I usually don’t read fiction, but when I was offered the chance of reviewing a new English translation of Jacob Dinezon’s Yiddish classic, ‘The Dark Young Man’, I decided to say yes.
Strange to say, the Yiddish classics of 150 years’ ago, which often describe the tug-of-war that occurred in the Jewish community of then, between material matters and spiritual ones, often reflect many of the issues that so many of us religious Jews today still struggle with.
I also like history, and I knew that this novel – which sold 200,000 copies in the original Yiddish – would faithfully depict what Jewish life was really like in the late 1800s, without rose-tinted glasses or other distortions that can occur with the passage of time.
And I wasn’t disappointed.
The plot centers around Joseph, a young man from a religious home who is struggling to hang on to his faith while still recognizing that ‘how things used to be done’ no longer really works for him.
He arrives in Mohilev, and the main plot revolves Joseph’s attempts to find his true path in life – and the woman who will walk it with him. The snake in the Garden of Eden is ‘The Dark Young Man’ of the title, who certainly lives up to his description.
The translation into English is well done, and the plot moves along smartly enough, with some of the melodrama that are part and parcel of novels of that era. But what I found particularly interesting were the depictions of contemporary Jewish life, which clearly showed how much damage unfounded gossip and slander could do to even the sturdiest characters.
In some ways, things are better today.
So many of us, particularly in the observant Jewish community, are now much more cognizant of the power of evil speech to destroy lives. At the same time, the portraits of people more concerned about what the neighbors would say and think of them than the feelings of those found much closer to home were drawn with such a precise pen, they could be describing today’s world.
Dinezon was a writer caught between two worlds, painfully, and his inner struggle is clearly depicted in the book. On the one hand, you can detect the yearning for the ‘purity’ and innocence of the ideal orthodox life, but on the other, the descriptions of the religious hypocrites and the hungry children clearly show how this ideal didn’t always seem to work, in real life.
This is another of the book’s themes that is still wholly relevant to contemporary Jewish life, especially in the observant world, where so many of us are still caught up trying to find the right balance between body and soul.
Around 40 years later, another non-Jewish writer called Albert Londres picked up the same dichotomy in his non-fiction work called ‘The Wandering Jew Has Arrived’, which describes his experiences visiting various Jewish communities around the world in the 1920s.
Poverty there was aplenty; together with religious idealism and also a large dose of despair. That despair is what pushed so many people into the arms of the maskilim, and away from the Torah and an observant lifestyle, and it runs through Dinezon’s work, too.
Whatever the Jew was going to do, it seems it was going to cost him something. Should a person put the needs of his body ahead of the needs of his soul, or the other way around? It’s a question that Dinezon didn’t manage to resolve in his book, and that so many of us today are still struggling to answer in our own lives.
- The Dark Young Man, published by Jewishstorytellerpress.com is available on Amazon, BN.com and Indiebound.org