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The Man Behind ‘The Dybbuk’

Rokhl’s Golden City: S. An-sky’s ethnographic expedition

Rokhl Kafrissen
June 10, 2020
Wikimedia Commons
An-sky, author of ‘The Dybbuk’Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
An-sky, author of ‘The Dybbuk’Wikimedia Commons

Despite leading a life crammed with dramatic moments and heroic gestures, the writer, ethnographer, and would-be Russian revolutionary S. An-sky truly became larger than life on the day of his funeral.

After years spent fruitlessly trying to get his play The Dybbuk produced on the Russian- or Hebrew-language stage, An-sky finally found a theatrical partner in the Warsaw branch of the Vilna Troupe theater. Other readers had found An-sky’s text too literary, too wrapped up in its folkloric detail, and not concerned enough with its dramatic thrust. But when he read the play for the Vilna Troupe’s business manager (Mordechai Mazo) and one of its principal actors (Leyb Kadison), the two men immediately saw its potential and agreed to move ahead with a production.

A few weeks later, An-sky was dead of a heart attack.

Some 80,000 mourners attended his funeral. The Vilna Troupe was there, with a banner referencing The Dybbuk: “On the path between two worlds, a last greeting to S. An-sky.” According to Vilna Troupe historian Debra Caplan, the conclusion of the funeral was interrupted when Mazo stepped up to make an impromptu speech. In her book Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater and the Art of Itinerancy, Caplan writes that Mazo “made a dramatic vow that the Vilna Troupe would stage the world premiere of The Dybbuk in exactly 30 days, at the close of shloshim.” Without consulting his colleagues in the Troupe, Mazo swore to leave the Troupe if he didn’t pull it off. As the days wore on, he raised the stakes, claiming that if they didn’t open on time, they “would find his dead body on top of An-sky’s grave in the very spot where he made his vow.”

Despite the insanely tight schedule, the Troupe not only opened The Dybbuk on time, but they made theatrical history. Under Dovid Herman’s direction, The Dybbuk fused Hasidic elements with the latest European theatrical modes and is now recognized as the first appearance of Jewish theatrical modernism. It’s been revived, interpreted, and reinterpreted countless times, on stage, film, and television, in countries around the world. This year is thus doubly significant, both as An-sky’s 100th yortsayt as well as the 100th birthday of the most famous Jewish play in the world. (Though I’ll admit, it may be tied with Fiddler on that count.)

But The Dybbuk we all think we know (especially via its lauded 1937 film adaptation) would not exist without that production by the Vilna Troupe, and, more importantly, the daring reworking of the text by director Herman. Herman was the ideal artist for the job. He combined a Hasidic upbringing with theatrical training on the Polish and Austrian stage. Had An-sky lived, it’s doubtful Herman would have had the freedom to reshape the text according to his own vision. An-sky believed that as little as possible should come between the actors and the text. According to Debra Caplan, in his correspondence with the Vilna Troupe, An-sky even suggested possibly foregoing a director altogether(!).

The reluctance to engage a director for a play may seem strange to us, but I think An-sky’s disdain for directorial meddling speaks to some of the great themes of his life, specifically his attunement to audience and his desire to make a direct impact on the world. When he left his mother’s Vitebsk home, before he became “An-sky,” young Shloyme-Zanvil Rapoport set out to work as a tutor for Jewish boys, with the express intent of leading them away from their traditional way of life. Later, as Semyon Akimovich An-sky, his involvement with the Socialist Revolutionary Party was explicitly connected to violent acts of terrorism meant to overturn the ancient order. And still later, when announcing his ethnographic expedition to capture the folklore of the small Jewish towns of Ukraine, it was with the stated goal of presenting the Jews with nothing less than a second Oral Torah. What characterizes each of these episodes is a yearning toward the heroic and world changing, ideals imbibed from the Russian novels he devoured as a young man.

In her definitive An-sky biography, Wandering Souls: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-sky, Gabriella Safran argues that it would be simplistic to paint An-sky as someone who cast off his Jewishness for the Russian cause, later returning to Jewishness, repentant. She compares him to Khonen, the doomed mystic of The Dybbuk, “a rebellious and protean figure … never able to limit himself to a single set of loyalties.” Even when he was working on behalf of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, arguing strenuously for the role of terrorism in political work, the reader gets the impression of a man too restless for sustained fanaticism.

Which doesn’t mean that he couldn’t inspire fanaticism. Indeed, as a revolutionary propagandist, An-sky had a gift for it. His ideological opposition to Bundism didn’t prevent him from becoming friendly with a circle of Bundists and composing poetry for them. His two Bundist anthems, “In zaltsikn yam (In the Salty Sea of Human Tears) and “di Shvue” (The Oath) are still part of the modern Yiddish song canon. Safran notes that An-sky’s lyrics, redolent of blood and martyrdom, had a tremendous impact on young Bundists. A few months after the publication of An-sky’s anthems, a young Bundist named Hirsh Lekert attempted to assassinate the governor-general of Vilne in retaliation for his abuse of workers. Lekert was executed and quickly became a Bundist martyr, even as the Bund was ideologically opposed to terrorism.

Safran locates the publication of these two Yiddish poems in 1902 as a kind of turning point: “[F]or the first time in almost twenty years,” An-sky was moved to write a letter, entirely in Yiddish, to his lifelong friend and fellow revolutionary Chaim Zhitlowsky. In the letter, he explains that while mame-loshn is a “language of slaves,” he was writing this letter in bobe-loshn, grandmother’s tongue, “a language with blood and flesh, you can cry out in it to your heart’s desire, you can sing a song.” Mame-loshn was the daytshmerish, overly Germanized Yiddish of an earlier generation of respectability seekers. Bobe-loshn was authentic and expressive, possibly even the language of revolutionaries. And he would come to believe that Yiddish folklore had the radical potential to heal an increasingly fractured Jewish world.

The pull to folklore and the values of the “folk” (or narod, in Slavic contexts) was strong during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The location of a unique folk spirit, and folk culture, was part of many nationalist projects. In the fast-changing Russian Empire, not just Jews, but Ukrainians and Belarusians were embarking on nation-building, folklore-collection projects. Russian populism idealized the peasant village as a source of moral perfection and harmony.

But An-sky had always been drawn to folk material, even as a child. He published the first collection of miners’ songs based on the time he spent working in a Donets Basin salt mine in his 20s. Safran says that when he was arrested in January 1907 on charges of inciting rebellion, he described his three-week stint in a Vitebsk jail “as an immersion in ethnographic fieldwork among prisoners and jailers.” Always brilliantly attentive to the stories around him, “he overheard a murderer claiming that there is no need to fear that your victim’s ghost will come after you.”

Not everyone signed on to the ethnographic project, of course. An-sky wanted his friend, the great Hebrew poet Bialik, to translate The Dybbuk into Hebrew. But Bialik didn’t just hate the play, Safran writes, “he compared [An-sky] to a garbage collector who collects scraps of folklore and pieces them together.” Great national art was made of flesh and blood, and drew on the great Hebrew texts, according to Bialik. Yiddish folklore, by contrast, was made of “fingernails and hair,” bodily effluvia Jews are traditionally commanded to burn, lest a wayward piece drag them to Gehennom.

Speaking across an ideological divide, Bialik accused An-sky of devoting himself to a cause that was not just lost, but putrefying. But what An-sky achieved as an ethnographer was nothing short of heroic. Over three summers, he and his team visited some 70 Ukrainian towns, bringing with them thousands of questions designed to capture the beliefs, thoughts and practices of Yiddish-speaking Jews, from birth to death.

A few years ago, Nathaniel Deutsch published the first English translation of An-sky’s questionnaire, called “The Jewish Ethnographic Program.” In the introduction, An-sky makes a characteristically dramatic argument for his project, positioning the as yet unrecorded body of folk beliefs as a companion to the commentaries of the Talmud:

“…on a par with … the great Written Torah that we have received as an inheritance from hundreds of generations of the chosen—pious sages and great scholars, thinkers and spiritual guides—we possess yet another Torah, an Oral Torah, which the people themselves, and especially the common folk, have ceaselessly created during their long, hard, and tragic history. This Oral Torah, which consists of folktales and legends, parables and aphorisms, songs and melodies, customs, traditions, beliefs, and so on, is also an enormously significant product of the same Jewish spirit that created the Written Torah. It reflects the same beauty and purity of the Jewish soul, the tenderness and nobility of the Jewish heart, and the height and depth of Jewish thought.”

Of An-sky’s many achievements, it is not the omnipresent Dybbuk, but his ethnographic expedition that most strongly grips my imagination. I grew up in a place as densely Jewish as interwar Warsaw, or perhaps even one of the distant Ukrainian provinces visited by his ethnographic team. Imagine a late-20th-century New York suburb, suffocatingly thick with self-consciously Jewish Jews, and nary a drop of Jewish culture to be found. When An-sky wrote in his essay “Jewish Folk Art”: “It can be safely said that there’s no other nation that can talk so much about itself but has so little knowledge of itself as the Jews.” He might as well have gotten in his time-traveling DeLorean and stolen my diary.

When I got to college I started studying Yiddish. It was then, at the age of 19 or so, that I put my finger on my own problem with no name. It wasn’t that there was no living Jewish culture to nourish me as I went out into the world. Far more devastating was the revelation that yes, there had once been a thing, but bloody history, the ephemerality of oral culture, and the vexatious tendency of the Jews to discard their most precious assets, had shattered their tradition into a million pieces.

But, of course, as a resident of the 21st century, I also know that there is no such thing as “tradition.” Or rather, as literature scholar Annette Werberger argues in her essay Ethnoliterary Modernity: Jewish Ethnography and Literature in the Russian Empire and Poland (1890-1930), for people like An-sky, the ethnographic extraction of folklore itself creates “tradition.” Modernity and traditionality are not fixed objects, but a dynamic process of differentiation. The materials of Jewish life are, and always have been, ever changing. And I understand something Bialik didn’t: Suffering as I do from terminal modernism, collecting and reshaping Jewish culture isn’t a curse, but my greatest pleasure.

RESEARCH: The materials gathered by the An-sky expedition were unfortunately scattered across archives in the Soviet Union and have only surfaced sporadically. I recently met with the director of the YIVO Archives, Stefanie Halpern, (outside, at a comfortable bench-length distance) to talk about their An-sky holdings and programming. YIVO had planned a whole 100th yortsayt minifestival that was to be taking place now. Most of those activities have been postponed but you should check YIVO’s website for more information. YIVO has quite a bit of An-sky-related material, including eight folders of ethnographic materials collected by the S. An-sky Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society in Vilne and much of that material is scheduled to be digitized and put online once, God willing, life returns to normal. Halpern also made my heart skip a beat when she told me that YIVO archivists had digitized a few pages of a Yiddish Dybbuk manuscript, in An-sky’s own hand. That material will be online once staff have returned to the building.

ALSO: I loved this wonderful article about the legendary Camp Boiberik … My friend, master klezmer fiddler Ilana Cravitz has been streaming a ton of gorgeous music and classes. Make sure you check her website for developments … Boston’s Vilna Shul is offering a new class called The People’s Republic of Yiddish: Jewish Labor Movements Through the Ages. It’s being taught by one of the most important young scholars of the Bund, Dr. Joshua Meyers. And instead of having to pay Harvard tuition, Vilna Shul is only asking $18 for three classes. Starts July 13. Register here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.