Yankev Dinezon (seated), with Y. L. Peretz and a framed portrait of Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), ca. 1890s. Published in the Russian Empire, n.d. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Dinezon, Yankev

(1856?–1919), Yiddish author, editor, and literary activist. Yankev Dinezon was born in the Kovno region of Lithuania; the date of his birth is uncertain and may have been as late as 1862. He received a traditional education and showed a passion for writing at an early age. Dinezon’s father died before the writer was 12, and he was subsequently raised in Mohilev (mod. Mogilev-Podol’skiy) by an uncle. In Mohilev, Dinezon studied at a yeshiva until he was 16. Hired by Bodona Horowitz, a rich Mohilev merchant’s wife, to tutor her children in Hebrew, Dinezon received his first secular education in their home, and grew familiar with German and Russian. Dinezon ultimately became a family confidant and business agent, traveling on behalf of their interests.

On one such trip to Vilna, Dinezon met Bodona’s sister, Dvoyre Romm, a head of the famed eponymous publishing house. Though Dinezon had by then published several Hebrew-language articles in Ha-Magid, Ha-Melits, and Perets Smolenskin’s Ha-Shaḥar, as well as several Yiddish-language brochures featuring observations on natural science, he had yet to publish Yiddish fiction. He had, however, brought with him the manuscript of his first Yiddish novel, Beoven avos (For the Sins of the Fathers), an Enlightenment-oriented roman à clef of Mohilev life, in which a young Jewish woman, betrothed by her religious parents to a rich merchant she loathes, hangs herself. Though the Romm press purchased the novel for a high price, the family of the rich merchant’s real-life model used their connections with the Vilna censor to prevent publication. To fulfill his contractual obligations, Dinezon quickly finished a second novel.

Ha-Ne’ehavim veha-ne‘imim, oder Der shvartser yunger-mantshik (The Beloved and the Pleasant, or the Black Young Man), published in 1877, has been variously claimed as Yiddish’s first long novel and first sentimental novel. It was also Yiddish literature’s first best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in a short period with multiple reprintings. Later, Dinezon expressed his dissatisfaction with both the book’s quality and its effect, claiming it inspired “a flood of empty and bad novels,” especially those of the popular writer Shomer.

Dinezon’s displeasure may have sparked his refusal to publish more of his own work for 13 years. His silence may, however, have stemmed from other reasons, such as his unrequited love for his former student, the Horowitzes’ daughter, from which he never seemed to have recovered (he never married). Or perhaps it was due to an attack against Yiddish writing by Perets Smolenskin, whom Dinezon deeply admired.

(Left to right) Yankev Dinezon, Y. L. Peretz, and Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport (S. An-ski), Poland, ca. 1910. (YIVO)

During this unproductive period, Dinezon continued to work for the Horowitz family, moving to Kiev with them in the early 1880s as their bookkeeper and treasurer. At the end of 1885, however, he moved to Warsaw to live with his sister, and two years later made the acquaintance of Y. L. Peretz. What seems to have begun as simply one Yiddish writer’s admiration of another’s work grew into an intimate friendship and a close literary collaboration: all of Peretz’s later literary decisions were taken with Dinezon’s approval and the two jointly edited and published the 1891 anthology Di yudishe bibliotek (The Jewish Library).

Peretz also encouraged Dinezon to return to writing and publishing in Yiddish. The first sign of that return was a spirited defense of Yiddish in the Yudishes folks-blat in 1888, responding to Heinrich Graetz’s refusal to allow the translation of his History of the Jews into Yiddish and his disparaging comments about the language. Soon, however, Dinezon returned to fiction. Highlights from these years include Hershele, first published in Di yudishe bibliotek in 1891, and Yosele, a children’s story first published in 1899. The latter, with its critical depiction of the traditional educational system and its sentimental portrait of its orphaned hero, became immensely popular. Der krizis (The Crisis), a novella of changing Jewish economic life during the Russo-Japanese war, was published in 1905. Dinezon also wrote memoirs, historical writings, and translations, and contributed to almost all of the contemporary Yiddish journals. Though critics such as Shmuel Niger commented on Dinezon’s lack of originality—placing him in a sentimental-didactic tradition originated by Ayzik Meyer Dik—and Zalmen Reyzen and others criticized his simple primitive style and caricatures, Dinezon’s earlier works have an emotional power that comes both from his skill at evoking sentiment and the mimetic realism of his dialogue. His later works powerfully illustrate Jewish middle-class life.

The Y. L. Peretz Orphanage and Elementary School at 7 Gęsia Street during a visit by writer Yankev Dinezon (standing, right), Warsaw, ca. 1917. (YIVO)

While in Warsaw, Dinezon sold advertising for Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers, and wrote and published less as time passed, spending more energy caring for Warsaw’s thriving Yiddish literary community. Dinezon’s rooms became a meeting place for Yiddish writers, both Warsaw natives and visitors. He stopped writing around 1910, after having composed numerous unpublished works and much historically significant correspondence with Yiddish writers.

During World War I, Dinezon and Peretz founded the first homes for Jewish children who had been orphaned and abandoned during the war. Deeply affected by Peretz’s death in 1915, Dinezon devoted himself entirely to working for Jewish children’s homes and schools, eventually becoming one of the main advocates for the Polish Yiddishist schools. When Dinezon died in Warsaw, tens of thousands attended his funeral; he was buried next to Peretz.

Suggested Reading

M. Ben-Ya‘akov (Mendel Zinger), Yankev Dinezon: A skitse fun zayn lebn un shafn (Vienna, 1920); Mikhail Krutikov, Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905–1914 (Stanford, Calif., 2001); Zalman Reisen (Rejzen), “Dinezon Yankev,” in Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese, un filologye, vol. 1, cols. 699–710 (Vilnius, 1926).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1139, Abraham Cahan, Papers, 1906-1952; RG 204, David Pinsky, Papers, 1893-1949; RG 208, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Papers, 1882-1953; RG 228, Beinish Silberstein, Papers, 1918-1941; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s; RG 602, Shalom Asch, Papers, .