S. An-sky (1863 – 1920) may be best known for The Dybbuk, but this play, considered one of the most popular Yiddish theater pieces of all time, was almost a footnote to this man’s extraordinary career. As a young Jewish man leaving the Pale to try to change Russian society, An-sky had to negotiate a complex, constantly shifting political environment. Safran, a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, is aware that her readers may know little of late 19th and early 20th century Russian history, so she carefully details the alignments and divisions he faced. These ideological struggles — over the role of peasants in a revolutionary strategy, over the meaning of Jewish identity in a modern Russia, over the use of Yiddish rather than Russian, over assimilation versus Jewish nationalism— laid the basis for An-sky’s ultimate life’s work, the ethnography of Russian Jews. His decision to devote himself to the study of Jewish folklore might be seen as a response to anti-Semitic pogroms, but Safran frames this work more broadly, as An-sky’s commitment to Jewish cultural renewal. By validating the language and traditions of the shtetls, An-sky was both arguing with the “Marranists” (cosmopolitan on the outside and Jewish on the inside) and finding genuine inspiration for his own work, as seen, for example, in The Dybbuk. Biography fans eager for details on An-sky’s intimate life (his marriages, loves, feelings, even his working style) may be disappointed, since by the end of the book, Ansky- the-man remains an enigma. But Ansky’s work — as a war correspondent, a s an ethnographer of Jewish folkways, as a political thinker — is made brilliantly clear. Halftones, index, map, notes.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.