Portrait of An-sky by Leonid Pasternak.
Shloyme-Zanvel Rappoport/Semyon Akimovich An-sky (1863-1920) was one of the most remarkable figures in Russian and Jewish history and literature. Born to a traditional, Yiddish-speaking Jewish family, An-sky became a Populist activist who worked among poor Russians, an author of fiction, poetry, and drama in Yiddish and Russian, and a life-long revolutionary. As an ethnographer, he treated topics as diverse as the folklore of Russian miners, literacy among the peasants, the beliefs, behaviors, and artistic heritage of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, and their losses during World War I. As a writer, his work had a tremendous impact on his contemporaries and later generations. His poem, "Di shvue" (The Oath), became the anthem of the Bund, the Jewish labor movement. The Destruction of Galicia, his memoir of three years as an aid worker among despoiled Jews behind the lines during WWI, is a unique and wrenching account (translated into English as The Enemy at His Pleasure).
The Dybbuk complicates any attempt to neatly categorize its author. Although the play has come to be seen as smoothly linking a timeless Jewish folk culture with a modern dramatic and literary art, An-sky did not simply reproduce, but rather knowingly stylized the folk beliefs he had studied. With this stylization, he remade his material according to the politics and the aesthetics of his time. The rebellion of the young lovers in the play against the rich father of the heroine Leah echoes socialist theories about the coming revolt against capitalism; the association of folk culture with revolution was a cherished notion in An-sky’s circles; and the hero Hannan, a kabbalist who invokes the name of the devil to win his beloved and is struck dead, has something in common with the compelling, confusing heroes of the Russian revolutionary movement. The politics and the aesthetics of the early-twentieth-century Russian Empire shaped An-sky's play, which shaped Jewish theater, and even, arguably, the Jewish artistic sensibilities of the twentieth century.
The Dybbuk was largely a product of its author's involvement in ethnographic research. Some contemporary critics faulted the play as a pastiche of folkloristic elements. Discuss the relationship between folklore and art. Try to think of other examples.
Safran, G. (2006) The Worlds of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century. Stanford University Press.
S. An-sky (1863-1920), Poet, Ethnographer, Dramatist, Social Activist. Jewish Heritage Online Magazine.
Between Two Worlds: S. An-sky at the Turn of the Century. An International Conference, Stanford University, March 17-19, 2001.
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