In 1914, a Russian Jew writing under the name S. An-sky wrote a play called The Dybbuk. It concerns a young bride-to-be possessed by the spirit of her former lover, and it would go on to become one of the most popular plays in the Jewish- and Yiddish-theater repertoire. But An-sky’s pre-Dybbuk work might be his most valuable contribution to Jewish culture: from 1912 to 1914, the playwright led ethnographic expeditions throughout Russia’s Pale of Settlement, collecting Jewish folk tales, rituals, music, and other artifacts of daily and religious life. An-sky’s research has been an invaluable resource to students of Jewish history and culture. Now, a new body of material from those expeditions has come to light: approximately 350 photographs, comprising perhaps the most comprehensive visual record available of these small towns and the people who inhabited them. The photos are remarkable not only for the wealth of detail they offer about a way of life in transition, but also for the immediacy of the subjects themselves.
A collection of nearly 200 of these newly discovered photos is now available in a volume titled Photographing the Jewish Nation: Pictures from S. An-sky’s Ethnographic Expeditions. Vox Tablet spoke to two of the book’s editors, Eugene Avrutin and Harriet Murav, both professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about the importance of this collection for anyone interested in shtetl life in the Russian Empire. A gallery of photos from the book appears below.