“The Dark Young Man” by Jacob Dinezon— A Historical Jewish Romance

Dinezon, Jacob. “The Dark Young Man”, translated by Tina Lunson and edited by Scott Hilton Davis, Jewish Storyteller Press   2019.

A Historical Jewish Romance

Amos Lassen

Jacob Dinezon’s historical Jewish romance is set in the Russian Empire in the 1840s and is the story of Yosef, a poor but brilliant yeshiva student, who falls in love with Roza, the beautiful and charming daughter of a rich merchant. The couple’s bright future is made cloudy by the ruthless actions of Roza’s brother-in-law, the Dark Young Man, who plots to protect his position in the family by destroying the young lovers. When first published in 1877, the book was a runaway best seller (and this was even before we had bestseller lists),

Originally written in Yiddish and translated for the first time in English by Tina Lunson, the plot delves deeply into the personalities and politics of Jewish middle-class urban society, and describes the growing opposition to arranged marriages, the disparities between rich and poor, and the effects of assimilation and modernity on traditional Jewish life. That may seem like a tall order, but the book does it all and does it well.

The novel is filled with all the intrigue and excitement of Jewish life, culture, and religion during the mid-nineteenth-century. It blends romance and realism while it launched the author’s career as a major voice in the Jewish literary world. Tina Lunson’s wonderful and first ever English translation captures mid-nineteenth century Jewish life in Eastern Europe, showing us 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 but not by 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 overall mood of claustrophobic despair is seen in the personalities of the main characters whose lives are intermittently pierced by brief periods of hope except for  Meyshe Shneyur, the dark young man of the title. Meyshe who is the title character is far from the story’s hero. He is the villain, the destroyer of all hopes who finds joy in his destructive accomplishments and the suffering—and Dinezon’s novel is a treatise on this dark soul’s power and methods.

The time in which the novel is set in Eastern Europe is 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 were not justified by new secular learning.

In this book,   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 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 stopped and Roza is coerced into marrying a marriage broker’s selection, her younger sister wins Yosef’s heart. After Yosef moves to St. Petersburg, letters between the lovers are blocked and  many were replaced by forgeries that undermined the relationship. Moreover, Meyshe manages to have Yosef convicted of crimes and suffer a year’s imprisonment.

Dinezon’s themes and insights bring a complex era to life and we see that this is also  surprisingly relevant to today especially when considering the ongoing quest for female autonomy.

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