A Great Jewish Books Book Club Selection
Few authors are as closely associated with their signature work as S. Ansky and The Dybbuk. Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport, better known by his pen name S. Ansky (or Anski or An-sky), was an activist, memoirist, folklorist, and the author of “Di shvue” (“The Oath”), the anthem of the Bund. Yet for many, Ansky will always be the author of The Dybbuk, perhaps the most popular and most critically lauded of all Yiddish plays.
Thanks to new translations and new scholarship, this image of Ansky has begun to change. Two other images of Ansky have lately come into focus: Ansky the ethnographer, and Ansky the novelist. Works like Pioneers: The First Breach bring these two aspects of Ansky’s career together.
Shloyme Rapoport was raised in Vitebsk and left home in his late-teens. His literary career began in earnest in Saint Petersburg in early 1892, when he began to use the pen name S. Ansky. Most of his writing from this early period was in Russian. It was only his discovery of the writings of Y. L. Peretz in 1901 that convinced Ansky that Yiddish could serve as a modern literary language. The YIVO Encyclopedia entry on Ansky provides a comprehensive overview of Ansky’s early life and the beginnings of his literary career.
It’s important to remember, however, that Ansky’s earliest writing was focused on radical Russian politics. As David Roskies explains, “Here was a man who had left home at the age of seventeen to spread enlightenment among the benighted shtetl masses but soon took up the cause of the Russian masses instead; changed his name to Semyon Akimovitsh so as to share the miserable fate of Russian miners in the Don Basin; spent a heady year in St. Petersburg as a trusted member of the Russian Populist elite; and then followed the lead of other radicals by emigrating to Paris, where he worked for the cause in the cradle of the revolution.” It was only in 1905 that Ansky’s politics and advocacy began to focus on Jewish causes.
Hillel Halkin provides a more lyrical discussion of Ansky’s early period in his review of The Dybbuk and Other Writings. He imagines Ansky as a secular “ba’al teshuvah” (penitent) whose interest in Jewish life was renewed by the founding of the Jewish Labor Bund. Indeed, Halkin partly explains The Dybbuk as a dramatization of Ansky’s personal fall and return narrative. “Just as Khonon returns out of love to haunt a world he no longer belongs to, so Ansky, though he had long ago left the Orthodoxy of his youth, came back to it in The Dybbuk to speak ventriloquially through its rituals and beliefs.”
Some of Ansky’s most lasting contributions to Jewish culture were his ethnographic expeditions through the Russian Pale of Settlement from 1912 to 1914. These expeditions collected folk tales, rituals, music, and artifacts. One part of this ethnographic project was a 200-page questionnaire of 2,087 questions that Ansky intended to send to communities in the Pale. (The project was halted by World War I.) The questionnaire—and the expeditions more broadly—formed the subject of Nathaniel Deutsch’s 2011 book The Jewish Dark Continent. A lecture by Professor Deutsch on Ansky is available for download from the Center for Jewish Studies of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In 2009, a collection of photographs from the expedition was published by Brandeis University Press. The volume’s editors, Eugene Avrutin and Harriet Murav, spoke about the book, and the importance of the collection, on Vox Tablet, a podcast of Tablet Magazine. As Murav explains, the photographs challenge our preconceived notions of the look of the shtetl and the space of the shtetl. “Their import is that they show Jews in their daily life before World War I. . . . They show the urban landscape of the shtetl in ways that we—especially in the English-language world—have so collapsed and reduced down to one or two stereotypes that to look at these landscapes, to see a cathedral in a shtetl, kind of blows our minds and makes us rethink our image of the past.”
Ansky scholar Gabriella Safran describes the aims of Ansky’s photographic project this way: “An-sky’s true goal was to help modern urban Russian Jewry create a new secular Jewish culture based on their memory of the structures that governed the lives of shtetl Jews. He therefore sought to collect evidence of Jewish folk culture, to capture it in image, recording, text, and object.”
Photographs from the expedition are on view at the Yiddish Book Center as part of our permanent exhibitions.
Another creative way to experience Ansky’s expedition is to travel in his footsteps. Shtetl Routes, a project to responsibly cultivate a cultural heritage and tourism industry, provides a detailed guide for following Ansky. The route includes eight townships in Volhynia: Luboml, Volodymyr-Volynsky, Kovel, Lutsk, Ostroh, Dubno, Kremenets, and Korets. The route is 420 kilometers and takes a week to complete by car.
On the Yiddish Book Center’s podcast, Ansky’s translator, Rose Waldman, directly connects Ansky’s ethnographic mentality with his literary art.
“You see, kind of, his ethnographic bent. The way he describes a scene, he zooms in on the individual people; it’s not just an overall description of a shtetl, or of the historical situation, or time. He really goes to the nitty-gritty of individual people—what they say, how they sound, how the community sounds, all of that—and I found that very intriguing in the book.”
Waldman’s translation of Ansky is actually only the first of a two-volume work. The other half was translated by Michael Katz in 2014 and published by Indiana University Press. While Pioneers: The First Breach focused on the arrival of the enlightenment in a small town in the person of a tutor, the second volume considers the emotional drama of the new maskilim and the instability of the transition. As one reviewer put it, “What makes Mirkin, Eizerman and their comrades compelling as characters is not so much their zealous quest for enlightenment as the doubts that plague them as they set out to remake themselves. Eizerman guiltily questions himself after he casts off his familiar garb: has he acted too rashly, made superficial changes that simply mask an old worldview, speech and thoughts still intact beneath the surface?”
Resources at the Yiddish Book Center
- Ansky’s complete works in Yiddish are available from the Spielberg Library.
- Readers may also enjoy a short Yiddish pamphlet tribute to Ansky published not long after his death.
- The Yiddish Book Center’s Sami Rohr Collection contains two Ansky audiobooks, Di tsen tseykhns fun meshiekhn and Mendl terk.
- Our Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library contains two relevant items: a fascinating lecture by David Roskies, “Der fenomen sh. anski” (“The Phenomenon S. Ansky”); and a recording, in Hebrew, of a theatrical performance of The Dybbuk by the Habima Theater.
- A bilingual excerpt of Rose Waldman's translation of Pioneers first appeared in Pakn Treger 71 (Summer 2015).
- Our Wexler Oral History Project includes several fascinating clips about Ansky performances. In this excerpt, Aron Gonshor talks about the “surreal” nature of performing The Dybbuk in Vienna.
Other Ansky Resources
- The Mapping Yiddish New York project contains information about many different productions of The Dybbuk. The pages contain archival photos and descriptions of various productions.
- In 2001, Stanford University hosted a conference on Ansky. This page documents the conference and contains information about Ansky, archival images, and more.
- In June 2013, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Ansky’s expeditions, the Library of Congress Folklife Center held a special concert of the An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble. Featuring an all-star team of musicians and musicologists, the performance also featured short talks on ethnomusicology.