Ayzik Meyer Dik (center) and other maskilim; (clockwise from top) Mikhl Gordon, Yehudah Leib Gordon, Tsevi ha-Kohen Rabinovich, and Eli‘ezer Zweifel. (YIVO)

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Dik, Ayzik Meyer

(1807/14?–1893), the first professional and best-selling Yiddish author. Born in Vilna, Ayzik Meyer Dik (generally known by his pseudonym Amad) received a traditional Jewish education and married young, settling in the Lithuanian town of Zupran where he lived a rowdy life. (Although probably born in 1807, Dik himself gave the year 1814, perhaps to avoid military conscription.) When his first wife died childless, he married the daughter of a wealthy Hasid from Nesvizh (Nezyvius) who supported the couple despite Dik’s aversion to Hasidism. 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 established a cultural circle and their own synagogue called Tohorat ha-Kodesh. 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 taught there for the next 13 years.

In 1843, Dik, along with other maskilim, petitioned Uvarov to prohibit traditional Jewish dress. In 1846, 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. Dik then ardently supported the liberal reforms of Alexander II (r. 1855–1881). 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 Ḥibat Tsiyon movement, 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 Alexander’s assassination in 1881.

Honest, affable, and strictly observant, Dik was highly esteemed in Jewish Vilna, but when the school in which he taught was closed in 1864 he suffered great material hardship, emotionally aggravated by the fact that he was not happily married. He was compelled to make ends meet by relying on his wife’s pawn brokerage and by writing stories that he sold to Warsaw publishers for inadequate payments.

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. This was a shrewd publishing decision as Dik’s work became, and for decades remained, the company’s major source of income. For each of the many books Dik subsequently published under their imprint, Romm paid him a flat rate of four rubles, without royalties, even though these publications sold hundreds of copies. 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. Only a tombstone erected later testified to his literary contribution.

Dik’s best work appeared between 1860 and 1875. Some of the richest stories of this period are “Yekele Goldshlager oder Yekele Mazltov” (Yekel Goldmine or Yekele Good-Fortune; 1859); “Reb Shmaye der gut-yontev biter” (Reb Shmaye the Holiday Well-Wisher; 1860); “Der shadkhn” (The Matchmaker; 1867); “Reb Traytl der kleynshtetldiker noged” (Reb Traytl the Small-Town Croesus; 1867); “Di nakht fun tes-vav Kislev” (The Night of the 15th of Kislev; 1868); “Der ershter nabor” (The First [Tsarist] Recruitment; 1871); and “Reb Shimen Barbun der rabiner fun Maynts oder der drayfakher troym” (Reb Shimen Barbun the Rabbi of Mainz or The Tripartite Dream; 1874).

In simple Yiddish and in the moralizing tone of early chapbooks, Dik subverted traditional forms 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 sociocultural awakening of Lithuanian Jewry.

Dik’s books, printed in the modern square-block typeface called ivre-taytsh and vocalized, were readily accessible not only to his “dear lady readers” but also to the learned, who valued them for their use of ethnography, folklore, innovative intertextuality, and clever narrative strategies—all of which strongly influenced subsequent Yiddish fiction. Sholem Aleichem described Dik as “the richest belletrist” in Yiddish, and Shmuel Niger noted that Dik “sometimes forgot that he was a reformer and told a story for its own sake.”

Suggested Reading

Zalman Reisen (Rejzen), “Dik Ayzik (Yitskhok) Meyer,” in Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye, vol. 1, cols. 711–734 (Vilnius, 1926); David Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), chap. 4.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 360, Shmuel Niger, Papers, 1907-1950s.