You can’t blame Gabriella Safran for finding a way to squeeze the name of S. An-sky’s best-known work, The Dybbuk, into the title of her splendid new biography. If An-sky’s name is remembered at all today, it is thanks to his landmark play, which tells the story of a dead bridegroom who returns as a dybbuk, or malicious ghost, to prevent his intended from marrying another man. An-sky wrote the play in Russian in 1913, but it was not until after his death in 1920 that it was actually performed. The first production, in Warsaw, was in Yiddish, and turned out to be a smash hit; two years later, the Moscow-based theater troupe Habima premiered the Hebrew version, translated by Chaim Nachman Bialik, and scored another success. After Habima moved to Palestine, later in the decade, it made The Dybbuk the center of its repertory, and the play is considered the foundation of modern Hebrew drama.
It is a fitting irony that An-sky, who preferred Russian and occasionally used Yiddish but could not write Hebrew, should be remembered today as a Hebrew writer. For the peripatetic and polyglot career of The Dybbuk perfectly reflects the life of its author, which was lived in translation. In his career as a writer, professional revolutionary, and pioneering ethnograpgher, An-sky was constantly torn between different values and identities. He was a Russian populist and a sympathizer with Zionism, a political propagandist who churned out copy and an artist who wanted his works to survive. His very name was a pseudonym, meant to disguise his real, obviously Jewish, name, Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport. He told several stories about how he got the name An-sky, with its defiantly odd hyphen: it was the result of a printer’s error in his byline, or an homage to his mother Chana (in Russian, Anna), or a version of “anonymous.”
Such contradictions underscore what An-sky said in a speech in 1910, at a banquet in his honor: “A writer has a difficult fate, but a Jewish writer has an especially difficult fate. His soul is torn; he lives on two streets, with three languages. It is a misfortune to live on this sort of ‘border,’ and that is what I have experienced.” He could not have imagined that, a century later, this very misfortune is what would make him so fascinating. Today, when “liminality” is a buzzword in literary studies, a figure like An-sky seems to hold a profound truth about the modern condition. “His frustrated passions,” Safran writes, “pushed him to assume new forms, and in those forms his voice could live on after his death.”
Physically, as well as intellectually, An-sky spent his entire adult life on the move. “I have neither a wife, nor children,” he declared, “nor a house, nor even an apartment, nor belongings, nor any settled habits.” There were surely psychological reasons for this restlessness and detachment. An-sky’s two attempts at marriage were short-lived fiascos, in part because of sexual incompatibility. Safran quotes a letter from his second wife, Edia Glezerman, in which she confesses, “The doctor asked me in detail about marital life. Then he said that I can’t live this way and I must have a baby.” Safran speculates, cautiously, that An-sky may have been homosexual, citing his ardent affection for his childhood friend and fellow activist, Chaim Zhitlowsky: “Chaim, Chaim, how could I not love you, how could I not want to meld with you into a single soul?” An-sky wrote in a letter. “You replaced my family, God, life, a woman, and now you are and will remain for me the closest person on earth.” One female friend observed that “the feminine softness of [An-sky’s] own nature makes him unconsciously...choose some strong male figure to wind all his passionate thoughts and feelings around, as ivy winds around a strong oak tree.”
Safran makes a convincing argument that An-sky was in flight from his sexuality. But it is certain that his rootless and “wandering” existence was an expression also of his ideas—of his revolutionary commitments. From the very beginning, Safran shows, An-sky was dedicated—like so many intelligent, idealistic Jews of his time and place—to overturning the social order, in Jewish society and in the wider Russian Empire. As a teenager, he went from one shtetl to another, earning his living as a Russian tutor while secretly indoctrinating his pupils in the tenets of Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. He was expelled from a town after he lent a copy of Moses Leib Lilienblum’s subversive autobiography, Sins of Youth, to a student: the boy was reading it in the study house, hiding it under a volume of the Talmud, when he fell asleep and the ruse was discovered.
At the same time, An-sky was drawn to the ideology of Populism, which looked to the Russian Orthodox peasantry as a source of revolutionary potential. Safran skillfully shows how this movement, with its nearly mystical worship of the farmer and the land, shaped the ideals of An-sky’s generation. It also presented an obvious paradox: how could a town-bred Jew achieve communion with the largely anti-Semitic Russian peasantry? To An-sky, the prospect of such union was positively ecstatic, offering, Safran suggests, the same kind of fulfillment that Hasidic Jews found in prayer. He wrote of wanting to give himself to the people, the “narod,” “with my whole life, my whole soul, all my thoughts, and thus make my life pure and clear.”
An-sky began to serve the revolutionary cause by writing exposes of the situation of Russian miners, which he observed first-hand while working in a salt mine. In 1892, he followed in the path of many Russian revolutionaries by moving to Paris, where he spent the next eight years. He became a leading figure in the propaganda division of the Social Revolutionary party—the leading revolutionary movement in Russia, and the chief rival of Lenin’s Social Democrats. As a Jew and a socialist, An-sky was of course galvanized by the Dreyfus Affair, which he wrote about voluminously: “I’m no longer myself, but the Drefyus Affair, covered in a thin layer of skin,” he joked. In 1901, he moved on to Bern, another center for Russian conspirators, and like many of them he was drawn back to the motherland by the revolution of 1905.
For An-sky, as for the revolutionary movement as a whole, that year was a turning point. When a series of strikes and revolts forced the Tsar to grant a constitution and create a parliament, it seemed that a new dawn was at hand. “Now every day is a year, every hour a phase,” An-sky wrote. “The revolution will go on in bloody paroxysms and will pull out its rights in pieces from the bloodied innards of absolutism.” But by the time he made it back to Petersburg, on the last day of 1905, it was already clear that the Tsar’s concessions had been made in bad faith, and the counter-revolution was beginning. It often took the form of pogroms against Jews, as nationalist groups encouraged by the monarchy vented their wrath on Russia’s traditional scapegoats.
The combination of the failure of the revolution and the shock of the pogroms caused a fundamental change in An-sky’s thinking. It would be too simple to say that he stopped being a Russian revolutionary and became a Jewish cultural activist instead. As Safran insists, he never stopped being an SR. Indeed, during the Revolution of 1917, he would sit in the Petersburg city council and take part in negotiations between the SRs and the Bolsheviks (and be decisively outwitted by the latter). But when he took stock of his own career, in that 1910 speech, he now saw his decades of work among Russian revolutionaries as a kind of exile, which ended in a return to Jewishness:
“When I first stepped into literature twenty-five years ago I wanted to work on behalf of the oppressed, the working masses, and it seemed to me, mistakenly, that I would not find them among the Jews. I thought it was impossible to stand aside from politics, and I found no political movements among Jews. Bearing an eternal longing for Jewishness, I threw myself in all directions and left to work for another people. I am not one of those lucky ones raised in their own environment, whose work is normal.”
By plunging back into Jewish cultural politics, Safran shows, An-sky was entering a world that was less dangerous than the world of revolutionary exiles, but hardly less faction-ridden. In the strongest section of her book, Safran details An-sky’s many writing and publishing ventures in the years before World War I, and the passionate debates they involved. Should Jewish writers see Christianity as an enemy or an imaginative resource? Should they write in Yiddish, Hebrew, or Russian? For a mass audience or an elite audience? All these arguments led straight to fundamental questions about Jewish identity, at a time when the Jewish future in Russia looked terribly bleak. As a “wandering soul” himself, An-sky was ideally positioned to understand the dilemmas of the Jewish intelligentsia, whom he described as “reverse Marranos”—Jews who “satisfy all their practical, cultural, and higher intellectual needs not through Jewish culture, but through Russian, Polish, German, and other cultures.”
His desire to reconnect with a more “authentic” Jewish culture led An-sky to the biggest project of his later career. This was the famous Gintsburg Ethnographic Expedition, named for its rich patron, which set out to record the beliefs, arts, and folkways of traditional Eastern European Jews. It was a self-consciously scientific enterprise, inspired by recent ethnographic studies of Siberian tribes, and it used the most up-to-date techniques. An-sky and his two colleagues visited small Jewish communities equipped with cameras, a phonograph, and a detailed questionnaire. In his pursuit of facts and artifacts, he was quite willing to run roughshod over Jewish taboos—in one shtetl, he even dug up skulls from a cemetery. But An-sky was not just a detached researcher: he was a seeker, in quest of his own origins and traditions. When he used the folktales he collected as raw material for The Dybbuk, he was putting into practice his own theory that modern Jewish art should grow out of traditional Jewish soil. “We would exchange the grave of the Besht for a good Jewish Leonardo da Vinci,” he wrote, jokingly but sincerely.
The last years of his life plunged him back into the storms of history. During World War I, he dedicated himself to helping the Jews of Galicia, where fighting between the Russian and Austrian armies led to terrible persecutions. He wrote a book, The Destruction of Galicia, about the horrors he saw, and for the first time he seemed to doubt that socialist revolution would bring the cure for Russian anti-Semitism. He even began to admire Vladmir Jabotinsky, the cultivated and charismatic right-wing Zionist leader, supporting his call for a Jewish Legion. An-sky gave speeches demanding that “Jews ... go out with weapons in their hands to defend their national rights.”
When revolution returned to Russia in 1917, An-sky’s hopes were dashed once again. He saw the Bolsheviks commandeer the government from the more popular SRs, and ended up fleeing the country for Vilna and Warsaw, where he spent the last months of his life. When he died, in November 1920, the funeral procession reflected the strange variety of his career: the thousands of mourners included socialists and Zionists, actors and journalists. “If this restless soul could have seen his own funeral,” Safran concludes, “he might have been satisfied at last.” He would also be gratified to know that, even after a century, he was still able to inspire such a rich and lucid biography.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This review was originally featured in Tablet.