The Argument for Jewish Culture.

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.

4 thoughts on “The Argument for Jewish Culture.

  1. the ansky book i am really looking forward to is the one being written currently by nathaniel deutsch. people should also check out deutsch’s amazing book on the ludmirer moyd (the maiden of ludmir – the only female hasidic rebbe), which engages with ansky’s ethnography and playrighting as drawing from this story.

  2. ‘An-Sky grew up in a tavern watching peasants drink themselves into puky oblivion’
    As good an argument for (old) Jewish culture as I can think of.
    Too bad it disappeared and has since been replace by Zionist culture as the only secular Jewish culture really left (except by a few people who think the above is worth saving)

  3. An-sky was definitely into the rich patrons – that’s how he paid for that ethnographic expedition. He had some run-ins with advisory boards too. Web presence I’m not sure about.
    Also, not to be pedantic, but it would have been hard to collect Galician folklore in the Pale of Settlement, since Galicia was Habsburg territory. An-sky did travel to Galicia during WWI, after the expedition, and he wrote an amazing memoir about that experience, which deserves a mention above too (Khurbm Galitsiye). You can download it from the National Yiddish Book Center site which has An-sky’s Collected Works (the link is to Vol. 4, the full work is in Vols 4-6). There is also an English translation by Joachim Neugroschel, which is good though missing some parts and for some reason titled “The Enemy at his Pleasure.”
    Can’t wait to read Safran’s book.

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