An-sky’s Vast Verbal Museum of Jewish Life in the Pale

Harriet Murav on Nathaniel Deutsch’s The Jewish Dark Continent

Russian Jews, Jewish History, Jews, Nathaniel Deutsch, Deutsch is not just a language, Harriet Murav, Illinois University
Nathaniel Deutsch, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Harvard University Press, 2011, 384pp., $27

One hundred years ago Shloyme Zanvil Rapoport, better known by his pen-name An-sky, began his ethnographic expeditions into the Russian Pale of Settlement, the western and southern area of Russia in which most of the world’s Jews lived. An-sky’s mission was both backward- and forward-looking: he wanted to capture Jewish folklore, customs, beliefs, songs, artifacts, and practices before political, social, and economic change both from within and without the Jewish community destroyed traditional Jewish culture completely.

He also wanted this knowledge and these objects to serve as a source and inspiration for assimilated, urban, and secularized Jews, who would transform them into art and a new Jewish culture for the future. The artifacts and information he gathered exist now only in fragmentary form in museums, libraries, and collections. But the Yiddish-language ethnographic questionnaire that An-sky and others created to retrieve knowledge of Jewish life from his informants has been preserved. Now, for the first time, Nathaniel Deutsch has made this document available in a generously annotated English translation.

The volume’s title may startle or disconcert some readers. How can An-sky’s journey through the Russian Pale of Settlement be compared to Henry Morton Stanley’s late nineteenth century exploration of Africa? Isn’t this language racist and colonialist? Deutsch explains that it was none other than An-sky’s colleague, the historian Simon Dubnov [also spelled Dubnow], who used this term in 1891. In his call to found a Russian Jewish historical society—a plan realized in the Jewish Historical-Ethnographic Society in St. Petersburg—Dubnov used the term to reflect the distance that assimilated and secularized Jews had traveled away from their fellow Jews’ traditional life world. We can witness a parallel distance between the Russian intelligentsia and the Russian peasantry. Regardless of the language about the “dark continent,” An-sky came to see his project not as a civilizing mission, but rather as a means of deepening and strengthening knowledge about and commitment to Jewish life on the part of those who, like him, had long been separated from the Pale.

There has been a recent revival of interest in An-sky’s life and work. Scholars have puzzled over the pattern of intellectual and physical departure and return that David Roskies identified as key to An-sky’s life. Deutsch recounts An-sky’s departure from the Pale of Settlement as a young man influenced by Russian Populism. He turned away from the Jewish community to work among miners in the Donbass region. While abroad in Western Europe, An-sky was a close associate of the Russian populist political theorist Petr Lavrov. Upon his return to Russia, however, An-sky decided to “return” to the Jewish people. His ethnographic project among the Jews of the Pale was a way of enacting this decision. An-sky’s approach to his own ethnographic work was in some ways similar to other imperial projects of its time: he used recording devices, including the camera and the wax cylinder, and he formulated an ambitious, lengthy questionnaire.

Deutsch shows, however, that the very notion of writing down stories—the practice of folklore collection that An-sky insisted on, and not always with the agreement or approval of his colleagues—may itself be seen in light of the Hasidic practice of recording the stories and sayings of the rebbe, the dynastic head of a particular community. According to Deutsch, the Hasidim, one of the primary target groups of An-sky’s study, were themselves proto-ethnographers, who preserved the oral lore of their spiritual leaders.  In the beginning of his work, An-sky was so distant from traditional Jewish life in the Pale as to be unsure of his spoken Yiddish, and unaware or naïve as to the difficulties he would have recording women singing in mixed company, a violation of notions of modesty in observant communities. Later, An-sky succeeded in creating a “quasi-Hasidic identity” for himself, an identity that included his manner of dress, his beard, and his participation in singing Hasidic melodies that other members of the expedition recorded.

The questionnaire that An-sky produced took nearly two years to complete and consisted of approximately two thousand questions. The outbreak of World War I, however, prevented the questionnaire from being distributed and its answers collected. To say that it covered all aspects of Jewish life from cradle to grave would be something of an understatement.  An-sky’s questions began with beliefs about the soul before it was born in a human body and after it left. Key areas of exploration included medicine, childbirth, education, wedding ceremonies, and burial customs. Some of the questions are open-ended: “Are there special prayers, amulets, or protections for a pregnant woman?” Many others, however, already contain possible answers (not unlike the traditional four questions asked at the Passover seder, which begin by asking why this night is different, and then proceed to give concrete details as to how it is different).  Question 2031 asks, “Is there a belief that if people make a blessing over a thing in which there is a reincarnated spirit, that the soul is made right again?” Question 1848, similarly, asks, “Is there a belief that during the inauguration of a new cemetery, the dead from the old one congregate near the fence and look on, and if someone sees them, he should not tell anyone?” The relation between the living and the dead, Deutsch convincingly argues, is one of the distinguishing features of Jewish life in the Pale, vastly different from our own attitudes toward death and dying.

The questionnaire, titled Der Mentsch (The person), is thus itself a vast verbal museum of Jewish life in the Pale before World War I. It is an extraordinarily rich lode of information about a world that was already undergoing radical transformation in An-sky’s own time. This world was far from static. The Jews who lived in the Pale were exploring new ideologies and new ways of life. They reinterpreted the world of their parents, and the complex planning for the expedition took these factors into account.

Deutsch’s encyclopedic work is not only an invaluable contribution to Jewish culture. It is also enjoyable to read. In his simultaneously learned and accessible work, he has demystified the complex and diverse forms of Jewish life in the Pale. I found myself reading question after question, as if to find out what happened next.