Text size

Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk's Creator, S. An-sky by Gabriella Safran Harvard University Press, 353 pages, $29.95

"There is no doubt," according to the Russian-born Yiddish writer and activist Chaim Zhitlowsky (1865-1943 ), "that Chassidism exerted a powerful influence for democracy wherever it became established. Old caste distinctions between the learned and the ignorant, between the poor and rich, vanished away . . . The new philosophy inspired by Chassidism was in later years to find its expression, under the influence of science and rationalism, in Jewish revolutionary and nationalistic movements." There we have it: modern Jewish history in a nutshell.

This intriguing hypothesis comes from "A Note on Chassidism," published in New York in 1926 as a preface to an English translation of "The Dybbuk," the best-known Yiddish play of all time. The play's author, S. An-sky, died of a heart attack in 1920, at age 57, one month before its world premiere in Warsaw. He and Zhitlowsky were lifelong friends, boyhood pals from Vitebsk. The two were Russian revolutionaries and ardent Jewish nationalists, all at once. In today's terms, they were Diasporists, not Zionists. Today, one name is famous, the other forgotten: That's show business.

In her fascinating biography of An-sky, Gabriella Safran devotes relatively little space to "The Dybbuk." Her book is designed to illuminate the larger life of a heroic Jew, whose restless and complicated journey has been eclipsed by a single, darkly brilliant play. Recent years have seen renewed interest in An-sky, including translations of his reportage and short fiction into English. In 2001, a major academic conference was organized by two professors at Stanford University: Safran, a specialist in Slavic languages and literatures, and Steven Zipperstein, the Jewish cultural historian and noted biographer of the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha'am. This new book, deeply researched and authoritative, represents a high point in the An-sky revival.

Today, especially in Israel, Chaim Zhitlowsky's conflation of Hasidism and social democracy is somewhat hard to imagine. But for young Jewish revolutionaries like An-sky, it was the core of their being. An-sky, as Safran demonstrates, was a Jewish narodnik, a Russian populist who believed, with Tolstoy, that social redemption must grow from the energies of the plain folk, the peasantry. Throughout his career as a journalist, political activist, ethnographer and relief worker, he juggled his loyalties to two very different peoples, Russian and Jewish. Small wonder that the original Yiddish title of "The Dybbuk" is "Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn" - "Between Two Worlds." Many of Safran's readers, it may safely be assumed, can identify with that existential condition.

Run out of town

Born Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport in 1863, in the shtetl of Chashniki (in today's Belarus ), An-sky moved as a child to nearby Vitebsk, the city later made famous by Marc Chagall. He swiftly rebelled against his family's Orthodoxy. By age 18 he was a full-fledged radical, working as a tutor of secular subjects in the village of Liozno (birthplace of the founder of Chabad ), pretending to be pious while slipping his pupils subversive Hebrew books by freethinking Jewish intellectuals, maskilim. When pogroms broke out elsewhere in Russia after the assassination of Czar Alexander II, pious Jews in Liozno echoed the belief that such heretics had brought the wrath of God upon the entire community. Soon enough, Rappoport was run out of town.

He never lived anywhere for very long; he slept in rented rooms and on the couches of friends; his two half-hearted marriages failed. In his own words: "I have neither a wife, nor children, nor a house, nor even an apartment, nor belongings, nor even any settled habits." Rappoport's youthful wanderings took him south, to Ekaterinoslav Province, where he worked in the salt mines, collected folk songs, lived among Russian peasants, took the name Semyon Akimovich and began publishing in Russian. "His new first name and patronymic," writes Safran, "symbolized his magic ability to cross over the barrier separating the intelligentsia from the masses and the Jew from the Russian narod."

For further reading:

Biography / The founding father
From yeshiva student to rebellious writer
‘The courage to be an absolute nobody’

In 1892, An-sky moved to St. Petersburg, where he mingled with such influential populist intellectuals as Gleb Uspensky and Nikolai Mikhailovsky, and, like many revolutionaries, adopted a protective pseudonym. Its origin is not clear-cut, but according to Safran, "An-sky" likely derived from "Anonim" (anonymous ), and the hyphen, which he used in Russian and English, "highlighted the name's artificiality."

Next, he moved to Paris, where he became the personal secretary of the radical Russian philosopher Pyotr Lavrov. Like Theodor Herzl, An-sky was a Jewish journalist in the thick of the Dreyfus affair. Zhitlowsky, says Safran, believed that the Dreyfus case "turned An-sky, as it turned Herzl, from a cosmopolitan internationalist to a Jewish nationalist," whereas in fact An-sky was most moved not as a Jew but as a writer, stirred by the power of the written word: "His role model was not Dreyfus but Zola," the heroic author of "J'accuse." In 1901 he relocated to Switzerland, where he rejoined Zhitlowsky, then the leader of a group calling itself the Union of Russian Socialist Revolutionaries. An-sky, writes Safran, viewed Zionism as a "bourgeois ideology," but was friendly with Zionists in Bern; he was sympathetic toward the non-Zionist Bund, but took issue with its strict Marxist line. Significantly, it was via the Bund that An-sky returned to Yiddish, writing two poems that were set to music and became anthems of the movement.

In 1905, he moved back to Russia. "As he had in Switzerland, An-sky continued to socialize with terrorists," writes the author, and the matter-of-fact tone of that sentence reflects both her dispassionate style and the harsh reality of the moment. Readers unschooled in Russian revolutionary history and modern Yiddish writing may find it difficult to keep track of the myriad events, characters, organizations, periodicals and geographical venues meticulously chronicled by the author as she charts An-sky's peregrinations in turbulent times. Yet her insights are abundant, and the main arguments shine through: "Like Zhitlowsky, Ahad Ha'am, and [the historian Simon] Dubnov, An-sky was beginning to see himself as a Jewish leader, compelled to redefine Jewishness for a post-religious era ... His cultural nationalism, like Dubnov's, was based on the Jewish experience in the diaspora; by privileging living folklore over other sources, An-sky privileged the present over the past and the current home of the Jews in Russia over their former home in Palestine."

Heroic mission

Back in France, An-sky had viewed ethnographic exhibits at the Paris World's Fair and met Canadian Eskimos in Bordeaux; now, in Russia, he resolved to travel throughout the Pale of Settlement to collect Jewish songs, stories, customs and beliefs. "He viewed an ethnographic expedition as a heroic mission," writes Safran, "whereby he personally and Jewry as a whole might break through the ice to find happiness greater than anything he had experienced before." Off he went in the summer of 1912, accompanied by a photographer and a musicologist. Together they visited Ruzhin, Pavoloch, Skvira, Polonnoe, Berdichev, Slavuta, and Novograd-Volynsk, before taking a break for the High Holidays; by then they had collected some 300 tales, more than 500 songs, and 100 wordless Hasidic niggunim, recorded on wax cylinders. They went back later, and collected a great deal more. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the original cylinders were discovered in Kiev, and some tunes were released on CD. A cache of the photographs turned up in an apartment in St. Petersburg.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 An-sky returned to the Jewish heartland - this time as a relief worker in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, where Russian troops were laying waste to Jewish communities. Dressed in "an aid worker's uniform, wearing a sabre and a fur hat with Red Cross insignia, he resembled an army officer." He consorted with Russian soldiers and listened to their songs, and wrote in his diary that he empathized with them, too. His Yiddish memoir of that period, "The Destruction of Galicia," was published posthumously; an English version, edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel, came out in 2002, under the title "The Enemy at His Pleasure." In the memoir, notes Safran, An-sky downplayed his "sense of intimacy with the Russian soldiers," and stressed his Jewish allegiance.

All the while, An-sky carried with him drafts of "The Dybbuk." From time to time he read the play aloud in Russian and Yiddish versions, seeking feedback. One reading was held in Odessa at the home of the great Yiddish writer Mendele Mokher Sforim, another at the home of Vladimir Jabotinsky. An-sky helped Jabotinsky raise money for a Jewish Legion to fight alongside the British in Palestine, but in 1917 was more interested in Russian revolution than in Zionism. Indeed, Safran reads "The Dybbuk" as a political text, in which the rebellious young lovers Leah and Khonen defy her father's demand that she marry a wealthy merchant's son, expressing "their yearning for an older system, the 'primitive communism' of the past, rather than the capitalistic system of the present."

A dangerous dabbler in kabbala, Khonen invokes demonic powers to win Leah: He dies, and his spirit possesses her body. Safran argues that this extreme act is suggestive of the playwright's sympathy for Father Georgy Gapon, a Russian revolutionary priest who supported violence and once told An-sky that if God would not help his cause, he would turn to the devil: "Like Gapon, Khonen believes that he can use the forces of evil to fight evil." The author goes further: "When the dybbuk takes on Leah's form, he resembles An-sky himself, who took on different forms throughout his life as he restlessly moved from one identity to another." Moreover, she ventures, the play's "fantasy of a man who inhabits a woman's body may have expressed his own conflicted sexuality."

An especially difficult fate

Various Jewish writers - including An-sky himself, when it suited him - have read his life story as an exemplary narrative of assimilation and return. Often cited are remarks he made at a dinner held in his honor in 1910 in St. Petersburg, attended by Yiddish and Russian intellectuals alike. "A writer has a difficult fate," An-sky began, "but a Jewish writer has an especially difficult fate. His soul is torn; he lives on two streets, with three languages." Twenty-five years earlier, he said, he found "no political movements among Jews," and thus "threw myself in all directions and went to work for another people." Now, things were different: "We have cultural, political, and literary movements. Long live the Jewish people, long live Jewish literature, long live everything good among the Jews!"

Safran will have none of that. Her nuanced book demonstrates beyond doubt that An-sky was forever a product of his two identities, never relinquishing either one of them. He felt deeply at home in Russia and strove desperately to reform it, even as he harvested the ecstatic energy of Hasidism and the treasures of Jewish folklore to fashion a proud future for the Jewish people. As such, he was what Emerson called a Representative Man, a person whose struggles not only reveal the complexity of one remarkable individual, but also reflect unanswered political and cultural questions that still bedevil serious Jews everywhere. In this respect, Safran's scholarly tour de force is a tonic for our own anxious age, a midrash on creative Jewish ambivalence.

Stuart Schoffman is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation. His translations from Hebrew include books by A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman.