Wan­der­ing Soul: The Dyb­buk’s Cre­ator, S. An-sky

Gabriel­la Safran
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
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.

Discussion Questions