S. An-sky: More Than Just 'The Dybbuk'

A nation of Jews: An-sky (left) and “Rope makers, Mezhirech,” 1912.
COURTESY OF BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY PRESS
A nation of Jews: An-sky (left) and “Rope makers, Mezhirech,” 1912.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published October 20, 2009.
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Photographing the Jewish Nation: Pictures from S. An-sky’s Ethnographic Expeditions
Eugene M. Avrutin, ed.
Brandeis University Press
University Press of New England 2009; 228 pages $39.95

For frenziedly creative polymaths, the French may have Jean Cocteau, but the Jews have Belarus-born Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, who wrote poems, fiction, ethnography and plays under the pen name S. An-sky (another frequent transliteration is An-ski or Ansky, but recent scholarship seems to favor An-sky). Of these, indubitably the most famous is An-sky’s still-popular 1914 Russian play “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds,” the story of a young bride possessed by an evil spirit on her wedding eve. ‘The Dybbuk” is recounted in an arch-romantically violent depiction of “Liebestod,” which is alternately erotic and Hasidic.

“The Dybbuk,” especially in its Yiddish and Hebrew versions, the latter memorably translated by poet Haim Nahman Bialik, has inspired many generations of audiences, as well as creative artists (George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were among the composers moved by the story). Yet, as the brilliantly informative study “The Worlds of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century” (Stanford University Press, 2006), edited by Gabriella Safran and Steven Zipperstein, details, “The Dybbuk” really represents only a small fraction of An-sky’s vast range of achievements, from translating the socialist anthem “The Internationale” into Yiddish to leading a 1912–14 ethnological expedition in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the region to which Russian Jews were banished between 1791 and 1917. Now, an eye-opening new book from Brandeis University Press, “Photographing the Jewish Nation: Pictures From S. An-sky’s Ethnographic Expeditions,” provides additional welcome documentation.

“Photographing the Jewish Nation” cites An-sky’s own explanation of his motives for having folk songs recorded and photographs taken of shtetl Jews. He was combating converted Jews’ lack of a “living connection to the main sources of cultural creativity” of their ancestors. Even nonconverted Jewish know-it-alls, An-sky wryly observed, could be ignorant of Jewish culture: “All a Jew has to do is recite a few proverbs or anecdotes to consider himself an expert on ‘Jewishness.’” The antithesis of this superficiality was to slog through the Pale of Settlement with a tiny staff that included his teenage nephew Solomon Iudovin as official photographer. The notion was to preserve authentic examples of cultural vitality. As early as 1909, An-sky wrote in an essay that such folk art would infuse new energy into the already tediously banal Jewish themes of “palm trees, Stars of David, emaciated, tired faces of Old Jews, and exalted, elongated faces of youths” in the repertoire of every hack artist of the day.

Indeed, Iudovin, who would mature

into a noted graphic artist with work displayed in the collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, produced remarkably inventive images in “Photographing the Jewish Nation.” Yet, Iudovin seems to have been merely a photographer on demand, and there are signs that An-sky directed him, much as a film director instructs a cameraman or cinematographer to capture the most compelling imagery.

Iudovin’s acclaimed later woodcuts and other graphic art, even those based on his expedition photography, reveal a pared-down, classical simplicity. His photographs for An-sky, by contrast, contain novelistic richness. Image after image displays not just the principal subject of the photo, but also extraneous isolated figures, like film extras who have oddly wandered into the background and stay there, lost in reverie. The frontispiece of “Photographing the Jewish Nation” shows a shoemaker from the Polonnoe shtetl in 1912 who ignores the camera, absorbed in his work. Seated in the background, staring directly into the lens, is a dapper gentleman who leans on his cane, smoking a cigarette. Where has he come from? Is he waiting for his shoe to be mended? And if so, how was it broken? A novella would need to be written, ideally by An-sky, to explain the mystery.

Similarly, in the photo of a girl working at a spinning wheel, taken at Shepetovka, also in 1912, a barefoot little girl in the background stares wistfully at the lens, while even farther away, a bearded old man walks by with a cane, like in a Northern Renaissance painting where life proceeds on various visual planes, deliberately creating an entire universe. The seriousness of a family photo of a bearded cantor and his wife is punctured by a little boy who peeks impishly over a fence behind them. In the background of a different photo, “Matzo Carrier,” which shows a man bearing a huge wicker basket on his back, is a blank-faced little girl leaning against a wall, seemingly daydreaming.

In another family photo, a mother and her four children outside their home are mysteriously joined by a man indoors, appearing ghostlike behind a closed window, holding his head in his hands. Why should this man, presumably the father of the family, be presented like a hovering dybbuk instead of standing with pride next to his mishpokhe? Perhaps because the image was staged by An-sky, who looked at these images not just as precious records of a fragile culture, but also with an ironic sense of remove and even humor. Why else would An-sky label another image of a craftsman “Shoemaker who looks like Nicholas II,” thereby blithely associating the czar of all the Russias with a humble Jewish laborer in the Pale of Settlement?

This complexity and irony is decidedly different from other, slightly later photographers of East European Jewry, like Roman Vishniac and Alter Kacyzne. Magnificently influenced by Old Master Paintings, Vishniac and Kacyzne (whose moving photos were published by Metropolitan Books in 1999 as “Poyln: Jewish Life in the Old Country”) were elegiac, wholly serious recorders of a people, without An-sky’s sense of remove or writerly awareness of how suffering “takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along,” as W.H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” explains.

The intrinsic value of Iudovine’s images in “Photographing the Jewish Nation” as directed by An-sky, may be just as valid, if not more so, than “The Dybbuk,” however eternally popular the play remains for its fierce declaration of Hasidic lore. Despite its passion and continued popularity, in some stagings “The Dybbuk” can seem amateurishly lumpy. Even Bialik reportedly had qualms about the content and approach of An-sky’s play as he translated it into Hebrew, and despite the deserved classic status of its 1937 Yiddish film adaptation, with screenplay by Kacyzne, “The Dybbuk” does not represent the full extent of An-sky’s artistic vocabulary. Thanks in good part to “Photographing the Jewish Nation,” his readers can begin to fully realize just how surprisingly multifarious his achievements and vision are.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

Watch Cantor Gershon-Itskhok Sirota, sometimes called the “Jewish Caruso,” sing resonantly in the 1937 Yiddish film version of An-sky’s “The Dybbuk”:

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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