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Use Your Illusion

The Yiddish side of the spiritualist movement

Rokhl Kafrissen
April 19, 2022
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Library of Congress

In her 1916 Yiddish memoir, Mayn lebens geshikhte: di laydn un freydn fun a idisher star aktrise (My life’s history: The joys and tribulations of a Yiddish star actress), Bessie Thomashefsky—onetime first lady of the Yiddish theater and partner of the great Yiddish theater impresario Boris Thomashefsky—recalls their time working in Chicago with Jacob P. Adler, before she and Boris made it big in New York.

As there were no moving pictures yet to compete with them, the theater company was doing well. They were about to open a splashy new show, and it was decided that the seats in the theater needed painting. Rather than doing the sensible thing and hiring a workman to do the job, Adler insisted that he could do it himself. In her memoir, Bessie dryly notes that there was no skill on Earth that Adler would not claim to possess. Unfortunately, the paint job went awry, and the audience members found themselves stuck to their chairs, their clothes having become one with the freshly painted seats. A toyt-klap (death knell) for their company.

Nokh a tsure (and yet another disaster) she describes in her memoir: Adler, the company treasurer, discovered that their profits had been swiped from him. Suspicion fell on Adler’s maid, but she swore she was innocent. The solution? Adler would hold a séance to determine the culprit. Bessie writes that at that time, everyone understood that spiritualism (the word is the same in English and Yiddish) was a trick, like painting the seats in a theater. And Adler iz geven a maydim in ale kuntsn, she writes—he was a connoisseur of every kind of trick or illusion. (It seems clear that she was being ironic here, in light of the seat-painting debacle.)

Nonetheless, Adler convinced them to hold a séance. At that time, around 1890, table-tipping was in vogue, part of a larger spiritualist belief that the dead persisted in spirit form and could be contacted by the living. At his direction, the actors joined hands around a table. Adler requested the spirits to knock the table once if the money had been stolen by a heymishn (here, meaning one of the company) or three times to indicate it had been a fremdn (outsider). Of course, the spirit knocked three times. And while the spirits were already there in the room, Adler closed the séance by having Bessie and another actress receive greetings from their dead bobes (grandmothers) on the other side.

Bessie wants her readers to know that she understood a séance to be just another theatrical illusion, one they had no choice but to go along with. But what of Adler’s invocation of the dead bobes? It seems to me an attempt by Adler to play on the heartstrings of the women at the séance, a ghostly legitimation of his unconventional criminal investigation.

Bessie would have been 17 or 18 at the time of the séance. Was she truly as cynical then as she was when writing her memoir years later? Without further comment, Bessie and the others accepted the findings of the séance: The money was gone. The implication left to the reader is that as a man of the theater, Adler’s “illusions” sometimes shaded into the unsavory (was it he who took the money?) but, hey, what are ya gonna do? That’s life on the stage, a life built on illusion. Adler was immediately off to New York, where he was to arrange new theatrical opportunities for all of them.

The spiritualist movement had already been gaining momentum for decades when Bessie Thomashefsky had her backstage séance in Chicago. The desire to speak with the dead has been with us for as long as people have been dying. But the spiritualist movement is generally acknowledged as beginning in 1848 in New York state, with the mysterious spirit rappings heard by the Fox sisters. Spiritualism was part of a larger scene of religious revival as well as growing interest in esoteric practices such as hypnotism and mesmerism. The devastation of the Civil War brought to spiritualism millions of seekers looking to make contact with dead loved ones, a trend that only increased after WWI. Since it was a mass phenomenon, it’s not surprising to find that Jews of all kinds—even rabbis and other representatives of traditional Jewish life— were drawn into spiritualism’s orbit.

Today you can still find spiritualist groups organized around “churches.” But the spiritualist movement was not conceived as explicitly Christian; nothing necessarily barred Jews from joining spiritualist groups. And yet, as would happen in many other places and contexts, Jews established many of their own spiritualist groups and institutions, where they could express themselves within their own cultural idioms, among friends, without fear of antisemitism.

According to historians Samuel Glauber-Zimra and Boaz Huss, in the two decades before WWII, “Jewish spiritualist organizations flourished.” In their recent article, “‘No religion could be more spiritual than ours’: Anglo Jewish spiritualist societies in the interwar period,” Glauber-Zimra and Huss present a fascinating picture of the diversity of British Jewish spiritualist life in that period, divided between the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the East End and the acculturated, English-speaking Jews beyond the immigrant enclaves.

Organized British spiritualism was at its peak during the interwar period. According to Glauber-Zimra and Huss, in 1934, there were more than 2,000 active spiritualist societies in England. The movement naturally gave rise to its own universe of media: newsletters, newspapers, and magazines. For some Jews, being part of the British zeitgeist meant joining mainstream spiritualist societies. For others, it meant creating Jewish versions of those institutions.

The National Jewish Spiritualist Society was established in 1919, the first such Jewish society in England. It grew out of a group of East End spiritualists, led by Tobias and Ethel Blaustein, immigrants from Galicia who “held weekly séances in their tenement apartment off Whitechapel Road.” Tobias eventually wrote a Yiddish-language book about spiritualism, the first to appear in England. The popularity of spiritualism was explicitly bound up with the proximity to war. The book contained an essay by Ethel, in which she argued that spiritualism offered “consolation for bereaved Jewish mothers.” Though the NJSS itself didn’t last more than a few years, Jewish spiritualism flourished along with mainstream British spiritualism, until the outbreak of WWII. As late as 1939, “three Jewish spiritualist societies continued to operate in the East End.”

Given the high visibility of Jews in spiritualism, the implications of spiritualism to modern Jewish life were hotly debated. One of the most fascinating strands of this discourse, brought out by Glauber-Zimra and Huss, is that many Jews, of all varieties, saw spiritualism as a means of revitalizing Jewish life. Some conceived of spiritualism as occupying a transitional place between religion and scientific inquiry. In this light, spiritualism was a potential source of empirical proof of religious belief, a defense against the corrosion modernity had wrought on traditional ways of life.

This last point is brought home forcefully in another recent article by Glauber-Zimra, “Summoning Spirits in Egypt: Jewish Women and Spiritualism in Early Twentieth-Century Cairo.” Cairo had seen an influx of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th century. This community remained somewhat closed off from the rest of Cairo’s Jews, and continued to use Yiddish as its everyday language. And just as spiritualism was a global phenomenon at the time, so Yiddish-speaking Jews in Cairo found themselves holding séances and dabbling in trance mediumship, a practice wherein spirits speak or write through a medium.

In one case in Cairo, two sisters began holding regular séances in their home. The precise date of this activity is unknown, but was sometime between 1900 and 1915. The women used a planchette, a small board with a pencil attached. The spirits could thus produce writing as the board (and pencil) traveled across the paper beneath, with the women’s hands upon it.

What kind of literature did the women produce? Was any of it in Yiddish? Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about the women, not even their names. The account of their activity comes to us not through them, but through an account written by R. Aaron Mendel Hakohen, son of a Hasidic family in Tiberias who became the rabbi of the Ashkenazi community in Cairo.

Spurred on by a congregant’s question about the purpose of the Mourner’s Kaddish, Hakohen undertook a series of lectures on the nature and existence of the soul, in Yiddish. These lectures ultimately became a Hebrew book, Haneshamah vehakadish (The Soul and the Kaddish), published in 1921. As Glauber-Zimra writes, Hakohen’s aim was to convince “skeptical readers to believe a tale of spirit-communication found in the Talmud.” He recounts the story of the sisters and their séances because it offered, in his words, “empirical physical demonstration rendering the survival of the soul after death an unquestionable truth which even the complete heretic cannot deny.”

But Hakohen was hardly some kind of spiritualist convert. Keep in mind that the Ashkenazi community Hakohen was serving was one which could be accurately described as “areligious” to an extreme. Hakohen’s interest in the sisters lay not in their human struggle for meaning, but in their usefulness to his own polemic, aimed at a community largely indifferent to the spiritual answers offered by traditional Judaism. When one of the sisters lost a child, they blamed the spirits and ceased their mediumistic sessions. Glauber-Zimra writes, “Hakohen chided them that it was their own sinful behavior in summoning the dead which was responsible.” Spirits may be real, but for Hakohen, their existence only served to forcefully affirm the correctness of traditional Judaism, as embodied in the living voice of male authority.

Hakohen was hardly alone in his anxiety about Jews drifting away from Jewishness. At that very moment in the United States, Mordecai Kaplan was formulating a new doctrine, one he believed would revolutionize Judaism, conjuring a Jewishness “without supernaturalism” that would appeal to the modern Jew and harmonize with scientific thinking. But if you look at Kaplan’s personal writing in the 1910s and 1920s, you see an intriguing turn toward a conception of animating “energies.” In a 1917 journal entry he analogized the presence of God to the presence of lightning and electricity. In a 1922 entry, Kaplan wrote, “In prayer the Ego becomes conscious of God. Through this awareness it sets into operation psychic forces that are otherwise dormant. Hence the value of prayer” (as quoted in Communings of the Spirit: The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, Vol. 1; 1913-1934). Was Kaplan, too, subtly influenced by the spiritualist and esoteric currents of the day?

Eventually, technological advances allowed for the complete discrediting of mediums who claimed to perform some of the quintessential “proofs” of spiritualism, things like the production of ectoplasm or “apporting” items into a séance room. Modern science continues to investigate psychics and psychic phenomenon, to mostly disappointing results. But I find myself returning to Bessie Thomashefsky and her assessment of the kuntsn (artifices or illusions) of spiritualism. Séances may have been nothing more than entertainment for gullible audiences, but as she well knew, theater itself was only a few shades away from the séance room, the conjuring of long-gone and never-were voices for the pleasure of the people. Rather than doing away with the supernatural (as Kaplan would have us do), theater reminds us that illusion is just as real, and just as mysteriously precious to the human experience, as anything else.

MORE ON JEWISH SPIRITUALISM: On May 2, Sam Glauber-Zimra will present a lecture called “‘What Does Your Dream Tell You?’: B. Rivkin and Yiddish Occultism in America.” In addition to his work as a literary critic and anarchist thinker, Rivkin was a “firm believer in the occult who attended spiritualist séances and speculated about the possibility of telepathic communication. Over the three decades of his literary career in the United States, Rivkin published hundreds of articles on occult topics ... and published a weekly psychic dream-interpretation column in the newspaper Der Tog in the early 1940s that analyzed dreams submitted by readers in the shadow of the Holocaust.” “What Does Your Dream Tell You?” will be a virtual talk at YIVO, May 2, 1 p.m. Register here.

ALSO: Tuesday, April 19 is the 79th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The annual commemorative program will take place at der shteyn (the stone) in Riverside Park. Judy Batalion (author of The Light of Days) will be just one of many special guest speakers. April 19 at 1 p.m. at Riverside Park, between 83rd and 84th Streets … The Portland Klezmer Festival will be bringing the deep Brooklyn fiddle work of my friend Jake Shulman-Ment to Portland, Oregon, along with many other wonderful performers. April 29-May 1. More information here … YIVO presents “Continuing Evolution: Yiddish Folksong Today,” a music festival celebrating Yiddish folk song. Highlights include premieres of contemporary classical works reimagining Yiddish folk songs, little-known settings of Yiddish folk songs from YIVO’s archival collections, and conversations from the music archive. Concerts will take place between May 9 and May 26, with in-person as well as streaming video. More information and tickets here ... Applications are now open for Klezkanada’s Azrieli Scholarship program. Deadline is May 1. Find out more here … The Workers Circle annual Trip to Yiddishland retreat will take place in person, Aug. 15-21. Registration is open now.

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