Jacob Dinezon (1856-1919), was a Yiddish novelist and short story writer, as famous during his lifetime as Sholom Aleichem. Previously, Dinezon was unavailable in English, but now Memories and Scenes, comprising eleven Dinezon stories, is beautifully translated by Tina Lunson, and excellently edited by Scott Davis.
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 Polish Jews, young and old.
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 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 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 at Purim time 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 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 dreidels, 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 who 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.
It is not often that we are privileged to make a literary discovery of our own. With Dinezon’s Shtetl and Scenes we happily encounter a master writer who deserves to be ranked with Sholom Aleichem and Peretz, whom he befriended and who admired him.
Among Curt Leviant’s eight critically acclaimed fictions is his recently published collection, Zix Zexy Ztories. He has also translated works by Sholom Aleichem, Chaim Grade, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.