AYZIK-MEYER DIK (ISAAC MEIR [MAYER] DICK) (1814-January 24, 1893)
He was born in Vilna. His pedigree goes back to Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller, author of Tosafot yom-tov (Additions [to the Talmud, commentary] of Yom-Tov). His father, R. Noyekh, was for forty straight years cantor in Zavl’s Synagogue. He took no pay for this and made a living as a grain merchant. Like his many other sons, R. Noyekh raised Ayzik-Meyer in the ancient ways. In his youth, Ayzik-Meyer helped his father with his grain dealings. He married early on in the town of Zhupron (Župrany), Vilna region, which is described in his Hebrew story, Zuprona. His wife died young and left him with no children. Dik married a second time to the daughter of a prominent householder in Nesvizh (Nesvyžius). While he stayed there, supported by his wealthy in-laws, Dik became acquainted with the local Catholic priest with whom surreptitiously read German books. By that time, Dik had acquired considerable knowledge of the Talmudic literature, as well as Kabbalistic writings. He also learned Russian and Polish, and was one of the few followers of the Jewish Enlightenment in this semi-Hassidic town. On the one hand, he led an enlightenment battle there against “superstition,” and on the other hand, he would from time to time drop in to the synagogue study hall to study. In the mid-1830s, he settled with his family in Vilna, and with greater fervor threw himself into education. Together with other followers of the Enlightenment in Vilna, he founded a covert circle of likeminded associates. He made a living by teaching Hebrew. For his courageous struggle against the “obscurantists,” he was reported to the authorities, and the police took him into detention, but his friends prevailed on his behalf with the governor, and he was soon set free. Dik contributed to the composition (July 23, 1843) of the secret memorandum of enlightened Vilna Jews, with M. A. Gintsburg and Ben-Yankev Brosh, concerning banning traditional Jewish dress. He also corresponded with the Russian Minister of Education Sergei Uvarov concerning the need for reform in Jewish schools, and in one of the schools that the Russian government founded for Jewish children in Vilna, Dik taught Hebrew from 1851 to 1864. He played a prominent role among the Enlightenment followers and, when they decided to detach themselves from the strictly religious and found their own synagogue, Dik became one of trustees in this synagogue, Taharat Hakodesh (Holy purity), but in his great modesty he was prepared to take on the work of a beadle, and this post came with no associated honors, only a place behind the door. Dik turned away from honors, spent his entire life in poverty, at times nearly starving, but his unassuming home excelled for its exquisite tidiness. He did all the difficult work in his house by himself, went by himself to the market to do the shopping, for he believed that embarrassment before such things was a bad habit to fall into. Irrespective of his Enlightenment radicalism, he long retained older views and refused to adapt to the new-style “enlightenment” which lacked both wisdom and Torah. This was the reason that, when Taharat Hakodesh became a synagogue not solely for the Enlightened but primarily for ordinary “empty aristocrats,” he withdrew from it. In Vilna he was taken not only for quite the “eccentric,” but for a philosopher as well. And, although he had already acquired a name as a Berliner (pro-Enlightenment figure), he was much beloved and respected for his unlimited virtuousness, for his simplicity and affability, and especially for his aphorisms and witticisms. When the school at which he was teaching closed, he suffered badly for the first few years materially, attempting to break through with his storybooks that he would sell to Warsaw and later Vilna presses, but they scarcely compensated him. Just then, when he made contact with the Romm firm, he finally acquired a bit more security, though he still had to live with careful calculation, and his wife sought to expand their income through pawn brokerage and sales of second-hand goods. What Dik had excelled at in his youth, his physical prowess, he lost in the last two years of his life when he was stricken and taken ill, was unable to recognize anyone, and died in great desolation. Prior to his death, he implored his son not to allow any funeral eulogies, and maintaining his father’s wishes, Gavriel even announced the funeral of his father, the last of the Mohicans of the great generation of Vilna enlighteners, such that Jewish Vilna, with which Dik was so closely tied for nearly an entire century, did not offer him the final honors. He was buried in the new Jewish cemetery. On his gravestone was engraved an acrostic which offered him praise.
The start of Dik’s literary activities is difficult to define. Shmuel Niger assumes that he began writing in the late 1830s or early 1840s. His first work was probably the Hebrew story Zuprona, although it was published much later (Vilna, 1868), well after he had already published a whole series of works in Yiddish and several pamphlets in Hebrew. He wrote his second work, Haoreaḥ (The guest), in 1846 and published it (in Königsberg) around 1860. Dik debuted in Hebrew literature with a parody entitled Masekhet aniyut (Tractate on poverty). Without any knowledge of the author, Schneur Zaks published this work in his anthology Kanfe yona (Wings of a dove) (Berlin, 1948—in book form: Vilna, 1878). In the meantime, the story had an immense impact upon Hebrew readers. However unworthy as Dik, as well as the majority of Enlightenment followers, especially in the Vilna circle, looked upon Yiddish as a mere jargon, he quickly began to write in Yiddish, and by himself created an entire literature in Yiddish which spread widely. From the preface to his Hebrew story, Maḥazeh mul maḥazeh (Warsaw, 1861; in Yiddish, it was adapted under the title “Der purim shpigl” or “The Purim mirror), it would appear that already by this time 100,000 copies had been snatched up of his Yiddish chapbooks, and the demand had not ceased. The beginning of his literary activities in Yiddish was in the late 1840s. He linked up primarily with Warsaw publishers. Other Jewish publishing houses were as yet unable to decide upon publishing Enlightenment books. His popularity at that time was already so great that the publishers would buy up his Yiddish chapbooks in manuscript from him—in fact, for a pittance. As early as 1855, there were published at least four anonymous booklets by A. M. Dik. In late 1864 the publishing firm of Romm concluded an agreement with Dik, in which he pledged to sell to no one other than Romm, not “even a single page that he might write for a magazine”; and despite the conclusion of this pact for one year, he continued to publish even afterward virtually all of his works with Romm, and they paid him weekly wage—a rare event, perhaps the only case in Yiddish literature at that time. In his first works, Dik was mainly a compiler. He rewrote in his own words all the tales of the ancient, pious streams. He did this later as well. In the 1850s, though, he had written original pieces, the majority of which were satirical-humorous stories, such as: Khaytsikl aleyn (Khaytsikl himself) (Vilna, 1887), 48 pp.; “Yekele goldshleger oder yekele mazltov” (Yekele Goldmine or Yekele Good-Fortune) (1859); “Reb shmaye der gut-yontev biter” (Reb Shmaye the holiday well-wisher) (1860); and Der poresh fun berditshev (The recluse from Berdichev) (Warsaw, 1864), among others. The majority of these stories, which bear informative, explanatory character and were usually free translations or adaptations, also carried together with their Yiddish titles Hebrew ones, such as: Hanidaḥ (The banished), Piliyim (Wonderful), Haḥayim hanitsḥiyim (The eternal life), Iyr hayam (The island in the sea), etc. With exceptions such as ver instead of geven, und instead of un, and the like, the Yiddish in all of his writings (until the early 1870s) was almost entirely pure and free of Germanisms. All of these works were published anonymously, often signed by the publisher or other names and initials. In the late 1860s, for the first time, one encountered the initials “A. M. D.” on title pages, and he later began to sign with his full name. He authored probably on the order of 300 chapbooks, if not more. Many of them were published in more than one printing (each printing had 6,000 copies). But we know no more than some 200 titles. There were rarities as well, and among his extant works, mostly from his early writings, not a single second copy has been preserved. From the 1860s and 1870s, many more of Dik’s chapbooks remain extant. In the 1880s Dik did not stop writing. He wrote longer works, full-length novels, and with more Germanisms than before. This was just the time of his decline. In earlier literature, however, in the literature of the Enlightenment era, Dik assumed a prominent place, if not according to his artistic merits, then because of his extraordinary productivity. His writings created a mass readership for the secular chapbook in Yiddish. His main goal was to educate ordinary men and women, to improve their habits, to acquaint them with the world, and to clean up their religious conceptions and superstitions. Dik was one of the first followers of the Enlightenment (particularly in Lithuania) who understood that neither dry-as-dust Musar nor erudite, florid Hebrew would have any effect upon the people; only stories, aphorisms, and jokes written in Yiddish would do the trick.
Not all of Dik’s chapbooks possess artistic value. Their generally folkish style is often mixed together with German and Russian words, curiously explain in parentheses. Dik thus, in fact, laid the foundation for modern secular literature. In virtually all of his works, he was a moralist, a teacher, an enlightener, and he was not satisfied with morals that one could deduce from plotlines themselves. In the preface or, on occasion, in long digressions right in the middle of his text, he would impart his thoughts on various topics of spiritual or material life; on the education of children; on the condition of women among Jews; on the usefulness of education; on family life. Even before Mendele, he understood that the question of education and enlightenment was a question not so much about religious as it was about social reforms and improvements. He came out strongly against the practice of early marriage, against all manner of idleness that at that time flooded the Jewish towns of Lithuania. He bitterly ridiculed the widespread custom of women being breadwinners, freezing in their shops or on the street with baskets over a brazier, while their husbands warmed their backs by the wall furnaces in the synagogues, idling about. Dik was, incidentally, one of the first to understand the importance of Jewish emigration to the United States, and he urged his friends and acquaintances, as early as the 1860s though especially later, in this direction amid the turmoil of pogroms and decrees against Jews. An outstanding connoisseur of the Jewish way of life, with a sharp eye and an unusually strong memory, Dik portrayed fully alive in many of his stories, though often grotesquely, types from the old Jewish street, characters who became bywords themselves, such as “Khaytsikl aleyn,” “Shmaye gut-yontev biter,” and “Yekele goldshleger.” Written in a straightforward, good-natured, mildly satirical tone, often to the taste of the old Jewish books of proper etiquette, they exerted a powerful impact on their readers and aided much in the cultural awakening of Lithuanian Jewry. Many of them have immense literary historical and folkloric-ethnographic value. Dik introduced into Yiddish literature the sensational, the realistic, the historical, the humorous, and the semi-scientific story and the novel of intrigue as well. He was strongest as a depicter of manners with an authentic sense of humor, and “the roots of folk realism in Mendele’s work must be sought in Dik” (Shmuel Niger). Dik’s writings have an entirely separate interest for the history of Vilna (often dubbed “Aylun” or “Linove”). He adapted and recorded many legends and historical events that are tied to the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” in such booklets as Der erster nabor (The first [Tsarist[ recruitment) (Vilna, 1871), 36 pp., Yehudis di tsveyte (Judith the Second) (Vilna, 1875), 43 pp., and others. What is relevant to his language and style, one must remember that even his work in which his Yiddish is crippled to the most barbaric extent was still a tremendously rich source of genuine Yiddish words and turns of speech, folk expressions and sayings. He had an interest in Jewish folklore, and he published Jewish folktales, jokes, and riddles. Dik’s Hebrew writings as well have not only great historical and ethnographic worth, but pure literary significance, too. He was perhaps the only writer prior to Mendele Moykher-Sforim who was the same in Yiddish and in Hebrew. His fine Hebrew style, enriched with elements from the vernacular, was a step forward toward frank modern Hebrew. His Yiddish chapbooks were, incidentally, popular not only among the folk masses, but also among scholars and followers of the Jewish Enlightenment. His works were plagiarized under a variety of names. Some of them were reprinted long after his death. In 1922 the publishing house of Sh. Shreberk in Vilna published a selected works of “M. A. Dik” (?) in two volumes, with a preface and edited by D. K-el. A more successful compilation and with more fidelity to Dik’s manner of writing was brought out by the M. L. Shteyn Folk-Library in the volume, Geklibene verk fun a. m. dik (Selected writings of A. M. Dik), selected, abridged, and prepared for publication by Shmuel Niger (New York, 1954), 303 pp.
Sources: Y. Ribkind, “A. m. diks biblyografishe reshimes” (A. M. Dik’s bibliographical listings), Yivo-bleter (New York) 36 (1952), pp. 192-240; Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 1, see Reyzen’s list of works about A. M. Dik additionally; Dr. M. Vaynraykh, Bilder fun der yidisher literatur-geshikhte (Scenes from the literary history of Yiddish) (Vilna, 1928), pp. 292-330; Shmuel Niger, introduction to A. m. diks geklibene verk (New York, 1954); Niger, “Der ershter kultur-historiker in der yidisher literatur” (The first cultural historian in Yiddish literature), Tsukunft (New York) (March 1933); Niger, “Der ershter yidisher humorist” (The first Yiddish humorist), Tog (New York) (April 2, 1933); Niger, “A maskils utopye” (A maskil’s utopia), Yivo-bleter 36 (1952), pp. 136-90; Ribkind, in Tsukunft (May-June 1955); E. Ben-Ezra, in Hadoar (New York) (April 5, 1957); Dov Sadan, in Omer (Tel Aviv) (March 22, 1957; September 25, 1957); N. Mayzil, Ayzik meyer dik (Ayzik Meyer Dik) (New York, 1943), 30 pp.; Shmuel Niger, Dertseylers un romanistn (Storytellers and novelists) (New York, 1946), pp, 63, passim.; Sh. Lastik, Di yidishe literatur biz di klasiker (Jewish literature until the classics) (Warsaw, 1950); Kh. Sh. Kazdan, Fun kheyder un shkoles biz tsisho (From religious and secular primary schools to Tsisho) (Mexico, 1956), see index; A. Yeri in Kiryat sefer (Jerusalem) (December 1956); A. A. Roback, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), pp. 88-89.