Yiddish literary giant gets long overdue first translation into English

By Curt Leviant, Special to the Jewish Light

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.  

Dinezon, a best-selling author, 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 “Encylopedia Judaica.”

Sometimes mazel plays a role in literary fame, as does translation. Until now we have not had any work by Dinezon in English.  But this lacunahas 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 Polish Jews, young and old.  

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.

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 Yeke’s  mitzvah 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. 

A story that achieves the psychological depth of a Dostoevsky tale is “Yosl Algebrenik and his Student.”  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 age 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 woodcarving, 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 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.

Curt Leviant is the author of several  critically acclaimed works of fiction, including his recently published collection, “Zix Zexy Ztories.” He has also translated works by Sholom Aleichem, Chaim Grade, Avraham Reisen and Isaac Bashevis Singer.