From the Literature of Reimagined Selves – Polly Zavadivker

Polly Zavadivker on An-sky’s Pioneers

S. A. An-sky, Pioneers: A Tale of Russian-Jewish Life in the 1880s, translated by Michael R. Katz, Indiana University Press, 2014, 164pp., $20
S. A. An-sky, Pioneers: A Tale of Russian-Jewish Life in the 1880s, translated by Michael R. Katz, Indiana University Press, 2014, 164pp., $20
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In the 1880s radical movements proliferated throughout the Russian Empire. Revolutionary ideas found expression in new forms of literature, underground party cells, and sometimes explosive acts of terror directed against the monarchy. Equally groundbreaking changes took place among the empire’s nearly five million Jews. Increasing numbers of young men and women sought to break with traditional Jewish society, flouting not only the practice of centuries-old laws and rituals, but also rejecting the education, marriages, and professions expected of them. In a very modern quest to remake themselves as enlightened, secular individuals, young Jews across Russia’s Pale of Jewish Settlement uprooted themselves, sometimes leaving their homes, families, and native towns, in order to do previously impermissible things like study European philosophy and languages; or marry for love, rather than status or wealth. For readers today, their actions may seem like familiar elements of cultural change, but in their day, these innovators had to face the immediate and real consequences of transgressing established boundaries, and with it, a sense of hurt, confusion and self-doubt.

These youth are the subject of S. An-sky’s novel Pioneers. Originally written in Russian and published in St. Petersburg in 1905, this novel is the latest work from An-sky (pseudonym of Shloyme Zanvl Rapaport, 1863–1920) to become accessible to readers of English. Michael R. Katz’s translation renders another Russian literary gem into fluid and lively English, adding to his earlier English edition of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s brilliant and forgotten Russian novel The Five, a tale of assimilated Jews in turn-of-the-century Odessa who all come to tragic ends. Like The Five, whose author An-sky deeply admired and whose Zionist cause he passionately promoted during the First World War, Pioneers is autobiographical fiction — a tale of origins, written by a man who pioneered radical new forms of Jewish art and literature in his own right.

Pioneers was the second installment of a two-part novel about young rebellious Jews who are driven by a sense of righteousness and mission, yet tormented by insecurity, guilt and loneliness. It is set in the small towns and cities of the Pale of Settlement, where An-sky grew up and lived between the 1860s and early 1880s. Raised in Vitebsk, a historical center of Orthodox Judaism, An-sky was an autodidact and lifelong rebel. With no formal education, he taught himself Russian in order to read the radical social and literary writing of the day. He also embraced the ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), a movement that had originated in Berlin in the late 18th century and migrated to Russia in the 1840s. In the decades that followed, circles of enlightened Jewish men in larger cities like Vilna, Brody and Odessa studied the work of Moshe Lilienblum, Yehuda Gordon and Peretz Smolenskin. These were texts written in a progressively modernizing Hebrew language and were invariably banned by many religious authorities for their radical content. They questioned the notion of the Torah’s divine origins; called for Jews to acquire modern Western education; and proposed reforms to Jewish law, social customs, the status of women, and widespread practice of professions such as petty trade and peddling. By the 1880s, when An-sky was coming of age, the figure of the maskil (enlightener) remained not merely a curiosity in many Jewish communities in Russia, but also the target of public ridicule and ostracism. In An-sky’s short story “The Sins of Youth” (titled in reference to Lilienblum’s 1876 Hebrew autobiography of the same name), he recounted an episode from his days as a tutor of Jewish youth, in which he was banished from one town by religious leaders who discovered he had covertly supplied copies of Lilienblum’s forbidden writings to his students. An-sky then wandered for years around the Russian Empire, dedicating his writing and activism to the emancipation of the Russian peasantry while still maintaining hopes for the reform of traditional Jewish life. He worked on behalf of the underground Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party, lived abroad in Switzerland and France for more than a decade, and returned to Russia shortly after political exiles were granted amnesty during the 1905 Revolution.

An-ski, 1910. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
An-sky, 1910. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

During the two decades between An-sky’s flight from the Pale of Settlement and his return to St. Petersburg in 1905, much had changed in Russia. Modern Jewish national movements sprang up in those years, and all assumed the need to reform traditional Jewish life. An-sky and other former rebels experienced a newfound legitimacy. During the first decades of the twentieth century, they became powerful voices — creators of new political parties and producers of innovative historical, ethnographic and artistic works that laid the foundations of many of our contemporary forms of Jewish culture and politics. Between 1905 and his death in 1920, An-sky undertook an ambitious ethnographic expedition that collected Jewish folklore from sixty towns in the Pale of Settlement; wrote The Dybbuk, a play about spirit-possession that remains one of the most widely performed works of Jewish theater in the world; and completed The Destruction of Galicia, a 600-page Yiddish memoir about his travels and aid work among Jewish civilians during the First World War. He wrote Pioneers just before he conceived of and carried out these influential works, with an aim to tell the story of Russian-Jewish modernization by tracing his own trajectory from inauspicious origins in the early 1880s.

The novel opens with a young man, Elye Eizerman, who has just left his backwater town of Miloslavka for a larger, more sophisticated town known as M. He arrives in M. “like a Muslim to Mecca,” and marvels at seeing confident Jews in modern clothing walking the wide, paved streets. Eizerman is on a mission to find like-minded souls, and manages to win the support of a small circle of young men and their leader Mirkin, a Talmud prodigy and intellectual dynamo turned maskil who takes Eizerman under his wing. The latter is eager to erase the external features that mark him as an erstwhile religious Jew — he sheds his long and tattered black coat for a short one, shaves off his sidelocks, tries eating forbidden foods, and haltingly begins to replace his native Yiddish speech with Russian, the language that he imagines will liberate him from his parochial past.

What makes Mirkin, Eizerman and their comrades compelling as characters is not so much their zealous quest for enlightenment as the doubts that plague them as they set out to remake themselves. Eizerman guiltily questions himself after he casts off his familiar garb: has he acted too rashly, made superficial changes that simply mask an old worldview, speech and thoughts still intact beneath the surface? As he observes others in the circle break off ties with their disapproving families, and witnesses an aggrieved mother lose her son to Mirkin’s circle, he doubts whether their cause is so righteous as to justify such suffering. An-sky’s sympathetic portrayal of the emotional and mental anxiety bred by this process of rupture must have surely reflected his own inner conflicts as a young man.

Adding further irony to the pioneers’ quest to master the world of Russian letters is their discovery of an abiding love for their native languages. In the course of a raucous debate about Russian radical thought they revert to Yiddish and use sing-song methods of Talmudic study as they take apart the writings of Dmitrii Pisarev and Nikolai Chernyshevskii. And in the end, they conclude that all of the greatest Russian intellectuals together are still worth less than one Lilienblum.

If the young men in Mirkin’s circle find themselves cleaving to what they know, the young women among them are ready to leap with both feet into the unknown. Their situation demands it, for their only means to avoid the life their despotic fathers have planned for them is to run away. The young men conspire to help two young women leave M. One of them, Sonya, is fleeing from an arranged marriage that she does not want, and the second, Olga, wants to attend university in Switzerland (higher education was barred to women in Russia at the time). In order to pursue the lives they want, they must cut all ties to the world they know. As Mirkin watches the train carrying Sonya depart from M., he recognizes her as the one true pioneer among them all. He is filled with grandiose expectations about the start of a new era for humankind:

She’s gone! Now no one can overtake her or stop her! The train is rushing along, bearing this ideal young woman further and further away from the darkness and oppression of the old life … The train is speeding ahead, carrying her to a new life, bright and beautiful, free and rational! … This was the beginning of a great, heretofore unprecedented epoch in world history.

Pioneers is not a work of great literary art, but it is a humorous and moving depiction of personal and collective transformation. It reminds us that cultural change has taken place throughout history not in the abstract realm of theory and ideas, but in the simplest habits and deepest desires of ordinary men and women. As a realistic portrayal of everyday Jewish life in Russia, An-sky’s novel also provides a welcome contribution to contemporary scholars’ ongoing attempts to challenge and revise romantic images of the shtetl as a timeless oasis of Jewish spiritual devotion. Indeed, such visions seem to be a thing of the past. As a teacher of Russian Jewish history, I have been pleasantly surprised to see that my students tend to lack such preconceived ideas about Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The publication of Pioneers in English therefore appears at an auspicious moment, for readers today may be more receptive than ever to narratives that convey the richness, complexity, and diversity of Jewish life in times of dynamic and decisive change.