In the Jewish Dark Continent

By Alex Joffe
Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Most American Jews descend from ancestors who resided in the Pale of Settlement, the territory from the Black Sea to the Baltic in which Jews were confined by the Czars.  Nathaniel Deutsch's new Jewish Dark Continent (as the region was called by the historian Simon Dubnow) describes one effort to chart that territory—the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition of 1912-1914.  Into this vanished world, understood by American Jews mainly through stories from ancestors, Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer, Deutsch's book blows the pungent smell of wet wool and wood smoke.

Shloyme-Zanvl Rapoport, who designed and led the expedition, was born in the provincial capital of Vitebsk in 1863 and came of age at a time when Jewish intellectuals were pulled by competing ideologies—Socialism, Bundism, Communism, Jewish autonomism, Zionism, and more.  Rapoport first embraced the Haskalah—the Jewish Enlightenment—but soon forsook Judaism.  As a Russian Populist, or narodnik, he went out among the newly emancipated peasants to live an authentic revolutionary life and shared the belief that Jews were not a people but an exploitative "parasitic class."  In 1892 he fled the Czarist police, settled in Paris, and wrote in Russian under the pseudonym An-Sky. 

When An-Sky returned to Russia after the 1905 revolution, his views of Jews and Judaism had warmed.  He was already a well-known Yiddish writer and folklorist, and would become famous as the author of The Dybbuk.  In 1911, supported by a wealthy patron, An-Sky organized a team of folklorists, musicologists, and photographers for an "ethnographic" expedition to the Ostjuden from whom he had come.  The team worked for three intensive years, collecting thousands of photographs, folktales, musical recordings, ritual objects, and pinkasim, or community record books.

An-Sky's ethnography was intended not just to record a world undergoing change but to encourage Russian acceptance of Jews as a people and to foster a Jewish self-consciousness that would bring modernization and authentic Jewish creativity.  Hayim Nahman Bialik, Deutsch notes, thought that "culture, in its comprehensive and pan-human sense, has now overtaken the theological concept of 'torah' in the nation's consciousness"; similarly, An-Sky's goal was nothing less than an "Oral Torah," a total picture of Jewish folk life that would reveal the essentials of the Jewish heart and soul and, for non-elite Jews, complement or even supplant the written Torah of the Jewish elite.

An-Sky slyly dressed like a Hasid, and was sometimes treated as a Rebbe.  Deutsch describes An-Sky as a "Rebbe ethnographer," while the poet Osip Mandelstam called him a "Torah on two legs."  There was still more confusion of roles.  An-Sky and his team were frequently taken for an acting troupe, and they staged theater to evoke and record performances.  When word spread that they had arrived in a community, storytellers and singers would appear; new creations mixed with old recollections.  Through what Deutsch calls "dramatic subterfuge and outright deception," lines were deliberately blurred between subject and object, between reality and invention.  Like The Dybbuk's ghost, An-Sky projected voices through the mouths of his subjects and interrogated the spirits of their parents.

Much of Deutsch's book discusses a great, unfinished part of An-Sky's project: the "Jewish Ethnographic Program," a 2,087-item questionnaire.  From the first question—"What beliefs are there about a person's soul before it enters the body?"—to the last—"What kind of life will there be after the Resurrection of the Dead?"—it is a structured guide to shtetl folk life and beliefs.  Deutsch annotates the questions using classical Jewish sources, contemporary scholarship, and interviews with modern Hasidim.

The questions cover matters largely unmentioned in literature, and each commends a story: Are pletzeleh (flat rolls) given to a bride and groom with coffee?  What are attitudes toward the birth of twins?  Is bread with salt put on the navel of the deceased?  An-Sky's questions are 2,087 points in a story arc stretching from conception to death, lacking only characters and dialogue to bring it to life.

Conscious that this world was slipping away, the questionnaire used phrases like "is it still the belief . . . " and "do you know of the old custom . . ."  These were not just questions but a statement; and, as it happened, no responses were ever returned.  World War I and the Russian Revolution ended the project.  An-Sky fled Russia in 1918 and died in Warsaw at age 57.  His collections were dispersed and mostly forgotten until the 1980's and 1990's.  Yet, as Deutsch says, An-Sky created "his own genizah of Eastern European Jewish folk traditions, thereby ensuring their survival at a time when many of his contemporaries were figuratively burying these traditions."  Arguably, An-Sky's Oral Torah—Jewish culture, remembered—vies with Torah as the "authentic" vision of shtetl life. 

Stung by our knowledge of the eventual extermination of this world, later generations romanticize it and smooth its edges.  Portraits like Life is with People created an ideal shtetl while Sholem Aleichem and Singer filled it with piety, wisdom, and singing milkmen.  An-Sky's questionnaire challenges such nostalgia and sentimentality.  Were our Eastern European ancestors really so fearful—of being snatched by demons, or of walking in a dead man's shoes lest they tread on his head?  An-Sky's questionnaire provides its own answer.  This was an impoverished, superstitious, and fragile world, so much so that many of its greatest minds fled to secular movements.  Those who could leave for America did so.  Their descendants survived. 

Cycles of rediscovery have brought us immense new scholarship—including An-Sky's own ethnographic results, gradually pried loose from post-Soviet museums.  But are we any closer to understanding?  Young Europeans sing paeans to the ghosts of murdered Jews.  American Jews pick and choose—neo-Bundists, Yiddishists, and more—using the past as a smorgasbord, as if we could choose the worlds of our ancestors.  But can we?  Deutsch's learned revival of An-Sky's meticulous vision of the "Oral Torah" reminds us that reality was more complex, if not necessarily more beautiful.  Our relationship and emotional connections with that past must be duly recalibrated, along with our sense of loss.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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