Teaching Guide for Dik’s “Slavery or Serfdom” (trans. Rosenblatt)

Jessica Kirzane


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Isaac Meir Dik’s introduction to his 1868 adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) provides insight into popular literature in Yiddish, the use of Biblical text to support political debate, the transnational circulation of texts, and Jewish/Yiddish and East European perspectives on American slavery, to name just a few issues of potential interest to students of American, European, and Jewish literature and history. This reading guide aims to direct instructors to resources that may be of use as they plan lectures, discussions, and classroom activities around Eli Rosenblatt’s translation of Dik’s introduction. It offers opportunities for instructors to gain the background knowledge that they might need to teach the text, and provides suggestions for using the text in a history or literature classroom.


Isaac Meir Dik (1814-1893) has been called the first best-selling Yiddish author. 1 1 See Joseph Sherman, “Dik, Ayzik Meyer” in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Born in Vilna, Dik received a traditional Jewish education and married young, but he was a proponent of Western education and was strongly opposed to Hasidism. Dik learned Polish and Russian, published scholarly articles in Hebrew, and advocated for Jewish education reform. For thirteen years he served as a teacher in Vilna’s first modern Jewish crown school. Dik advocated liberal reforms and supported the program of Tsar Alexander II.

Dik was a prolific writer, and although early nineteenth-century Yiddish writers faced hardship because publishers refused to print their texts, Dik became the first maskil, or proponent of the Jewish enlightenment, whose writing was accepted by the Jewish publishing house Romm. 2 2 See Zeev Gries, “Romm Family,” in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. His writing, in the form of chapbooks containing sentimental, sometimes satiric stories with ethical teachings, was immensely popular. Though his work sold hundreds of copies, Dik received a flat rate for his writing, and he spent the last years of his life in illness and poverty.

Dik tended to write in simple Yiddish and took on a moralizing tone familiar to readers of chapbooks published to promote traditional Jewish values and practices. But he employed parody and satire to subvert traditional forms, attack traditional practices, and to promote the Westernizing platform of the maskilim. 3 3 For an extended account of Dik’s rhetorical strategies, see David Roskies, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), chap. 4.

Dik’s writing has variously been read as popular fiction for women and as Enlightenment philosophy and polemic that influenced vast social change. 4 4 For a discussion of Dik’s writing as popular literature geared to a female audience, see David Roskies, “Yiddish Popular Literature and the Female Reader,” In Depth: Popular Culture Around the World X:4 (Spring 1977), 852-858. In A Bridge of Longing, Roskies demonstrates the maskilic polemic that underscores Dik’s sensational, fantastical fictions. His attraction to Stowe’s novel likely stems from its similarity in genre to his own work. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is at once a simplistic, sentimental work of popular fiction targeted at women and a stirring political allegory that fueled public debate about human rights for decades after its publication. 5 5 In his introduction to New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Eric Sundquist explains that Stowe’s work is at once a “masterpiece” and a “hybrid of polemic and sentimental melodrama” that has been underestimated by scholars because its domestic concerns stand in opposition to the American canonical trope of masculine confrontation with nature. He describes the work as containing a message of “radical democracy” undergirded by a faith of the role of God and Christianity in the American political sphere. He argues that Stowe strategically employs sentiment (a staple of women’s fiction) to confront the political question of abolition as a moral, religious imperative. See Eric J Sundquist, “Introduction” to New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 1-44. Like Dik’s work, Stowe’s novel edifies through entertainment, titillates in order to advance a social platform.

Dik’s translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin participates in and responds to a global phenomenon that has been referred to as “Tom-Mania,” the international sensation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s popularity. 6 6 See Sarah Meer, Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (University of Georgia Press, 2005). Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into twenty-six languages immediately after its publication and was sold and read millions of times. Stowe’s work was immensely popular in Europe and shaped how Europeans viewed Americans and the American institution of slavery. 7 7 See Sarah Meer, Uncle Tom Mania; Stephen A Hirsch, “Uncle Tomitudes: The Popular Reaction to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’” Studies in the American Renaissance (1978), 303-330. For this reason, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been called one of the first works of “world literature.” 8 8 See, for instance: Barbara Hochman, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the World’s Columbian Exposition,” Libraries and Culture 41:1 (Winter 2006), 82-108; John MacKay, True Songs of Freedom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).
Readers turned to the novel as an expression of American culture and politics, for discussion of the expansion of women’s roles, as a work of moral and religious literature appealing to an evangelical concept of brotherhood and sisterhood, and as an allegory for forms of oppression that existed in other political and social contexts.

In his introduction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Dik ties the novel to maskilic ideals including a belief in progress, an interest in applying rational, historical thought to the study of scripture, and the embrace of rationality. He provides his readers with historical background about race and slavery, and celebrates human progress in opposition to serfdom and slavery, drawing upon burgeoning ideas of race and race science as well as Biblical sources. In so doing, Dik brings a traditional Jewish readership into contact with Western science and relates world politics and literature to the social and political climate of nineteenth century Eastern Europe.

Classroom Activities:

  1. Jigsaw Discussion: Divide Dik’s introduction into four sections (you might choose to divide the text at the points where images appear). Ask students to break into small groups and assign each group a section of the introduction. The students should read their section critically, write down a summary of the key points and a list of questions their section raises for them. Then, divide the class into groups of four with one student who has read each section represented in the group. Ask the students to teach one another about what they have read. This strategy for teaching primary source documents is not specific to Dik’s introduction and can be used for any complicated text to promote class discussion and close reading.
  2. Categorization Activity: Guide a class discussion by writing the following categories on the board: Politics, Science, Religion, History. Ask students to find examples of how Dik invokes each of these kinds of knowledge in his introduction and list the examples on the board. How would students classify the genre of Dik’s introduction? What are important sources of authority for Dik?
  3. Slavery? Or Serfdom?: Divide the class in half. Instruct one group of students to read Dik’s introduction in order to glean information from it about slavery in America. Instruct the other group to read Dik’s introduction in search of attitudes and information about serfdom in Russia. Then, ask students from each group to join together in pairs to discuss their readings of the text and teach one another what they learned about slavery or serfdom and Dik’s attitudes toward each. Ask them how these topics are related and how they are different, and whether and how Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Yiddish is an artifact of American or of world literature.

Discussion Questions:

You may choose to ask these questions during class discussion, give them to your students alongside their reading to help them read and interpret the text, or assign them for reflection papers after your in-class discussion is complete.

  1. Why do you think Dik refers to the story as “true”? How do you read a story differently if you believe it to recount true events?
  2. Why, according to his introduction, has Dik chosen to translate Uncle Tom’s Cabin into Yiddish?
  3. Explain Dik’s distinction between historical law and rational law (concepts which come from German Enlightenment discourse). What is the relationship between these two kinds of laws and morality?
  4. Describe the relationship between scientific and religious discourses in the text. When and how does Dik use religious evidence to bolster scientific arguments, and vice versa?
  5. How would you describe the register of this text? Does the introduction suggest that the reader is embarking to read a sentimental novel? Who is the target audience for the introduction, and is this also the intended audience for the translated novel itself?
  6. Is there an element of Jewish nationalism in this document, and how is it manifested?
  7. Where do you see Russian triumphalism in this document? What does that tell us about Dik’s relationship to the Russian state, or the role of the Russian state in Yiddish enlightenment discourse?
  8. What impressions does this text convey about America and Americans? About Africans?
  9. How would you describe the level of detail about the American slave trade?
  10. To what extent does this text educate? To what extent does it entertain?
  11. Are the edifying/didactic goals of Dik’s Yiddish translation different from those of Stowe’s original? If so, how?

Writing Prompts and Extension Activities:

These prompts are designed to direct students’ research and may be used for term papers or adapted for class discussions and activities. Many of these prompts invite students to compare Dik’s introduction with other related texts. Educators may choose to study these other texts in class in addition to Dik’s text, or to invite students to incorporate a comparative dimension only in their individual work.

  1. Compare Dik’s introduction to his Yiddish adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 preface to the European edition of her novel, or to her 1878 preface to a new American edition. Discuss how these different introductions situate the novel religiously and politically for its reading audience.
  2. Situate Dik’s introduction alongside primary source documents about the emancipation of serfs in Russia. (Some suggestions include Alexander II’s ceremonial preamble to his abolition of serfdom and Alexander Radischev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow [1790], a tirade against the evils of serfdom). How is Dik’s text an anti-serfdom manifesto or a celebration of the emancipation of serfs in Russia? How does it draw upon anti-serfdom discourse?
  3. Compare Chaim Zhitlowsky’s introduction to Yehoash’s translation of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha to Dik’s introduction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Do they share aims of inserting Yiddish into world literature or bringing world literature to Jewish readers? How do they prioritize and express political vs. literary goals in their translation efforts? What goals do they set out to achieve by translating, and how do you anticipate the translation strategies differ as a result of divergences in these goals?
  4. For Yiddish Readers: Read the rest of Dik’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. How does the introduction frame the text? Can you find evidence of the rhetoric from the introduction in Dik’s adaptation of Stowe’s narrative?
    1. For non-Yiddish Readers: Read Bertha Wiernick’s review of Dik’s Yiddish adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and speculate, based on her description, on the relationship between Dik’s introduction and the changes he makes to Stowe’s narrative.
  5. For Yiddish Readers: Compare Dik’s introduction to the preface to Y. Yaffa’s 1911 Yiddish translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. How does the time and place (New York) of publication affect the introductory materials and translation strategy? How does Yaffa position the text as a historical and literary document—and does he anticipate it having political potency in the current moment? How does he deal with the Christianity of the text?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

The aim of this collection of articles is to help educators gain the context they might need to design lectures and lesson plans around the primary source document.

Resources About Isaac Meir Dik:

Sherman, Joseph. “Dik, Ayzik Meyer.” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.

An overview of Dik’s life and work.

Reisen (Rejzen), Zalman. “Dik Ayzik (Yitskhok) Meyer.” Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye, vol. 1, cols. 711–734 (Vilnius, 1926).

Another biographical overview of Dik’s life and work.

Roskies, David. A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling. Cambridge, Mass., 1995. chap. 4.

Roskies describes Dik’s role as an “enlightened storyteller” and the strategies he employed (exploiting the medium of the anonymous chapbook and the voice of the traditional maggid) to achieve popularity. He describes Dik’s efforts to combat fantasy and replace it with morality and logic through a kind of “camouflage” in which enlightened themes were filtered through sensational romance, scriptural references, and drawing upon the past. He compares Dik’s work with that of Nahman of Breslov, noting their similar strategies in service of divergent systems of belief.

Wolpe, Rebecca. “From Slavery to Freedom: Abolitionist Expressions in Maskilic Sea Adventures.” AJS Review 36:1 (Apr 2012): 43-70.

Through her analysis of maskilic sea adventures, Wolfe shows that opposition to the slave trade and, in some cases, abolitionist views were conventions in maskilic writing. According to Wolpe, Dik compared American and Russian experiences of slavery and abolition, presenting Russia in a positive light and praising the reforms of Alexander II. She charts a history of Dik’s discussions of American slavery as he went from being an opponent of the slave trade to an abolitionist, and links these positions to the ethical qualities he championed as a maskil.

Caplan, Marc. How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Modern Form in Peripheral Modernisms. Stanford University Press, 2011.

Caplan asserts that Dik is a peripheral modernist insofar as he critiques modernity even as he sings its praises. Caplan discusses an unfinished manuscript in which Dik writes of a utopia where Jews assimilate Christian values while retaining separateness, betraying his nascent nationalism.

Feingold, Ben Ami. “Satirah Maskilit Neshachechet: Zifronah Me’et A’’M Dik.” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature, (1986): 239-58 (Hebrew)

Feingold characterizes Dik’s allegorical form of satire and offers examples from his work, and focuses in particular on Dik’s Hebrew writings.

Resources about the Global Circulation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Meer, Sara. Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005.

Meer examines how Uncle Tom’s Cabin was rewritten and reread in the 1850s through the numerous songs, plays, sketches, novels, artwork, and merchandise that were inspired by the novel. She uncovers how Uncle Tom’s Cabin contributed to a transatlantic conversation about slavery in the 1850s, how it was appropriated and used for a variety of differing political purposes surrounding the question of slavery, and its impact on transatlantic cultural relationships.

Parfait, Claire. The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852-2002. Aldershtot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2007.

Parfait tracks the history of American editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the material form and paratextual elements of various publications that help to account for why and how the novel remained meaningful for American audiences through history.

Kohn, Denise, Sarah Meer, and Emily B. Todd, eds. Transatlantic Stowe: Harriet Beecher Stowe and European Culture. University of Iowa Press, 2009.

Many of the essays in this collection may prove useful to those composing lectures around Dik’s adaptation, but readers may find the editors’ preface and John MacKay’s chapter on early Russian reception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin of particular interest. In their preface, “Reading Stowe as a Transatlantic Writer,” Denise Kohn, Sarah Meer, and Emily B. Todd describe Harriet Beecher Stowe as a participant in transatlantic literary culture and as an influence upon it. Their summary of the transatlantic publication history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrates how European readers saw the text as uniquely American, offering insights into American culture, and also as an expression of issues of oppression and reform that were relevant in their own countries. In his chapter “The First Years of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russia,” John MacKay focuses on Russian responses to the book between 1852 (when UTC was first published in America) and 1858 (when it was published, in three separate venues, in Russia). He explains that in these years the novel was allegorically read as an attack on Russian serfdom, and that long before it was translated to Russian, the novel had gained notoriety among the Russian intelligentsia through its German and French translations. Although there were no full-scale transpositions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin into the serf context, MacKay notes that Russian versions do add “Russifying” touches to the story (much like the Yiddish version). He elaborates on the changes made to the Russian version in order to universalize it from its American context, and he describes the influence that political forces had on the construction of the text.

MacKay, John. True Songs of Freedom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2013.

MacKay charts the history of the publication and reception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian. While it was initially interpreted politically through the lens of anti-serfdom, MacKay demonstrates that in the 1880s the novel began to be distributed pedagogically for Uncle Tom’s model of Christian virtue, and after the October Revolution the novel was an instrument of anticapitalist and anti-US propaganda.

Cheung, Martha. “The Discourse of Occidentalism?: Wei Yi and Lin Shu’s Treatment of Religious Material in Their Translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. in David E. Pollard, ed. Translation and Creation: Readings of Western Literature in Early Modern China, 1840-1918. John Benjamin’s Publishing, 1998, 127-150.

Cheung explains how the Chinese translators of Uncle Tom’s Cabin adapt the novel in order to teach their idea of the West to their readership and speak about Christianity and civilization from a Chinese perspective.

Kaspin, Albert. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and ‘Uncle’ Akim’s Inn: More on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Turgenev.” The Slavic and East European Journal 9:1 (Spring 1965): 47-55.

Kaspin compares Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Turgenev’s Akim’s Inn. He explains that neither of these authors read one another’s work before writing, so the novels are not influenced by one another, but they share certain goals and mechanisms as they aim to educate their publics about the evils of legalized bondage. In his comparison, Kaspin succinctly explains basic differences between Russian serfdom and American slavery, the temperaments of the authors, their reading audiences, and the constraints of the publishing environment (including censorship), that affected their narratives.

Rossi, Joseph. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Protestantism in Italy.” American Quarterly 11:3 (Autumn 1959): 416-424.

Rossi describes the mixed reaction to the Italian translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which was acclaimed by the reading public largely on aesthetic grounds and decried by the Italian clerical press for religious reasons. Catholic periodicals attempted to discredit the Protestantism they saw described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but this did not affect the popularity of the novel in Italy.

Kirzane, Jessica. “Teaching Guide for Dik's "Slavery or Serfdom" (trans. Rosenblatt).” In geveb, October 2016:
Kirzane, Jessica. “Teaching Guide for Dik's "Slavery or Serfdom" (trans. Rosenblatt).” In geveb (October 2016): Accessed Apr 17, 2024.


Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is the assistant instructional professor of Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.