Commentary Magazine

The Dybbuk and Other Writings, by S. Ansky, edited by David G. Roskies

Between Two Worlds

The Dybbuk and Other Writings.
by S. Ansky.
Edited and with an Introduction by David G. Roskies. Schocken. 220 pp. $25.00.

It was in Israel, back in 1980 or ’81. A Russian immigrant and I had pulled a long guard shift on army reserve duty and had begun to talk about our lives to pass the time. As we trudged back and forth along a perimeter fence, I found myself recalling a year spent in the mid-60’s in the American South, where I taught at a small-town black college and was active in the civil-rights movement. I spoke of the excitement of it; of how I, a twenty-five-year-old Jewish boy from New York whose previous encounters with the “real” America had been limited to summer vacations, proudly felt I had penetrated its mysteries; of how I believed as never before that its people was mine; of how my Jewish home had never seemed so unimportant to me, so marginal to the struggle I was part of; of how, nevertheless, the consciousness of that Jewish home would not leave me but even became exacerbated in the course of a year which went from freedom songs and Selma to Watts and the first stirrings of anti-Semitism among black activists. Two years later the Six-Day War broke out, and three years after that I was living in Israel.

The Russian had stopped walking somewhere back in Alabama and was leaning against a Quonset hut. “But that’s my life!” he said. It wasn’t exactly, but the parallel was there. In the early 60’s, having grown up in a family that preserved a strong sense of Jewishness despite the Stalin years, he had gotten his degree in petroleum engineering from an institution in Moscow and gone to work in an oil field in Siberia. For the first time he found himself living in rural Russia, away from big cities and Jews and intellectuals. He loved the chaste, immense countryside, the simple goodness of its people. Of his people! He began to dress like them, to talk like them. He tried teaching them about ecology and the need to protect their world from the depredations of big-city bureaucrats and managers. He almost forgot that he was Jewish. And then one day war broke out in the Middle East, and much to his surprise he desperately wanted the Jews to win, while his government backed the Arabs, and the people in their simple goodness backed the government. A few years later he joined the first wave of Soviet immigration to Israel.

We stood there a moment, bemused by our common fates, and moved on. It was not really that much of a coincidence. We both knew that thousands of Jews had traveled the same path. What I did not know, however, because the thought only occurred to me while reading David Roskies’s informative introduction to the first English anthology of the work of the Yiddish author S. Ansky, was that all these thousands have had a single prototype. Born Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport in Vitebsk in 1863, he is one of those authors remembered for a single work—in this case, his drama The Dybbuk.

Of course, there were well-known secular ba’alei teshuvah (returnees) before Ansky: Jews like Moses Hess and, more tragically, Heinrich Heine and, more spectacularly, Ansky’s contemporary Theodor Herzl. But men like these returned to a penitent identification with their Jewishness after a life of European cosmopolitanism. (All three, in fact, were Francophiles who preferred the expatriate life of Paris to their native Germany or Austria.)

Ansky, by contrast, after growing up in an Orthodox home and excelling as a yeshiva student, broke with Judaism to become a narodnik, one of the romantically nationalistic Russian intellectuals of his time who gave up city life to go “among the people” in order to educate and be educated by them. Indeed, he held out considerably longer at this than most narodniki, many of whom fled, disillusioned with themselves, “the people,” or both, after a few brief weeks or months. For three years he lived as a miner in the Donets Basin—where, as Roskies writes, he did backbreaking labor, “lost most of his teeth to scurvy,” and emerged with his belief in the virtues of Russian folk culture intact.

Ansky’s return to Jewishness was a slow and gradual process. Although he left the mines in 1890 for St. Petersburg and abroad, he did not evince a renewed interest in Jewish life until the end of the century, when the founding of the Marxist Jewish Labor Bund suggested to him the possibility of living as both a revolutionary and a Jew. Even then he continued to be politically active, not in the Bund but in the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary party, and it was only after the abortive uprising of 1905, with its terrible counterrevolutionary pogroms, that he began to write again in Yiddish, a language in which he had published a few sketches when young and then abandoned for Russian.

By 1910 his teshuvah was complete. “Bearing within me an eternal yearning toward Jewry,” he said at a banquet given in his honor that year,

I nevertheless turned in all directions and went to labor on behalf of another people. My life was broken, severed, ruptured. Many years of my life passed on the frontier, on the border between two worlds.

He begged his audience to forget all that he had written in Russian, and henceforth threw himself into Jewish activities. The two most prominent of these were an ethnographic expedition organized by him in 1912, the first systematic attempt to collect and catalogue the Jewish folklore of Eastern Europe, and his heroic exertions during World War I to provide relief aid to the Jews of Galicia, whose communities had been pillaged and devastated in the fighting, mostly by Russian troops. He died of pneumonia in Warsaw in 1920.



The Dybbuk was originally the subtitle of a play which Ansky called Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn, “Between Two Worlds,” and it is hard not to associate this phrase with his 1910 banquet speech. Did he in some way think of the play—a hauntingly romantic drama, heavily based on Jewish folk motifs, of star-crossed lovers, one of whom, Khonon, returns after his death to take psychic possession of his beloved, Leah—as an allegory of his own life? There is no obvious connection between the two things, but there are subtle suggestions. One is the little theme song with which The Dybbuk begins and ends, and which goes in Yiddish,

Makhmas vos, makhmas vos
iz di neshomeh
fun hekhster heykh
arop in tiefstn grunt?
Dos fain trogt
dos oyskumn in zikh.

It has been translated here by Golda Werman:

Why, oh why did the soul plunge
From the upmost heights
To the lowest depths?
The seed of redemption
is contained within the fall.

One can take these lines as alluding either to the character of Khonon, who returns to earth to claim Leah and is reunited with her when she too dies, or else, more sweepingly, to the kabbalistic belief in the human soul’s incarnation in the coils of matter, from which it must struggle to free itself. Neither interpretation, however, precludes an autobiographical reading as well.

Indeed, The Dybbuk itself can be considered the “redemption” that was contained in Ansky’s “fall” from Jewishness, for without his years as a narodnik, in which he acquired his deep appreciation of folklore and the uses to which it could be put, the play would probably never have been conceived. Just as Khonon returns out of love to haunt a world he no longer belongs to, so Ansky, though he had long ago left the Orthodoxy of his youth, came back to it in The Dybbuk to speak ventriloquially through its rituals and beliefs.

And yet while in The Dybbuk Ansky fashioned something artistically enduring from the unrefined materials of Jewish lore, he took from these materials at least as much as he gave. A thorough reading of Roskies’s The Dybbuk and Other Writings, the latest volume in Schocken’s Library of Yiddish Classics, leaves one reluctantly persuaded that Ansky’s “other writings” have not been forgotten without a reason.

For the most part realistic narratives of small-town Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement that emphasize its seamier aspects, these stories and sketches are sardonically observant and competently written, but never quite inspired. Ultimately, it would seem, Ansky’s expectations from his fiction were more documentary than creative, and when one compares a piece like “The Sins of Youth,” a factual account of his adolescent experiences as a clandestinely subversive Hebrew tutor in a shtetl, with its longer fictional version, “Behind a Mask,” one is struck by how closely the second, despite its freedom to develop differently, follows the outlines of the first. His imagination was not his strong suit.

Neither, apart from The Dybbuk, were Ansky’s dramatic powers exceptionally great. While he wrote other plays not included in Roskies’s anthology, among them a number of untranslated comedies like Fotr un Zun (“Father and Son”) and In a Konsparativer Dira (“In a Conspiratorial Apartment”), these, it must be said, are rather feeble efforts with characters as wooden as their stage furniture. If The Dybbuk is Ansky’s only work that soars, this is because its lift comes as much from its materials as from him; the magic is theirs, although his skillful management lets them work their magic on us without unnecessary commentary or intrusive sophistication.

In this sense, The Dybbuk, with all its dreamy invocation of the supernatural, is a kind of documentary too. Even when Khonon most sounds as if he is speaking for Ansky—as when he tells his friend Henekh that “just as a goldsmith refines gold in a flame or a farmer threshes the chaff from the wheat, so must we cleanse sin of its dross until nothing but holiness remains,” causing Henekh to rejoin, “Holiness is sin? Where did you get such an idea?”—he is saying nothing that cannot be traced to the Kabbalah and to the maxims of hasidic masters. But Ansky knew how to dig for such stuff, and how to extract it when he found it. Not for nothing had he worked for three years in the Donets mines.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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