The path of literary history can occasionally take a weird turn. For instance, if it weren’t for a class of rowdy ninth-graders at a Raleigh synagogue, an important Yiddish writer might have been lost to history.
That’s just part of the intriguing story behind the new book “Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers,” an anthology of short stories by 19th century writer Jacob Dinezon. A contemporary of famous Eastern European writers like Sholem Aleichem (“Fiddler on the Roof”), Dinezon was a best-selling writer and a central figure in Yiddish literature – but his writings were never translated into English.
That’s where Scott Hilton Davis comes in. A longtime Raleigh resident, Davis got interested in the traditions of Jewish storytelling toward the end of his career as an award-winning producer for North Carolina public television. And he has some unruly teens to thank for that.
Discussing the project on a recent evening at a local sandwich shop, Davis said he was a volunteer teaching a ninth-grade religious school class when the idea was born. At a loss for a way to calm down his misbehaving class, he reached for a collection of translated Yiddish tales and began reading aloud. To his amazement, the kids were riveted.
“The stories had the same effect on them that they had always had with me,” Davis said. “I was surprised. I used to call them the class from G ehenna – the class from hell – but they were captivated by these stories.”
Davis got really interested after that, collecting anthologies, author biographies and histories of Yiddish literature. In his research, one name kept popping up: Jacob Dinezon, a friend and mentor to Aleichem and other famous Yiddish authors in the late 1800s, like I.L. Peretz and Sholem Abramovitsh. Dinezon had published widely, too, but as far as Davis could tell, his stories had never been translated into English.
Scholars to translate
Meanwhile, Davis had founded Jewish Storyteller Press in 2007, in an effort to get the works of 19th century Yiddish writers back into circulation. He had no previous experience with book publishing, but he had a background in theater and had adapted several stories into short plays and readings. Also, as a TV documentary producer, he knew about storytelling.
Initially, he worked with existing English translations of old Yiddish tales. Davis himself doesn’t read Yiddish, so he eventually started hiring professional scholars to translate directly from the original books. He also worked with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language.
“Some of the books they’ve saved, there might have been only one copy left in some grandmother’s attic,” Davis said.
Jewish Storyteller Press has put out three books so far, but it isn’t a publishing house in the traditional sense. It’s essentially Davis’ hobby, gone slightly out of control and turned into a small indie press.
By leveraging increasingly popular print-on-demand technology, Davis can offer the books to any interested reader, digitally or in paperback, through online retailers like Amazon. Book stores can also order and stock the book. “Memories and Scenes” is on shelves at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham and Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh.
Davis said distributing the stories in this fashion has a certain resonance with history, too. Dinezon and his contemporaries essentially self-published their books, using their own money, within the Jewish communities of 19th-century Eastern Europe.
“They would have been early adopters of this technology,” Davis said. “It blew me away when I made this connection.”
For “Memories and Scenes,” Davis hired Tina Lunson, a professional translator and former administrative director of the Yiddish language and art program at Vilnius University in Lithuania. (Dinezon was born in Lithuania as well.) Lunson also translated a second book, Dinezon’s short novel “Yosele,” which Davis intends to publish later this year.
“Memories and Scenes” is a collection of 11 stories, with an introduction by Davis and a glossary of Yiddish terms. The stories are all autobiographical to some degree, drawn from Dinezon’s own experiences in Eastern Europe’s 19th-century shtetls – impoverished small towns with large Jewish populations before the Holocaust.
In the collection’s first story, “Memories,” Dinezon writes in the first person about a pair of rival religious teachers and the effect their fiery sermons had on young children in the community. In the story “Motl Farber, Purimshpieler,” a misunderstanding leads the local police chief to arrest a troupe of Jewish performers celebrating the holiday of Purim.
While some of the passages in the book are written memoir-style, most are presented as short stories about everyday people and events, with Dinezon himself nowhere in sight.
This was typical of his role in the literary community, where he often deflected attention to his more famous friends and focused his own writings on others. In the biographical record that does exist, Dinezon is sometimes compared with Charles Dickens, a writer who was particularly concerned with the plight of the poor and downtrodden, Davis said.
Novelist and translator Curt Leviant, a retired Jewish Studies professor at Rutgers University, said that in the larger context of Yiddish literature, Dinezon is seen as a writer with a big heart.
“Like many fine writers, he zeroes in on character,” Leviant said. “He gives you the inner life of Jews in Eastern Europe at that time. Every bit of literature that we have from this era is valuable – it’s a picture of what life was like then.”
Leviant said that Davis’ work may very well have prevented Dinezon’s stories from being lost to time.
“This guy was so famous during the latter part of the 19th century,” Leviant said. “He was a best-selling author. But this can happen in literature. People just fade away, and often very unjustly so. Sometimes it all depends on someone who’s just poking around and makes discoveries.”
And sometimes it depends on a classroom of rowdy teenagers.