Today in Yiddishkayt… January 24
Birthday of Ayzik Meyer Dik, Yiddish Author
Ayzik Meyer Dik (also known by his acronymic pseudonym Amad) was born in Vilna on January 24, 1814. He received a traditional Jewish education and married young, settling in the Litvish town of Zupran (today Жупраны, Belarus). When his first wife died childless, he married the daughter of a wealthy khosid from Nesvizh (today, Нясьвіж) who supported the couple despite Dik’s aversion to Hasidim. Dik considered both Hasidism and lack of Western education to be the most destructive influences on the advancement of the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Taught German by a Catholic priest, Dik also learned Polish and Russian. In the late 1830s he returned to Vilna, where he and other maskilim (Jewish “Enlighteners”) established a cultural circle and their own shul. He published scholarly articles in Hebrew and corresponded with the Russian minister of education, Count Sergei Uvarov, appealing for Jewish educational reform. When Vilna’s first modern Jewish crown school was allowed to open in 1841, Dik took a position and taught there for the next 13 years.
In 1843, Dik, along with other maskilim, petitioned Uvarov to prohibit traditional Jewish dress. Three years later, Dik was among those who submitted a report to Moses Montefiore blaming repressive Russian rule for Jewish poverty. Following complaints from Vilna’s strictly Orthodox community, Dik was briefly imprisoned until influential friends obtained his release. By 1860, he declared that he would write in Yiddish to offer the unlearned an alternative morality to that found in ancient romances and Hasidic wonder tales. While opposing the proto-Zionist Jewish nationalist movement of חובֿבֿי ציון (Lovers of Zion) Dik fully appreciated the significance of mass Jewish emigration to America and urged many of his friends to leave, especially after the severe repression that followed Tsar Alexander’s assassination in 1881.
Early nineteenth-century Yiddish writers faced not only the opposition of the Orthodox but also publishers who refused to print their texts. Dik was the first maskil whose writing was accepted by the distinguished Jewish publishing house Romm which signed a contract with him in 1864, after he had lost his teaching job. Dik subverted traditional forms of writing through parody and satire. He introduced German and Russian words and phrases, elaborately explained in parentheses, while maintaining his readers’ interest with gripping plots. In his introductions, and sometimes even in the middle of stories, he attacked what he regarded as outmoded and destructive traditional practices, including marrying off underage children and forcing wives to become family breadwinners while husbands spent their time studying. Familiar with the daily lives of ordinary people, knowledgeable about folk customs, and with a sharp eye and a retentive memory, Dik greatly assisted the socio-cultural awakening of Lithuanian Jewry.
In the last years of his life, Dik was seriously ill and virtually indigent. When he died in 1893, he was buried in the new Jewish cemetery in Vilna. Many of his works are available in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.