By Ayzik Meyer Dik, translated by Ruth Murphy
“The Beautiful Minke” (Di sheyne Minke), first published in 1886, tells the story of a young couple’s secret love and the unintended consequences this secret has for the lovers, their families, and even their entire town. Set in the 19th century region of Volhynia, then part of the Russia Empire, it is a fast-paced, colorful tale that highlights the internecine conflicts between Jews of that era.
Minke, the daughter of a Hasid, is on the verge of being matched with a Hasidic boy as her parents demand when she falls in love with Itsik, the son of Efraim, a Misnaged. Minke’s father, Reb Yudl Shloboner, is a devoted follower of Hasidism and cannot countenance his daughter marrying someone who is not only not a Hasid, but worse—raised in the anti-Hasidic tradition of the Misnagdim.
The ferocious enmity between the Hasidim and the Misnagdim is well-documented in both fiction and historical fact. Hasidim were adherents to the orthodox Jewish religious movement founded by Eliezer Ba'al Shem-Ṭov in the Ukraine around 1750. They wore traditional Jewish religious dress and were faithful to the mitsves of the Torah, but also emphasized that Jews “Worship the Lord with joy” (Psalms 100:2). Hasidic rabbinical leaders, referred to as rebbes, held courts of the faithful and often formed dynasties.
In contrast, the Misnagdim (literally “opponents”) were traditional Orthodox Jews who saw Hasidism as heretical. In campaigns led by their rabbinical leaders, they strongly opposed the rapid rise and spread of the Hasidic movement. Often referred to as Litvaks (Yiddish: “Lithuanian”) by their detractors, the stereotypical Litvak highly esteemed Talmudic learning and was indifferent to the mystical fervor favored by the Hasidim. The term “cross head”—a term used freely by both Reb Yudl and his rebbe—was applied pejoratively to Litvaks (and thus Misnagdim) on the alleged grounds that they were extreme rationalists and thus more inclined toward apostasy. Hence the myth that “a Litvak has a cross in his head.”
The author, Ayzik Meyer Dik, was the son of a chazzan and grew up in a traditional Jewish household. The first professional Yiddish author, Dik was a Maskil: a scholar, teacher and follower of the Haskalah. He fought most of his life for educational and cultural reforms for the lives of Jews in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, hoping to improve their lot and lessen the harsh persecution and wrenching poverty most Jews faced. Dik uses the love affair between Itsik and Minke to skillfully illustrate—and opine on—the social tension being played out in Jewish communities across Europe.