern Yiddish literature, chances are you’ve heard the name Yankev (Jacob) Dinezon. He was friend, confidante, and majordomo to some of the giants of modern Yiddish literature, including Sholem Aleichem, S. Ansky, and I.L. Peretz. In fact, Dinezon is buried in a magnificent ohel (mausoleum) in Warsaw, alongside his friends Ansky and Peretz. If modern Yiddish literature struggled to work out what Jewish romance might look like, it was the real life bromance between Peretz and Dinezon that lay at its foundation.

Though Dinezon is there in all the literary histories, his actual work is almost nowhere today, and certainly not in English translation. A new set of English translations of Dinezon’s work from Jewish Storyteller Press aims to change that, bringing his name back to Jewish readers in 2019, his 100th yortsayt.

Given Dinezon’s absence from the literary canon, I had always assumed his greatest contribution was in nurturing the careers of his friends and colleagues. Where Mendele Moykher Sforim, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem were (self-)mythologized as the Grandfather, Father, and Son of Yiddish literature, Yiddish literary critic Shmuel Roszhanski considered Dinezon the “Mother.”

It’s the kind of intriguingly gendered concept that makes the modern Yiddish student’s ears prick up. What are we to make of the “feminine” coding of Dinezon and his absence from modern Yiddish literature syllabi? From the very beginning, Yiddish was figured as “feminine,” a language for women or men who were like women. Hebrew literature was the battleground on which maskilim like Peretz and Sholem Aleichem sought to prove their masculinity. That is, until they realized that limiting themselves to Hebrew meant limiting themselves to a minuscule audience.

Similar reasoning pushed Dinezon to switch from Hebrew to Yiddish for his literary work. Later in his life, he recalled (in the preface to The Dark Young Man) that Hebrew work was not reaching “the thousands and tens of thousands of brothers and sisters to whom my writings might have been useful and to whom my tales might have brought pleasure.” But where a writer like Mendele used an acid, ironic tone to make his points about contemporary Jewish life in the Pale, Dinezon employed a much gentler, sentimental tone, as well as a more realistic approach. That, and Dinezon’s deep empathy with the plight of Jewish women, as well as their subjectivity, makes it clear why Roszhanski attempted to write him back into the pantheon as the “Mother.”

Though we think of Dinezon’s friendship with Peretz as iconic, his relationships with three women were perhaps just as defining. As an adult, he was famous for his Warsaw literary salons with Peretz; they were the address for Yiddish literature. But he actually lived with his sister, a woman who received so little recognition that even her name, Feyge Katz, was unknown until recently.

As a teenager, Dinezon was engaged by a woman named Helena Horowitz to become the live-in Hebrew tutor for her family. It was there that Dinezon began his journey into secular literature. It was on a business trip to Vilne on behalf of the Horowitz family that he met Helena Horowitz’s sister, Dvoyre Romm. Romm was one of the directors of the renowned Romm printing house. And it was Romm that brought out his first novel and changed the course of his life.

That first novel, newly translated by Tina Lunson and edited by Scott Hilton Davis, is the 1877 bestseller, The Dark Young Man. It’s the story of a yeshiva boy called Yosef who leaves home and winds up as the live-in tutor in a wealthy Mohilev home. (There are many intriguing autobiographical notes to The Dark Young Man.) He falls in love with the beautiful middle daughter, Roza, but their love is thwarted by a mustache-twirling villain-slash-brother-in-law, the titular Dark Young Man, Meyshe Shneyur. (Like the characters in the book, Dinezon was a Litvak from Mohilev [modern Belarus] and would have pronounced the name Moyshe as Meyshe.)

The Dark Young Man was a surprise hit, selling 200,000 copies and spawning a flood of imitators. The Dark Young Man is indeed sentimental, and almost entirely lacking in the satirical bite and humor of his more famous friends. But there is still a lot to recommend this new translation.

First and perhaps most importantly, Davis cut down the original 600-page book to a fast-paced gem under 300 pages, the perfect length for a one-shabbes read. It’s not an academically oriented book and it lacks footnotes or YIVO-standard orthography. But what it does provide is a highly enjoyable taste of early modern Yiddish literature as well as a window into the creation of the first Yiddish novel readers.

Dinezon quite self-consciously sets out to teach his readers the value of reading novels. For example, we see excerpts from Yosef’s diary in which he recalls his cousin giving him non-Jewish books and pressing him to look into their deeper meaning. “No one,” this cousin says, “writes a story for its own sake. The author is called by a certain cause to eliminate evil and encourage good.” The problem with reading non-Jewish books, though, is that the characters are non-Jews, so even if they set a modern, moral example, how can Jews be expected to imitate them? It’s a not-so-subtle prompt to the reader to be grateful for the creation of Jewish novels.

At the end of the story, after we have endured many truly despicable acts by the villainous Meyshe Shneyur, our narrator reflects that the only examples he had were the criminal lowlifes who surrounded him. Perhaps, if he had had literary examples of the bad ends that come to bad people, he might have had the opportunity to reflect on his wicked ways. It’s an awfully big ask, but understandable, coming from a time and place where many had substituted religious faith for literary, and believed literature really could change the world.

The Dark Young Man is sympathetic to its protagonists, 19th-century Jews struggling toward modernity while trying to maintain their Jewishness. It mostly lacks the ironic humor that characterizes a much more exaggerated maskilic polemic, like Mendele’s The Wishing Ring. But Dinezon the Litvak is clear that obscurantism has no place in his modern Jewishness; his contempt for Hasidim is evident throughout the book. Dinezon’s distaste for superstition results in one of the book’s few genuinely funny moments of irony: his spoofing of a local mystic called Shmayahu. Shmayahu’s contribution to the town welfare can be summed up in the tragicomic image of his utter uselessness, as he attempts to put out a fire by throwing a book of Jewish magic on it.

Very few Yiddish novels are translated into English in a given year, perhaps five or six. Translation is costly, slow, and often a hard sell to publishers. So it’s all the more unusual that we are now getting a basket full of Dinezon translations, some of which have been in the works since 2003. I talked to the project’s editor, Scott Hilton Davis, about what motivated him to undertake such an enormous task. Why attempt to rehabilitate an author like Dinezon?

The answer goes back to his days as a student in the Los Angeles area IWO Ordn Shule (Yiddish, originally communist-aligned) mitlshul. It was there that he first became acquainted with the Yiddish classics, largely through his teacher (and legend in her own right), Sabell Bender. Though Davis never properly learned the language, his experience with classic Yiddish literature in translation stayed with him.

After his father’s death in 2001, Davis started teaching Sunday school at a Reform temple in North Carolina, pretty much as far as you can get from a Los Angeles IWO shule. He brought with him the very same book of Yiddish stories he had used as a kid in L.A. What he found was that the power of those stories remained, even for a classroom full of digital-age teenagers. And the deeper he went back into that work, the more intrigued he was by the elusive figure of Dinezon, the mentor and mentsh, a listener and nurturer who reminded him of his own father. It became obvious to him that this would be his tribute to his father’s Yiddishkayt (along with his sister’s help), he could do for Dinezon what Dinezon did for so many other writers. He set out, he said, to “put Jacob Dinezon back on the bookshelf next to his friends, Sholem Aleichem and Peretz.”

READ: Purchase The Dark Young Man or other newly translated Dinezon titles from Jewish Storyteller Press, here.

ATTEND: On Aug. 29, Scott Davis will be speaking about Dinezon at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Also on Aug. 29, there will be a special commemoration of Dinezon at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, part of the Singer Warsaw Jewish Culture Festival. If you happen to be in Poland, check the festival schedule for that event and more (through Sept. 1). On Sept. 3 in New York City, Scott Davis, Dinezon translator Tina Lunson, and League for Yiddish executive director Sheva Zucker will take part in an evening honoring Dinezon’s 100th yortsayt.

MORE: Sept. 1 is the 20th anniversary of the European Day of Jewish Culture. Check the EDJC website to find events in countries all over Europe. In London, one of the Day of Jewish Culture events is Klezmer in the Park, September 8, at noon in Regent’s Park. … Friend of the column Yevgeniy Fiks opens a new exhibit on Sept. 4. Moscow: Gay Cruising Sites of the Soviet Capital, 1920s-1980s features photographs by Fiks with a focus on “Revolutionary Communist and Soviet state sites appropriated by queer Muscovites.” Yevgeniy’s pocket-size Soviet Moscow’s Yiddish-Gay Dictionary is one of my favorite (imagined) pieces of Yiddishland ephemera. … In what I’m fairly sure is a first, an English-Yiddish film will be on the bill at the Toronto International Film Festival’s famous Midnight Madness horror mini-fest. The Vigil is about a Boro Park shoymer (watchman) guarding a dead body overnight. It looks absolutely terrifying so, of course I’m dying to see it. Screenings Sept. 9, 11, and 15. … I loved the new Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman biopic, Beyle: The Artist and Her Legacy. If you’re in Boston you can see it at the Wyner Family Heritage Center at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Sept. 12 at 7 p.m., 99-101 Newbury Street. … Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk brings her Yiddish tango program to New York by way of Warsaw and Israel. Klezmer clarinet phenom Michael Winograd joins the band for her New York show. Sept. 25 at the JCC on the Upper West Side. If you can’t catch her at the JCC, she’ll be at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 24. … Sunday, Oct. 20, professor Tony Michels will be leading a “Jewish Radicalswalking tour of Union Square. … Fall session of Yiddish classes at the Workmen’s Circle is now open for registration. Offerings for both in-person classes and online. No excuses. … If you enjoyed my profile of Forward archivist Chana Pollack, you’ll love the new exhibit at the Museum at Eldridge Street, Pressed: Images from the Jewish Daily Forward. Opening reception Oct. 23. … Jeffrey Shandler is the father of what I think of as Post-Vernacular Yiddish Studies and in general, a brilliant commentator on modern material Jewish culture. He’ll be giving the Norman E. Alexander Lecture in Jewish Studies on “Jewish Museum Practices: A Modern Cultural Innovation.” Oct. 24, 6 p.m. at Columbia University. … And if you hadn’t heard, our Fiddler moment continues with the release of the new documentary, Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles, which just opened in New York City and around the country.


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Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.