The First Yiddish Bestseller and Its Forgotten Author

August 29, 2019 | Rokhl Kafrissen
About the author:

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the Russian Jewish writer Jacob Dinezon, who in 1877 authored Yiddish literature’s first bestselling novel, The Dark Young Man. Unlike his close friends, the Yiddish literary figures Y.L. Peretz and S. An-sky—the three are buried together in a Warsaw mausoleum—Dinezon is hardly remembered today, and even among scholars few read his work. Reviewing a recent translation of the book by Tina Lunson, Rokhl Kafrissen compares it with the early work of Dinezon’s contemporary Mendele Mokher Sforim, the so-called “grandfather” of Yiddish literature:

[Whereas] a writer like Mendele used an acid, ironic tone to make his points about contemporary Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, Dinezon employed a much gentler, sentimental tone, as well as a more realistic approach. [Above all], The Dark Young Man is sympathetic to its protagonists, 19th-century Jews struggling toward modernity while trying to maintain their Jewishness.

The Dark Young Man [is] the story of a yeshiva boy called Yosef who leaves home and winds up as the live-in tutor in a wealthy Mohilev home. 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.

The Dark Young Man was a surprise hit, selling 200,000 copies and spawning a flood of imitators. . . . 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. . . . 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.

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