Stories with a Vocation: An Appreciation of Ayzik-Meir Dik. (Arts and Letters)

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Ayzik-Meir Dik (1807-1893), or AmaD, as his favorite acronym proclaimed him on the title page of hundreds of storybooks, was not only the earliest professional Yiddish write--he was the first to earn a (meager) living from his pen--but also the first to write best-sellers. (1) He was born around 1807 in Vilna, Lithuania, where his father was a cantor who, refusing to take a salary for holy work, earned his meager living as a grain dealer. The young Ayzik-Meir received the traditional Jewish education of kheyder and yeshive, proving himself an apt student; later he also helped his father to run his business. He married young, settling in the Lithuanian town of Zupran, where he lived a comparatively wild life, taking part in the kind of carousing which, while commonplace today, was startlingly at variance with the behavior expected of a pious yeshive-bokher in his age and world. Sadly, Dik's first wife died early and childless, and he soon remarried. His second wife was the daughter of a well-to-do householder from Nesvizh (now Nezyvius), an important Lithuanian cultural and political center, in which Dik and his new bride lived as long as his father-in-law supported them. In this marriage, too, there were problems. Dik's in-laws were staunch Chasidim, while Dik himself despised Chasidism, regarding it as a gross superstition, almost akin to idolatry.

In Nesvizh, Dik made the acquaintance of the local Catholic priest, who taught him to read German; he taught himself Polish and Russian. In this isolated shtetl, where Dik was virtually the only maskil, he became increasingly convinced of the necessity for making Jews critically aware of the superstition and primitivism that pervaded their traditional way of life. Militantly rationalistic, Dik was convinced early that the twin curses of Jewish life in Eastern Europe were Chasidism and the refusal of Jews to acquire Western education. An excellent Hebraist himself, Dik personally despised Yiddish, believing--like so many of his contemporaries--that while the true language of Jews was Hebrew, they should also make every effort to acquire German, a language he regarded as the true voice of Western culture. He openly proclaimed his own maskilic allegiance in the way he spelled his name: not Yitskhok, as it would have been pronounced in Ashkenazi Hebrew, but Ayzik, as it would have been pronounced in the West.

At the end of the 1830s, Dik and his family returned to his birthplace, Vilna, where he was to spend the rest of his life. There, he enthusiastically pursued his own secular education, sharing wholeheartedly in the work of other Vilna maskilim. They established not only a cultural circle but also a maskilic synagogue called Tohoras ha-Koydesh (The Purification of Holiness), the services of which aimed to free the liturgy from folk usages that had, in their view, gradually debased it. In addition, Dik started publishing scholarly articles in Hebrew, promoting the aims of the Haskalah. To the same end, Dik corresponded with the Russian minister of education, Count Sergius Uvarov, urging the necessity for Jewish school reform; when the Tsarist government permitted the first Jewish Folk School to open in Vilna in 1841, Dik eagerly accepted a comparatively well-paid teaching position there and spent the next 13 years of his life in dedicated service to it.

Passionately determined to reform Jewish life, Dik was one of many Vilna maskilim who, on July 23, 1843, petitioned the district governors of the Pale of Settlement to prohibit the wearing of traditional Jewish dress. This petition evidently accorded with the views of the Russian government itself, which, in 1835, had banned Jews from contracting marriages between girls under 16 and boys under 18, (2) and the clothing decree was accordingly issued in 1844. In 1846, when Sir Moses Montefiore visited Vilna, Dik was among those who submitted to him a scathing report on "The State of the City of Vilna in These Times," which blamed repressive Russian policy for the desperate economic plight of the Jews. …