Faye Rapoport DesPres

Writers in the Trenches: Scott Hilton Davis brings Yiddish Stories to an American Audience

I was introduced to the work of Scott Hilton Davis by Dr. Erika Dreifus, author of the short story collection Quiet Americans and an advocate for writers and Jewish literature.  Erika guessed I’d be interested in Davis’ work, and she was right. I was fascinated by – and appreciative of – his efforts to make classic Yiddish literature accessible to an English-speaking audience.

A writer himself, Davis can speak to the experience of being both a writer in the trenches (he spent years both writing and working as a television producer) and an independent publisher.

Some biographical notes on our interviewee: Scott Hilton Davis is an Emmy Award-winning public television producer as well as an author, storyteller, and collector of Eastern European Jewish stories from the turn of the 20th century. He is the author of Chanukah Tales from Oykvetchnik, Souls Are Flying! A Celebration of Jewish Stories, and Between Heaven and Earth, four one-act plays based on the stories of I. L. Peretz.

In 2007, Davis founded Jewish Storyteller Press to bring the works of 19th-century Jewish writers to 21st-century readers.

His current passion is to recover the works of the once-beloved 19th century Yiddish writer Jacob Dinezon. For the past decade, Scott has been working to make Dinezon’s novels and short stories available in English to a whole new generation of readers.

FRD: As this is a series about “Writers in the Trenches,” tell us first about your own writing life. You had a long career in public television before turning to writing. Why did you make the switch?

SHD: Actually, I’ve been writing stories and plays since high school, and screenplays since college. While working for public television, I had the opportunity to write everything from news stories and public service announcements to documentaries and dramas. So I’ve been engaged in the practice of writing for many years.

FRD: Tell us something about your own books.

SHD: I’ve written two collections of short stories that were inspired by Jewish writers from Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. When I was about 13, I was given books of English-translated stories by I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, two of the most famous and beloved Yiddish writers of that period. Sholem Aleichem was a humorist—sort of a Jewish Mark Twain— who is best known today for his Tevye stories which were turned into “Fiddler on the Roof.” Peretz was a very successful poet, playwright, and short story writer. Both created characters and scenarios that haunted my imagination for years.

About forty years later, I became reacquainted with their stories and began adapting them for storytelling. Eventually, I reworked them into “retold tales” that were published in a collection called Souls Are Flying! A Celebration of Jewish Stories. As I continued to perform the stories in that book and began immersing myself in the works of the Yiddish author Jacob Dinezon, I found myself coming up with my own short stories. I set them in a little town that was similar to Sholem Aleichem’s Kasrilevke and Anatevka, and they were published in a little holiday book called Chanukah Tales from Oykvetchnik.

FRD: How did you end up as a publisher, specifically of Yiddish works translated into English?

SHD: It’s kind of a complicated story, but the short answer is, “I had no choice.” Around 2003, I unexpectedly discovered the name of a Yiddish writer who was closely associated with Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz—he was a close friend and mentor to both of them. The name was Jacob Dinezon, and although I had never heard of him, Jewish literary historians considered him the author of the first bestselling novel in Yiddish. He also advised Sholem Aleichem on the publication of the first literary journal in Yiddish and published, out of his own pocket, I. L. Peretz first collection of Yiddish short stories. In the course of his nearly forty-year career as a writer, Dinezon produced several important novels and was a central figure in the development of Yiddish as a literary language. When he died in 1919, tens of thousands of Jews came out onto the streets of Warsaw to mourn their beloved folk writer and community benefactor.

So, of course, I found this all very intriguing. But when I went looking for stories by Jacob Dinezon, I couldn’t find any, because unlike Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, none of his major works had ever been translated into English. Whether it was the TV producer in me, or something more divinely inspired, my curiosity became insatiable. Eventually, I located Yiddish versions of Dinezon’s novels and short stories and commissioned professionals to translate them into English.

After about three years of on-again, off-again discussions with two academic presses, my sister Robin Evans suggested I do for Dinezon what Dinezon had done for I. L. Peretz when he published Peretz’s first book of Yiddish stories. That’s when I founded a small independent press to make Dinezon’s works available in English to 21st-century readers.

FRD: I should share with you that my father was a Holocaust survivor, and my mother’s parents came to the United States before the war, so they all spoke Yiddish. When I was growing up, my parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying (until I started to understand). Unfortunately, my Yiddish experience ended there. I do remember a few funny phrases, such as, Vaksn zolstu vi a tsibele mitn kop in drerd! (May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground!) Is it difficult to capture the essence of Yiddish language and stories for an English-speaking audience?

SHD: I know exactly what you mean! My parents also spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about; although they often had lively discussions in Yiddish with my grandparents and aunt.

My parents were cultural Jews who were determined to give their children a Jewish education that was steeped in Yiddishkayt—Jewishness—so my sister and I were sent to afternoon and weekend schools that taught the Yiddish language, Jewish history, literature, drama, and music. Sadly, I didn’t pick up the language, but what was firmly planted in my heart was a love of Jewish culture and values. Performing in plays and singing songs taught me the rhythms and nuisances of Yiddish speech. This, I think, has helped me with adapting and editing Yiddish translations and writing my own stories.

FRD: Tell us about Jacob Dinezon, author of your new release, The Dark Young Man.  Forward called him “The Greatest Yiddish Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.”

SHD: Jacob Dinezon was one of the most popular and important Jewish writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but because of the demise of Yiddish after the Holocaust and neglect—if not avoidance—by Yiddish translators and publishers after the war, his contributions to Jewish literature fell into obscurity. Unlike I. L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem whose works had a broader appeal, Dinezon focused on the issues of his day like arranged marriages and corporeal punishment in Jewish education, topics that don’t seem relevant to us today. His short stories are long, and none of his novels have happy endings. So if you’re trying to make a living as a translator, or in the business of selling enormous quantities of books, Dinezon wouldn’t be high on your list.

On the other hand, the English translations we’ve published are well-written, compelling stories that vividly depict Jewish life in the Russian Empire in the 1800s. Like other social reformers, Dinezon held up a mirror and showed his readers both the bright side—love, hope, aspirations for a better world—and the dark side—persecution, poverty, violence, death. He didn’t pull any punches. We see in his novels what life was really like for our grandparents and great-grandparents who were living in urban communities and not in shtetls. There’s no nostalgia in Dinezon’s writing; no longing for the good old days. So in addition to being fascinating Jewish literature, these works are important historical documents.

FRD: The book itself is described as the first Jewish realistic romance. What does that mean?

SHD: Prior to the publishing of The Dark Young Man in 1877, Jewish love stories were based on Bible tales, legends, and fables. They were fanciful and ended happily ever after. Readers rarely if ever saw people like themselves in the pages of the books they read—and Dinezon actually points this out in The Dark Young Man. Dinezon’s novel presented real young people in conflict with their parents over issues that were challenging the Jewish community at the time—arranged marriages, pressures to assimilate, the tug of modernity on traditional Jewish life. Not to mention the shocking ending—which I won’t spoil for you.

FRD: In one sentence, tell me why someone should read this book.

SHD: Because I promise you, you’ll never read a Jewish love story like the one depicted in The Dark Young Man!

FRD: What can we look forward to next from Jewish Storyteller Press?

SHD: We have a lot of irons in the fire, but right now we are focusing on the release of The Dark Young Man as a way of commemorating Jacob Dinezon’s 100th yahrzeit—the 100th anniversary of his death. To not forget someone is an important concept in Judaism and that’s why we light a candle on the anniversary of their passing. Our goal from the beginning was to help people remember that there was a Jacob Dinezon in the world who made a significant contribution to Jewish literature in the 19th century. And if ever there was an author who was a “Writer in the Trenches,” it was Jacob Dinezon—which is why I’m so grateful for this opportunity to share his story.

FRD: Thank you so much, Scott. Regarding the book, zol zayn mit mazl! (Loosely translated: go with good luck, or much luck.)