The tragic apparitions of The Dybbuk will continue to haunt us

The meaning of the most performed Yiddish play, which turned 100 last week, has been a matter of controversy


The Dybbuk by S Ansky (pseudonym of Shloyme Zanvil Rapoport, 1863-1920), is the most frequently performed Yiddish play. Its rich universality gives the work renewed meaning wherever it is revived, in many languages and countries, generation after generation.

Yet, the author’s intent and the meaning of the play — first performed in Warsaw almost exactly 100 years ago on 9 December, 1920 — are matters of controversy.

Ansky, born into a Lithuanian Chasidic community, was a rebel against his faith, community and culture.

For many years, he abandoned Jewish life entirely. Drawn to political activism in the revolutionary socialist movement, he lived among Russian peasants and miners and wrote folk tales about them in Russian. From 1892-1905, Ansky lived in Western Europe, working with prominent revolutionaries in exile, including Petr Lavrov and Viktor Chernov.

After 1900, Ansky, influenced by the Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz, came increasingly under the spell of Jewish folklore and Yiddish culture; he became active in the Yiddish socialist Bund, for which he wrote the anthem, Di Shvue (The Oath, 1902); and in reaction against antisemitism in the Russian pogroms of 1903-1906, he turned to Zionism.

In the autumn of 1913, in Kiev, Ansky sat through the month-long ritual murder trial of Mendel Beilis, which further convinced him of the need for a stronger Jewish national consciousness and emigration from Russia. About five million Jews were living in Russia, the largest Jewish community in the world prior to the First World War, and the most vulnerable to government-sponsored antisemitism.

In 1912-1914, Ansky led a Jewish ethnographic expedition in the Russian Pale of Settlement, to gather oral testimony, folk tales, songs and melodies, historical documents and manuscripts, sacred objects, photographs and recordings of a Jewish culture threatened with extinction. At this time he began work on The Dybbuk.

In the First World War, many East European Jews living on the front line were driven, often violently, from their homes. Ansky spent most of the war years working for an organization which provided them with aid.

The Dybbuk was only a small part of Ansky’s writings, inseparable from his revolutionary career. After the February 1917 revolution, he was elected to the short-lived All Russian Constitutent Assembly as a representative of the Socialist Revolutionary Party but never took his seat: he fled Russia during the civil war following the Bolshevik October 1917 revolution.

Ansky died in Poland, never having seen his play performed. When the play was first staged in Warsaw at the end of the traditional 30 days (shloshim) of mourning, it was as though Ansky himself was speaking as a dybbuk (a poltergeist) from the grave of a lost world.

Many conflicting elements of Ansky’s life and age appear in The Dybbuk: rabbinic Orthodoxy, Talmudic aggadah, Kabbalah, superstition, psychology, social criticism, demonology, folklore, the Haskalah, Chasidism, Jewish nationalism, antisemitism, socialism, and the crisis in Judaism in Ansky’s lifetime caused by these fissiparous forces — all as part of a love story.

The play’s evolution was convoluted as Ansky’s life. Ansky originally wrote it in Russian for Konstantin Stanislavski’s avant garde Moscow Art Theatre. The February 1917 Revolution forced the theatre to close.

The Dybbuk was first published in Bialik’s Hebrew translation in Moscow in early 1918. Ansky, then living in famine-stricken St Petersburg, confessed to Bialik that as he read it he wept tears of joy at its lyrical beauty; and he rewrote the Yiddish version after the original was reportedly lost, using Bialik’s Hebrew.

The Hebrew Dybbuk marked the birth of the Habimah theatre, transplanted from Moscow to Tel Aviv in the 1920s.

Bialik compared writing The Dybbuk to scavenging on rubbish-tips; similarly, the Irish poet, WB Yeats, also inspired by legend and folklore, wrote of the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.

In fashioning the play from scraps of Jewish legends, superstitions, and folklore, Ansky, influenced in large part by Bialik, aimed to reveal — or create — a Jewish cultural-national identity much as Pushkin had done for Russia, Mickiewicz for Poland, Lönnrot for Finland, Shevchenko for Ukraine, or Yeats for Ireland.

Set in small towns (shtetls) in the Russian Pale of Settlement, the story tells of the young Talmudic scholar and kabbalist, Chonon, who dies calling up the forces of evil to win Leah as his bride, and returns from the dead to possess her body. The renowned Rabbi Azriel of Miropol tries to exorcize the dybbuk. But the dybbuk refuses to be parted from Leah. Leah dies and her soul is joined with that of Chonon.

The play powerfully evokes the conflict in Judaism between the rational-legal, based on Talmudic law, and supernational lore preserved in prophetic, aggadic, and kabbalistic traditions, as well as Jewish folk culture.

Ansky speaks through Chonon in his Chasidic critique of “cold and dry” Talmudic learning and the attraction of Kabbalah, with its power to achieve union (devekut) with God and to take its practitioners to the pardes — the “garden” — of dangerous esoteric knowledge. The story of the tragic lovers destined for one another could be seen as having biblical and midrashic analogues in the love of God (or the Shekhinah, the feminine presence of God) for the Congregation of Israel, and the traditional love of Jews for Zion.

Except that Chonon does not seek devekut with God or Zion but with Leah. His claim to her, and hers to him, come from before their birth in an oath made by their fathers, best friends, that their children would be betrothed.

However, Nisson, Chomon’s father, has died, and Sender, Leah’s father, has forgotten the oath. Sender, a rich miser, wants Leah to marry a wealthy man, not a poor scholar.

The Zionist movement, which grew after the Balfour Declaration, was ambivalent to Yiddish language and literature, but it embraced The Dybbuk in Bialik’s translation as a worthy addition to Bialik’s own collection of talmudic and midrashic aggadah, an essential part of Je wish national culture.

In The Dybbuk, Ansky movingly describes Hebrew, the Holy Tongue, language of the Bible, historically uniting the Jews as a nation and instrumental in their revival as a modern nation:

“There are 70 languages in the world, and the holiest among them is Hebrew. And the holiest work in the Hebrew language is the Torah, and its holiest part is the Ten Commandments, and the holiest word in the Ten Commandments is the name of God.”

Ansky weaves into the play memories of the Chasidic culture of his childhood; the sayings, superstitions, tales of miracle rebbes, including the Baal Shem Tov and Nachman of Bratslav; Kabbalah, with its mysterious imagery of sparks and broken vessels, of Torah “written in black fire on white fire”; the heretical belief in the power of sin in the ascent to holiness; and also the mainstream aggadic tradition preserved in the Talmud and Midrash.

Among Jewish folk beliefs central to the play, and traditionally linked to messianic hopes, is that any beggar might be a tzaddik (a righteous man). The Dybbuk stresses the Jewish respect for the poor, continued in secular form in modern socialism. Tragedy follows the unjust treatment of the poor by capitalism corrupted by love of gold.

Ansky shows that in some ways Jewish folklore and socialism were compatible, as in the Chasidic story of the miser who visits his rebbe. The rebbe takes him to the window and asks him what he sees. “I see people walking down the street.” Then he takes him to a mirror and asks him what he sees. “I see myself.” “Do you really see, now,” says the rebbe, “what the difference is between the two? Both are made of glass, but when you cover the glass with just a little silver you only see yourself.”

Even so, the reverence for synagogue culture in The Dybbuk was heresy to socialism. Ansky’s play, performed as Soviet synagogues were forced to close, gave largely secular audiences the aggadah of God’s tears for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem staining the synagogue walls; the prayers of desperate women before the open Holy Ark; the lovingly-made decorations, the celebrations and the hauntings of the dead; the constant recitals of prayers, Torah study, and psalms for the living and the dead; the magical story of the synagogue on fire, when hundreds of doves flew above and extinguished the flames with their wings.

To the reader or viewer of The Dybbuk 100 years on, perhaps the most haunting image is the grave of the bride and groom murdered by Kossacks in the Chmielnicky massacres of Polish Jews in 1648-49 — a tragedy emblematic of the entire diaspora history of the Jews. The anti-Jewish violence which exploded with ever-increasing force in Ansky’s lifetime, foreshadowed the cataclysm to come.

David Aberbach is author of ‘National Poetry, Empires and War’. His book on Bialik in Peter Halban’s ‘Jewish Thinkers’ series was recently published as an ebook

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