Dineh: An Autobiographical Novel: Reading Resources
Dineh: An Autobiographical Novel: A 2022 Great Jewish Books Club Selection
Few readers of Yiddish literature have heard of Ida Maze, and even fewer have read her. But for decades she was a mainstay of the Yiddish literary community of Montreal, both through her writing and through the salon she held in her home, which became a magnet for other artists and writers.
Born in 1893 in a small town in Belarus, Maze emigrated with her family at the age of 12, first to New York and shortly thereafter to Montreal. She received little formal education and reportedly learned Russian and Hebrew by listening in on her brothers’ lessons. Throughout her life she was an avid autodidact, reading widely in multiple languages.
Maze began writing poetry as a teenager and published widely. Much of her work was oriented toward younger readers, though she was also influenced by the experimental tendencies of the American Yiddish literary group Di yunge. Her first book, A mame (A Mother) was composed after the death of her own son, Bernard, at ten years old. For two years she edited the Montreal Yiddish journal Heftn while continuing to publish her own work in Yiddish periodicals around the world. Her autobiographical novel Dineh, her only extended work of prose fiction, appeared after her death in 1962 and was edited by her friend M. M. Shafir.
In addition to her own writing, Maze was known as a cultural activist within the Montreal Jewish community. During World War II she was involved in efforts to obtain Canadian entry visas for Jewish writers and cultural figures and assisted their settlement in Montreal. She organized reading groups and events for both adults and children at the Jewish Public Library, and for years her home on Esplanade Ave. was known as a meeting place for artists and writers. It was not for nothing that she was called the “den mother” of Yiddish Montreal and the “mother of Jewish writers.” As Canadian poet Miriam Waddington remembered, “She radiated a sibylline and mystical quality, and possibly that was the secret of the magnetism that drew so many artists to her Esplanade apartment.”
Despite the name of the protagonist, Dineh is a transparently autobiographical novel that draws directly on Maze’s life and memories. Maze wrote the book decades removed from the times and events it recounts, yet she brings the scenes and stories to life with immediacy and vivacity. In her introduction to the book Emma Garman quotes Maze’s son, Irving Massey: “My mother never really left Europe . . . she made incessant references to the old country. She sang songs in Russian and Belorussian and Yiddish that she’d learned as a child.”
Although Dineh draws a portrait of the “old country,” it is not a work of nostalgia, frozen in time. Instead it portrays the period’s intellectual and social currents and the traumatic and often violent experiences of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The novel focuses particularly on women characters, not least of which is the protagonist, Dineh. In his afterword translator Yermiyahu Ahron Taub writes: “In her unflinching examination of the lives of women she writes powerfully about class stratification, thwarted romance, violence (domestic, state-instigated, and otherwise), and the perils of childbirth. . . . Her portrayal of women’s lives is remarkable in its candor.”
Dineh Web Resources
Watch an oral history interview with Ida Maze’s son, Irving Massey
Explore Ida’s Salon, a website devoted to Ida Maze and Montreal’s Jewish community
Read a brief biography of Maze at the Jewish Women’s Archive
Listen to a song sung by M. M. Shaffir in Ida Maze’s honor
Listen to an interview with translator Yermiyahu Ahron Taub on The Shmooze podcast:
Watch the recent Lunch in Translation program featuring translator Yermiyahu Ahron Taub:
Watch Ida Maze: The Den Mother of Yiddish Montreal, a documentary film from the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project:
In 2021, poet Shuli Elisheva undertook The Ida Maze Project on YouTube, in which she reads and composes music to Maze’s collection Vaksn mayne kinderlkeh
Listen to an event held at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library in honor of the original publication of Dineh (in Yiddish)
- Does the portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in Dineh conform to your expectations? Why or why not?
- Is Dineh a feminist or proto-feminist novel? Does Maze’s portrayal of women align or diverge from contemporary sensibilities?
- How does Dineh deal with contemporary events and issues, including anti-Semitism and immigration?
- How do you feel about Maze’s depiction of non-Jews? Do you think they are portrayed sympathetically?