1851 - New Zhanger, Lithuania
1891- Publishes Hershelle:A Jewish Love Story
1919 - Warsaw
I first began reading Yiddish literature in translation in December of 2012. Yale University Press inspired my interest with a gift of The Yale Yiddish Library Collection. The alleged theme of my blog is literary works about people who lead reading centered lives and I quickly came to see how central reading was to Yiddish culture.
I think my favorite work of Yiddish literature is the deeply hilarious profoundly revealing The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl by Sholem Aleichem, on whose work the movie The Fiddler on the Roof is based. In the stories of pogroms by I. L. Peretz a terrible history was brought to life with incredible depth and feeling. Dinezon was friends with them both.
Thanks to the selfless dedication and strongly focused work of Scott Davis, Jacob Dinezon (I urge all to read the very informative webpage on Dinezon I link to at the start of this post for background information on Dinezon and his relationships with other now much better known writers) Dinezon will soon become a canon status Yiddish writer.
Hershelle: A Jewish Love Story is the third novel by Jacob Dinezon I have had the pleasure of reading. I also read and posted on a few of shid shorter fictions, all published in new translations from the Jewish Story Teller Press.
Hershelle is a student at a yeshiva, a traditional Jewish seminary. He is considered a brilliant young man, a fine young scholar. His family is poor.
Poorer students often ate one of their evening meals at the home of one of the richer families of the community, called a charity meal. This helps the student and the school. Unintentionally it was often, especially in times of transition like Poland in 1890, a way different social elements of society could interact.
Here is how Dinezon masterfully sets the events in motion:
The widow is unhappy with every boy that comes for a charity meal. She keeps rejecting all the boys, all big eaters, until she is finally happy with one of them, Hershelle.
“Finally, God saw her misery and sent her a boy of the exact sort she wanted: a quiet child, not much of an eater, but one who was so refined and shy that she often came to him and asked him to eat a bit more. This boy was Hershele. Because the head of the yeshiva needed a favor from Brayndl, he convinced Hershele to accept her paltry Wednesday meal. He then arranged for Hershele—who certainly deserved it for his clever head, zeal, and quietness—to take his Thursday meal with Borekh the butcher. Borekh was known to provide the best charity meal in the whole village. But over time, Hershele came to enjoy Brayndl’s Wednesdays more than Borekh’s Thursdays. Her house was always clean, rich, and bright—it was a pleasure to sit there even without anything to eat. Borekh’s house was always dirty and full of shouting and tumult. And though Hershele quickly became tired of eating, Borekh’s wife hurled more of everything onto his plate. He could barely finish one piece of meat before she laid on another. He sweated, lost his strength to eat, and tried to slow down to catch his breath, but Borekh shouted in his butcher’s voice: “As long as you have a soul in you, keep at it! If you eat as you should, you’ll also learn as you should. Eat like a big fellow and that will give you the strength to be a big fellow before the Torah, which I know can sap your strength!” While eating at Brayndl’s, Hershele felt more refined, but at Borekh’s he became coarser, stuffing himself with meat, kishke, and tripe, and listening to coarse words, curses, and abuse—words he was embarrassed to even think about. Borekh found only one defect in his yeshiva student: “If only he had the strength to eat as he should. He’s a great boy. He can explain the law or a complicated story from the holy Torah. If he’d just eat like a proper person!” Brayndl, on the other hand, found this a fine trait in Hershele. “He’s a refined child, very genteel,” she’d say, “quiet as a mouse, eats like a bird. No matter how much one gives him, he thinks it’s too much. God grant that he’ll eat up what I don’t begrudge giving him—I know I’m getting a mitzvah through this.”
Of course a problem develops. The young and beautiful daughter of the widow and Hershelle fall in love. In a culture where marriages were largely arranged, such a match was socially unacceptable. The widow has engaged a marriage broker who does all they can to make Hershelle look like a horrible potential husband. However, the butcher wants Hershelle and his dsughter to marry. He turns against Hershelle, who he feels is insulting him and his dsughter. Now nobody likes Hershelle. The Widows sees him as a fortune hunter way below her daughter and the butcher is outraged by his rejection of his daughter.
From this conflict a lot of exciting turns of events are generated. Hershelle gets in trouble. The ending Is very powerful.
Hershelle: A Jewish Love story gives us a look at life in a Polish sthetl. There is humour and pain in this story.
I highly recommend all three of the Jacob Dinezon novels.
I would suggest you read them in publication order, The Dark Young Man, Hershelle, and Yosele.
JANE PEPPLER - Translator
Jane Peppler graduated from Yale University with a degree in Russian language and literature. She began singing Yiddish songs in 1983 and directed the Triangle Jewish Chorale in North Carolina for fourteen years. Peppler studies with Yiddish professor and textbook author, Sheva Zucker, and has attended two intensive summer Yiddish courses at the Medem Bibliotheque in Paris.
In addition to translating Yiddish stories by Sholem Aleichem, Ayzik Meyer Dik, and Mendele Moykher Sforim, Peppler has completed English translations of Jacob Dinezon’s Yosele (www.jewishstorytellerpress.com/yosele.html), Alter, and Hershele.
In 2014, Peppler published Yiddish Songs from Warsaw 1929-1934: The Itsik Zhelonek Collection. She has also produced and performed on several albums of Yiddish music, including “I Can’t Complain (But Sometimes I Still Do),” “Cabaret Warsaw: Yiddish and Polish Hits of the 1920s-1930s,” and the three volume set, “Yiddish Songs from Warsaw.”