The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement.

Harvard University Press  2011


The Russian Jewish journalist, ethnographer, social revolutionary, and dramatist Shloyme Zanvil Rapaport is best known and remembered as the author of the classic Yiddish play, The Dybbuk, published under his pen-name, Sh. An-ski. Between 1912 and 1914, Rapoport led ethnographic expeditions into the “Jewish dark continent” within the Pale of Settlement, urgently seeking to record traditions that were beginning to vanish amid the currents of modernization and social change operating among the many impoverished Jewish market towns, the shtetlekh

Nathaniel Deutsch’s remarkable book is constructed around a translation of the more than 2,000 Yiddish questions that Rapoport compiled to guide teams of ethnographic researchers, both professional and amateur, in a campaign to document how Jews traditionally lived and saw their world. The very list of questions, skillfully annotated by Deutsch, reflects the complex and culturally dense fabric of traditional Jewish society on the eve of significant change and modernization. Questions range from traditions, customs, superstitions, and songs regarding birth, child-rearing, gender roles, and marital customs to education, employment, celebrations, aging, death, and the ultimate resurrection of the dead, concluding with “What kind of life will there be after the Resurrection of the Dead?” For Rapoport, asking detailed questions about traditional beliefs and customs as recalled by living Jews was a vital tool for paving a road to Jewish survival in the radically changing world of the promising and also distressing twentieth century. This is a book that should be in every Jewish library and will be enjoyed by those curious about “a world that is no more,” but still resonates. Index, map, notes.

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