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

Nathaniel Deutsch
  • Review
By – December 4, 2012

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.

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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