An-sky, left, with his Deadbeat Dad.
An-sky, left, with his Deadbeat Dad.
When I speak with old and new friends about Yiddish culture, there are certain associations that always seem to surface. When it’s not Fiddler on the Roof, its often The Dybbuk, most famous among American Jews as a 1937 film by Michal Waszinsky that details an Eastern European Jewish world steeped in kabbalah, spirit possession and complex, nightmarish marital politics. Based on a play by Jewish ethnographer, revolutionary, journalist and playwright Shloyme-Zanvl Rappaport, Sh. An-sky, Der Dybbuk is just the tip of An-sky’s iceberg.
Luckily, we are not lacking information about Reb An-sky, due to a wondrous new book by Stanford professor Gabriella Safran. Her Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-sky is an intrepid look at the life of a Jew who hasn’t been matched since. The book begins by painting the picture of two Jewish boys growing up in the same city, but from opposite sides of the tracks. An-sky came from humble beginnings, running around the city of Vitebsk, Vaysrusland with comrade and spoiled rich kid Khayim Zhitlovsky, another rogue Jewish cultural theorist. They eventually both became Jewish Wild Men.
An-sky grew up in a tavern watching peasants drink themselves into puky oblivion, and later claimed that it legitimized his ironic, complex ethnographic expeditions into the Pale of Settlement to collect the folklore of Galician Jews. He ended up creating studies of Jewish culture and memoirs o that stand alone as ecrypted codes of Ashkenazi DNA. He was a witness to a violent, immoral, cold and incredibly creative time in Golus, yet he is not fully appreciated by all the bearded and bodiced Judeophiles in the Manhattan or Jerusalem camps. It’s just a small tragedy of our current cultural moment, when our youth think Jewish culture is synonymous with an advisory board, rich patrons and a web presence.
Anyways, Check out the book.