The Greatest Yiddish Writer You Never Heard Of
Jacob Dinezon Was a Champion of the Little People
By Ezra Glinter
In “Apocalypse,” a short story by Yiddish writer Jacob Dinezon, three elderly Jews get to talking about the concept of Rothschild, and about whether such a person actually exists. “In reality there really is no Rothschild,” Meshulem the Teacher claims. “It is just an exaggeration, an illustration of great riches.”
Eventually the men decide that there is a real Rothschild. But if he does exist, why hasn’t he visited their master, the Rebbe of Vinogrodke? Obviously, Rothschild must not know about the rebbe. If he did, the combination of the rebbe’s wisdom and Rothschild’s wealth would surely bring the Messiah. So Meshulem decides he will go and tell Rothschild about the rebbe.
The story, which is included in “Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers,” a recently translated collection of Dinezon’s stories, could be taken as an enlightenment critique of Hasidic Judaism, a common trope of the time. The Rebbe of Vinogrodke is corrupt—when Meshulem comes for a blessing, he is thrown out because he can’t make a donation—and his followers are ignorant. Meshulem’s fanatical piety is self-destructive, leading him to a life of impoverished wandering. Religion here is the source of superstition, error and personal destruction.
But the piece doesn’t come across that way. Instead, “Apocalypse” is a sympathetic homage to the simple Jews who spend their lives gossiping in synagogue, and for Meshulem, whose mission turns into a symbolic quest.
“His long journey opened his eyes, and he saw that the Redemption did not depend on a Vinogrodke Rebbe or on a Rothschild. The real Redemption depends on the real deliverer—the true Jew—who will bring the Redemption without miracles from rebbes or fortunes from Rothschilds . . .”
If only he could be sure that the one he sought was really out there and that if you seek, you will find him.
Like Meshulem, Dinezon was a champion of the little people. For him, the changes engulfing Eastern European Jewry in the late 19th century signaled neither progress, as they did for proponents of Haskalah, Jewish enlightenment; nor destruction, as they did for the traditional rabbinic establishment. Instead they meant a tragic but inevitable loss of innocence, which became his great theme. Unlike other writers, who used the innocent as a figure of fun—the schlemiels of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Chelm stories, for example—Dinezon’s characters are invested with rare pathos. . . .
Like the best Yiddish literature of its time, Dinezon’s writing walks the line between sympathy and sentimentality, and lands safely on the right side. Rather than romanticize his subjects, Dinezon humanizes them. It’s unlikely that Dinezon will now attain the same renown as Sholem Aleichem or Peretz, but this collection belongs on the shelf next to theirs. It’s rare to find a real masterpiece, never mind one written more than 100 years ago and only now available in English. “Memories and Scenes” is one of those happy occasions.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward.
By Curt Leviant
Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers by Jacob Dinezon. Translated by Tina Lunson. (Jewish Storyteller Press, 242 pp. 19.95)
Jacob Dinezon (1856-1919) was a Yiddish novelist and short-story writer, as famous during his lifetime as Sholom Aleichem. Until now, his work has not appeared in English. Happily, we now have Memories and Scenes, Dinezon’s book of short stories, beautifully translated by Tina Lunson and excellently edited by Scott Davis.
Dinezon was a social realist, accurately depicting small-town Jewish life. With a cinematic eye, in 11 stories, he zeroes in on his characters, deftly telling fascinating stories while at the same time portraying the mores, attitudes, speech and foibles of Polish Jews young and old. In the superb story “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 mitzva assisting the town drunk. “Sholem Yoyne Flask” depicts a mild-mannered tailor transformed by the liquor in his flask into a fiery defender of the town’s poor. Then something happens when a surprising discovery is made about his flask. “Motl Farber, Purimshpieler” introduces a housepainter who languishes during the winter when he cannot work, but at Purim he 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 moving and profound story is “Borekh,” after the name of the hero, an orphan living in the yeshiva. He doesn’t do well in Talmudic studies but has a talent for woodcarving, 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 hopes of making a great Holy Ark, “one that people have never seen before.” And when he achieves that he will send it to his friend in the yeshiva, whom he knows will become a great scholar. 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.
It is not often that we are privileged to make a literary discovery of our own. With Dinezon’s Memories and Scenes, we happily encounter a master writer who deserves to be ranked with Sholom Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, whom he befriended and who admired him.
Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers
Reviewed by Charles S. Weinblatt
“Dinezon’s writing is touching and evocative; his characters are vivid and memorable. . . . Friend and advisor to almost every major Jewish writer of his day, Dinezon is truly a giant in Yiddish literature.”
The three classic writers of modern Yiddish literature, Sholem Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher Sforim), Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Leybush Peretz are commanding and well known as novelists with a focus on the Shtetl, the small Jewish communities scattered across Russia and Eastern Europe. Almost anyone well versed in Jewish and especially Yiddish literature can name and successfully discuss their works.
Far less is known about Jacob Dinezon and his work to promote other Shtetl authors. He advised the great Sholem Aleichem on how to create and produce the first Jewish literary journal, called The Jewish Folk Library. He used his own money to publish the first book by one of his colleagues—the great I.L. Peretz. The two then joined forces to create and publish a series of Jewish holiday publications. This became critical to the literary lifeblood of Jewish communities as Russia and other Eastern European nations outlawed Jewish newspapers.
One of Dinezon’s most important books was Yosele, which exposed corporal punishment in Jewish elementary schools (cheders). The book was so persuasive that its influence created sweeping changes in those schools and made Dinezon a champion for Jewish children.
Each story in Memories and Scenes is unique and powerful. Dinezon’s characters represent the duality of life in the Shtetl—common people attempting to reconcile a life of poverty and discrimination against traditional Jewish values and religious obligations. In one story, a town learns about inequality and poverty from someone they thought was a town drunk, although he was not. In another, a good-hearted young man is pursued relentlessly by the town yenta (matchmaker). An old man, ridiculed for teaching that everything can be explained with algebra, learns from a student that the beauty of nature is the ultimate way to explain life. Finally, an entire town is thrown into chaos over the behavior of a goat.
Dinezon’s writing is touching and evocative; his characters are vivid and memorable. Like many Jewish authors of his time, Dinezon advocated for poor and exploited Jews who lived in Shtetl communities. In doing so, he displays the unique character of these physically disparate, but socially similar societies, while effectively adding to the quality of Yiddish literature. Friend and advisor to almost every major Jewish writer of his day, Dinezon is truly a giant in Yiddish literature.
Charles S. Weinblatt was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1952. He is a retired university administrator. Mr. Weinblatt is the author of published fiction and nonfiction. His biography appears in the Marquis Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Education, and Wikipedia.
Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers.
Translated by Tina Lunson
Dinezon was a prolific and popular Yiddish author in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was a friend and sometimes mentor to many contemporary authors including I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. But remarkably, his work had not been translated into English. Scott Davis discovered Dinezon while he was searching for Jewish stories to read to his 9th grade class. When Davis could only find the original language texts, he contracted with Lunson to translate this work, Zikhroynes un bilder: Shtetl, kinder yorn, shraybers.
This collection of autobiographical essays tells about the memorable people in Dinezon’s life. One character was the town drunk. Normally a quiet practical tailor, he became animated and gullible whenever he took a sip from the special flask he kept in his coat pocket. He would do just about anything for anyone after a sip or two and the village quickly learned to take advantage of him. Another favorite character was actually a goat.
When a stray goat appeared in the village, they decided that it might be a first born goat and since it was apparently unblemished, it might be a holy goat. Much to the village’s chagrin, the possibility of being holy, apparently did not influence the goat into good behavior.
Told with warmth and humor, this collection is highly recommended.
Sheryl Stahl, Senior Associate Librarian, Frances-Henry Library, HUC-JIR
Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers
Der zhargon, the jargon—that’s how Yiddish was dismissed in the mid-nineteenth century in Eastern Europe. And the few who authored book in the language of the Jewish street caused peals of cynical laughter to rattle the university halls and coffee shop walls. All that changed toward the turn of the century. Several Jewish writers achieved great fame for their Yiddish books, including Jacob Dinezon, but this autobiographical collection of his short stories, exposing the injustices of shtetl society, never earned an English translation. Warm, funny, compassionate, Dinezon is considered the beloved uncle of modern Yiddish literature.
New book is first Jacob Dinezon work in English
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 Sholem 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 touched thousands of readers and 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 the age of 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.
Even encyclopedias 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 Encyclopedia 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 Aleichem and other famous Yiddish writers if he has ever heard of Dinezon, the answer would probably 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: Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers (Jewish Storyteller Press, 2014). . . .
Mameloshn: Jacob Dinezon, Yiddish Literary Patron and Participant
Reviewed in this essay: Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood and Writers, edited and with an introduction by Scott Hilton Davis, translated from the Yiddish by Tina Lunson. Jewish Storyteller Press, 2014, 240 pages.
Jacob Dinezon was an important personality in the history of Yiddish literature. As noted by Scott Hilton Davis in his introduction to Memories and Scenes, Dinezon provided moral and material support to many Yiddish writers, in particular I. L. Peretz. Sholem Aleichem, who named Mendele Moykher Sforim the zeyde or “grandfather” of modern Yiddish literature and himself the “grandson” (Peretz was considered the “father,” whether he liked it or not), affectionately called Dinezon its “uncle.” This suggests that Dinezon played a supporting rather than a leading role. His own literary output consisted of melodramatic novels—one a best seller, in fact—but they were not considered great or even good literature.
Memories and Scenes is described as “a series of short stories based on Jacob Dinezon’s memories from his childhood days in the shtetl and his early years as a writer . . .”—but this is not entirely accurate. There are eleven selections from his writings; how many are autobiographical is hard to tell. In those that could be either memoirs or short stories, Dinezon does not always write in the first person, and even when he does, the pieces read more as fiction. For example, the picture he paints of a Talmud Torah teacher is too saintly to be believed, and the dialogue he includes in “Borekh,” a story about a good-hearted but simple orphan boy who leaves the shtetl to make his way in the world, is clearly invented. As a short story, it pales in comparison to I. B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool.”
Of the five selections that are unmistakably short stories, my favorites were “The Little Flask” and “Motl the Purimshpieler.” In the former, a humble tailor is transformed into the scourge of the shtetl makhers (bigshots) when he gets drunk, and in the latter, a troupe of Purim players is thrown into prison when one of the actors inadvertently insults the police chief. The social criticism and humor in these stories are reminiscent of Sholem Aleichem—which is, of course, meant to be a rave.
One hybrid selection that reads very well, “Nonsense: The Community Goat,” is a commentary on the Dreyfus Affair in which Dinezon draws a parallel between the anti-Dreyfusard’s blind defense of the “honor of the Army” and an incident in his shtetl in which an ignorant rebbe blindly defended a troublesome goat because of its purported religious significance. . . .
Good, bad, or indifferent, many of these selections have value for shedding light on the peculiar customs of the shtetl, elucidated by a helpful glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the term apikoyres (heretic) or freethinker was freely applied to less observant Jews, not just outright nonbelievers.
By all accounts Dinezon was a decent, charitable man and a progressive Jew. He helped Sholem Aleichem acquire the royalties that were due to him. During World War One, he collaborated with Peretz in founding in Warsaw a Home for Jewish Children orphaned by the war and devoted his own financial resources to the cause. Dinezon also carried on the work Peretz had started in building a network of secular Yiddish schools in Poland. He died in Warsaw in 1919 and, at his request, was buried next to Peretz, his closest friend.
As a writer, he wore his heart on his sleeve. To read him is to know him—and that can only be to our benefit.
Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries’ Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.
Transport yourself to another time, place and culture with these heartwarming stories written by the “uncle” of modern Yiddish literature. Jacob Dinezon introduces us to his colorful village characters and teaches us life-lessons, sharing memories of his childhood that are both humorous and uplifting. With this first-ever English translation, it becomes apparent that this friend and mentor of the accepted giants of Yiddish literature deserves recognition of his own for these superbly written gems. These are to be savored!
National Library in Jerusalem
As a student of Yiddish literature, I have read Dinezon’s works in the original. Even so, I truly enjoyed Tina Lunson’s excellent translation of Memories and Scenes. She has succeeded in presenting the English reader with a smooth read that captures the “geshmak” (tastiness) of Yiddish. I hope more translations are planned.
Director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles (Retired)
Editor of Portraits in Literature: The Jews of Poland
Seeing the magnificent cover of Memories and Scenes, I wondered: can the book be as good as its cover—I was not disappointed.
From the initial story and its illustrious rabbi’s description of the “different levels of sin,” terrifying a little boy and convincing me I was a hopeless sinner, through the hypocrisy and corruption of some of the movers and shakers in the community, the vignettes of the poor and helpless, the village fanatic, the humor of worshipping the “bekhor,” first born male goat, and its world wide implications, I could not put it down.
Particularly poignant were the feelings of the young Dinezon upon seeing his first work in print.
Jacob Dinezon is an author to be read and remembered. His place is in the pantheon of the fathers of Yiddish literature.