Is there a custom to place a cat, pieces of cake, or something else in the crib before one lays the child in it? Is biting off the protuberance at the end of an etrog considered a protection for a pregnant woman? If two zaddikim quarreled in this world, do they make peace in the next world?
These are questions from the Jewish Ethnographic Program, a vast questionnaire developed by ethnographer S. An-sky between 1912 and 1914 for dissemination throughout the Pale of Settlement, the part of Eastern Europe that was then home to 40 percent of the world’s Jews. An-sky, best known as the playwright of The Dybbuk, hoped the questionnaire would record waning folk beliefs and practices that he believed were at the core of Jewish life. But World War I interfered, and his ethnographic expedition was called off. An-sky died in 1920, and Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement would soon disappear forever.
Now the entire questionnaire, originally written in Yiddish, has been made available in English, in The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement. Nathaniel Deutsch, a professor of literature and history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, consulted with Yiddishists, former shtetl inhabitants, and Brooklyn-based Hasidim to produce this translation. Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry spoke to Deutsch, who argues that the questionnaire, while clearly a failed endeavor, nevertheless reveals many details about shtetl life that would otherwise be lost. [Running time: 27:42.]