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.