The Dark Young Man

Jacob Dine­zon; Tina Lun­son, trans.; Scott Hilton Davis, ed.

  • Review
By – January 28, 2019

First pub­lished in 1877, Jacob Dinezon’s Yid­dish nov­el The Dark Young Man, with its blend of romance and realism,launched him as a major voice in the Jew­ish lit­er­ary world. Tina Lunson’s excel­lent Eng­lish trans­la­tion (the first ever) vivid­ly cap­tures mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe, reveal­ing not only its par­tic­u­lar cul­ture but also its par­al­lels to today’s Jew­ish experience.

When young Yosef leaves his par­ents’ home to work for a wealthy fam­i­ly, he is admired by the mem­bers of his new house­hold — except Meyshe, the hus­band of the family’s old­est daugh­ter. He soon sees Yosef as a threat, some­one who might replace him as the per­son with author­i­ty over the fam­i­ly and its fortunes.

The Dark Young Man might make read­ers feel over­whelmed — as the main char­ac­ters are — by the novel’s over­all mood of claus­tro­pho­bic despair, inter­mit­tent­ly pierced by brief peri­ods of hope. The only major char­ac­ter who doesn’t share this emo­tion­al ride is Meyshe Shneyur, the dark young man of the title. Unlike most title char­ac­ters, Meyshe is far from the story’s hero. He is the vil­lain, the destroy­er of all hopes, made glee­ful by his destruc­tive accom­plish­ments and the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers — and Dine­zon’s nov­el is a trea­tise on this dark soul’s pow­er and methods.

This fam­i­ly dra­ma is set against the cul­tur­al back­ground of mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe. This was the peri­od of Haskalah, or Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment, when long-observed Jew­ish tra­di­tions were being ques­tioned and threat­ened. Those hold­ing on to the old ways had no respect for new ideas and assim­i­la­tion­ist ten­den­cies, and the young mod­erns saw lit­tle val­ue in tra­di­tion­al stric­tures that seemed unjus­ti­fied by new sec­u­lar learning.

In The Dark Young Man, the cen­tral tra­di­tion being ques­tioned is the arranged mar­riage. Yosef and Roza, the woman of his dreams, are caught in the mid­dle, but deter­mined to live wor­thy lives accord­ing to halacha, Jew­ish reli­gious law.

Yosef’s court­ing of Roza is sub­vert­ed by the sin­is­ter oper­a­tions of The Dark One.” Meyshe and his cohorts make false claims about Yosef’s behav­ior to dis­cred­it him as an accept­able hus­band for Roza, and lat­er — when the mar­riage is thwart­ed and Roza is coerced into wed­ding a mar­riage broker’s selec­tion — her younger sis­ter wins Yosef’s heart. After Yosef moves to St. Peters­burg, let­ters between the lovers are blocked, many replaced by forg­eries that under­mine the rela­tion­ship. More­over, Meyshe man­ages to have Yosef con­vict­ed of crimes and suf­fer a year’s imprisonment.

This is an astound­ing, fright­en­ing por­trait. Dinezon’s themes and insights not only bring a com­plex era to life; they are also sur­pris­ing­ly rel­e­vant to our own time, espe­cial­ly in terms of the ongo­ing quest for female autonomy.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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