DICK, ISAAC MAYER:
Russian Hebraist and novelist; born in Wilna 1808 (of the various dates the one given by "Aḥiasaf" is probably most nearly correct); died there Jan. 24, 1893. His father, who was a ḥazzan, gave him the usual Talmudical education, and he was also instructed in the Bible and Hebrew. He married when very young, and while living with his wife's parents in Nishvezh, near Wilna, became acquainted with a Catholic priest who clandestinely taught him the German language. He also acquired a knowledge of Russian and Polish, and on his return to Wilna acted as private teacher of Hebrew and German, having for one of his pupils Mattathias Strashun, who remained his lifelong friend. In 1841 Dick became teacher of Hebrew in the newly founded government school for Jewish boys in Wilna.
The visit of Sir Moses Montefiore to Wilna in 1846 was the occasion of a great outburst of literary productions in his honor. Dick described the visit in "Ha-Oreaḥ" (The Guest), published at Königsberg 1860. He was one of the founders and for many years the "shammash" of the Synagogue Ṭohorat ha-Ḳodesh, modeled after the Shoḥare ha-Ṭob of Berlin of Mendelssohn's time, and known in Wilna as "Berliner Schul," because it dared introduce some slight reforms in accordance with the ideas of the Mendelssohnian "maskilim," who were called "Berliner." He was interested in the uplifting of the Jews of Russia by various means, and corresponded on that subject with Count Ouvaroff, minister of education under Nicholas I. Dick declared himself in favor of enforcing the ordinance compelling the Jews of Lithuania to dress in German or European fashion, though in his own dress and manners he remained an old-style Jew to the last, believing that he could thus do more good than if he broke with old associations and boldly joined the new generation.
Dick was a most pleasant conversationalist, his fame as a wit spreading far outside of Wilna, and innumerable humorous anecdotes being told in his name and about him to this day. In later years he was employed by the publishing house of Romm at a small weekly salary to write Yiddish stories; and his productions of that nature, of various sizes, are said to number nearly three hundred. In the chaotic condition of the Yiddish publishing trade in Russia, even an approach to a bibliography of works of that nature is an absolute impossibility. In his old age Dick lived comfortably, and was one of the most respected and popular men in the community.
In addition to that mentioned above, Dick wrote three Hebrew works: "Maḥazeh Mul Maḥazeh," a Purim story (Warsaw, 1861); "Siprono," a description of Jewish life in small cities (Wilna, 1868); and "Masseket 'Aniyyut" (Tractate Poverty), considered one of the best Talmudical parodies ever written. But his fame rests on his Yiddish novels, a field in which he was the first professional and the founder of a school. As he himself asserted many times, he wrote only for the purpose of spreading knowledge and morality among his readers, and in many cases he permitted this purpose to overshadow the story. Most of the modern critics condemn his style; his constant use of High-German words, explained, often wrongly, in parenthesis; his quotations from the Talmud and Midrashim with his own commentaries, retarding the flow of the narrative; and his pausing at a dialogue or other interesting point to insert a long sermon on the moral lesson to be drawn from incidents described in the story. But in spite of all verbosity and deviation, Dick was an excellent story-teller, having a power of description, an insight into human character, and a sympathetic humor which are given to few. His longer works are chiefly translations, and are the least worthy of his writings; but among the shorter ones are many original stories, some of which, if divested of superfluous matter, could well bear an English translation. "Der Yiddischer Posliannik" (The Jewish Ambassador), Wilna, 1880; "Note Ganaf" (Life of Nathan the Thief), ib. 1887; and "Die Schöne Minka," ib. 1886, have considerable merit; while some of his characters, such as "Shemaya Gut Yom-Ṭob Bitter" (the holiday visitor), "Chaitzikel Allein," or "Der Moiziter Bachur," rank among the best efforts of the present Yiddish writers.
- Obituaries in Ha-Asif and Aḥiasaf, Warsaw, 1894;
- Wiener, History of Yiddish Literature, pp. 169-172, New York, 1899;
- Zolotkoff, in Stadt-Anzeiger, Oct. 15, 1893;
- Ha-Shaḥar, v. 349 et seq.;
- Hausfreund, 1894, vol. iii.;
- Winter and Wünsche, Die Jüdische Litteratur, pp. 585-603.