Shloyme-Zanvel Rappaport/Semyon Akimovich Ansky (1863-1920) is one of the most remarkable figures in Russian and Jewish history and literature. Born to a traditional, Yiddish-speaking Jewish family, Ansky became a populist activist and an author of fiction, poetry, and drama in Yiddish and Russian.

Ansky reading The Dybbuk to friends
Leonid Pasternak

Jewish store in Korostyshev
Photo from Ansky's expeditions

As an ethnographer, he treated topics as diverse as the folklore of Russian miners, literacy among the peasants, the beliefs, behaviors, and artistic heritage of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, and their losses during World War I.

As a writer, his work had a tremendous impact on his contemporaries and later generations. His poem, "Di shvue" (The Oath), became the anthem of the Bund, the Jewish labor movement. His play, The Dybbuk, is central to the Yiddish and Hebrew repertories and has been frequently translated into and performed in English and other languages; it has inspired a number of film versions, a ballet, and an opera.

The Dybbuk, Moscow 1922. Leah (in Khonen's voice): "I do not know where I shall go."


Although Ansky's importance in Jewish history and literature is unquestioned, the roots of his creativity and his ideology have been little examined until recently. He has been seen as the prototypical Jewish prodigal son, an intellectual who strayed from his kin and flirted with gentile ideas, but shocked by the pogroms of 1903 and 1905, returned to his people and embraced them whole-heartedly. Now, fifty years after the Holocaust and almost a hundred years after those pogroms, Jewish historians have begun to recalibrate their understanding of thinkers such as Ansky, admitting that few of them engaged in either unmitigated rejection or unqualified return.

While Ansky refocused his interests after 1905, turning from helping and studying Russian miners to investigating the impoverished Jews of Volhynia and Podolia, he never abandoned the ideology of the Russian populists who educated him.


Hana Rovina as Leah (Moscow 1922)



Indeed, Ansky's most famous text complicates any attempt to categorize him neatly. Although The Dybbuk has come to be seen as smoothly linking a timeless Jewish folk culture with a modern dramatic and literary art, Ansky did not simply reproduce, but rather knowingly stylized the folk beliefs he had studied. With this stylization, he remade his material according to the esthetics of his time. Ansky sought advice from the prominant Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky, and one of the most famous productions of the play, at the Hebrew Habima Theater in Moscow, was directed by Stanislavsky's brilliant student Evgeny Vakhtangov. The contributions of these non-Jewish modernists shaped Ansky's play, and with it the Jewish theater -- and even, arguably, the Jewish artistic sensibilities -- of the twentieth century.

S. Ansky
Leonid Pasternak, 1918

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Ansky evokes more interest and respect among scholars than he once did. Much of the responsibility for this shift rests in a changed intellectual climate. Precisely those aspects of Ansky's work that marginalized him in the past now foreground him: the breadth of his interests and the disciplinary porousness of his writings; his willingness to draw on high and low culture, kitsch and Talmud, naturalism and modernism, folklore and journalism; his shifting attitudes toward the role of religion and folk culture in general, and Judaism and Jewish culture in specific, in the modern era.

Page from record book, Mezhibozh, 1837

Yet more far-reaching shifts in intellectual climate account for the renewed appeal of Ansky in Eastern Europe. In the 1970s, when Russian-Jewish scholarship began to revive slowly and cautiously after decades of enforced silence, Ansky offered a useful model. Just as he had traveled through the empire's Western borderlands, studying the material culture he saw there, so a new generation of dissident Soviet scholars turned their attention to the books and buildings, the gravestones and costumes, and the occasional informants who could testify to the Jewish culture that once flourished in Ukraine and Belarus. These scholars went on to look further into Ansky's legacy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, sympathetic investigators began to poke around in the basements of Eastern European archives, museums, and libraries. They found materials from Ansky's expeditions at the Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg and many more at the Vernadsky Library in Kiev, including thousands of wax cylinders with the recordings that he had made of folk songs and folk voices. In addition, some letters and portions of a diary have been found in Moscow. Although the detailed notes that Ansky and his fellow researchers took have not yet been found, it is entirely possible that they will turn up. Meanwhile, a new generation of Russian scholars, at last given access to Jewish materials, has begun to produce significant work.

The abundance of new, exciting scholarship in East and West motivates us to organize this conference. By bringing together some two dozen specialists from different disciplines, living in the United States, Europe, Israel, Russia, and Ukraine, we hope to produce a conversation that will benefit all of us. Eventually, the conference should lead to a volume that will be the first full-length scholarly work on Ansky in any language

However, our conference will not be only a dialogue among specialists. That would be especially inappropriate in addressing Ansky, a person who cared tremendously about communication, who in his own expository writing was a model of accessibility, and who even went so far as to rewrite his ethnographic findings in the form of a play so as to speak quite literally to a larger audience. Following his lead, we will not imagine scholarship as a pursuit conducted by and for the benefit of a small elite. Instead, we see this conference as a way to reach out to the public.

Poster advertising performance of The Dybbuk (Warsaw, 1920)

We will break down the borders between science and art from the start by inviting two creative artists who have been inspired by Ansky: the acclaimed writer Rebecca Goldstein, whose recent novel Mazel was inspired by the stage history of The Dybbuk in Warsaw, and the translator Joachim Neugroschel, who has recently completed a number of Ansky projects, including the first translation of The Destruction of Galicia and the text that Tony Kushner used in a recent production of The Dybbuk in New York that sparked interest and controversy. At every step thereafter, we will combine scholarly talks with presentations of the cinematic, musical, and visual art that Ansky produced and inspired. We will screen two films: a recently restored and retranslated version of the 1937 Yiddish film of The Dybbuk and the 1924 silent film, A Vilna Legend, a comic reworking of the dybbuk story. Stanford's Judaica librarian, Zachary Baker, will organize an exhibit of pertinent documents from Stanford's rich Eastern European and Judaica collections, with loans from the Hoover Institution; the musician and musicologist Michael Alpert, using period instruments, will perform pieces gathered on the expeditions; and art historians will show and discuss the work of the artists who drew on their experiences with Ansky for years after the expeditions ended.


The conference draws on Stanford's strengths in several areas. In the past decade, the university has become a leading academic center in the study of East European and Russian Jewish history and culture. Several faculty in various departments work in this area (Gabriella Safran, Vera Szabo, Steven Zipperstein), and at the helm of Stanford's Judaica library collection is Zachary Baker, former head of the library at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Ansky at his desk

Stanford's collection at Green Library includes an exceptionally rich range of books, periodicals, and other documents on the East European Jewish past. A large group of PhD students specialize in this area, and several dissertations have already been completed on subjects ranging from the history of Russian Jewish education at the turn of the 20th century to the formation of Jewish national identity in the Russian and Ottoman empires. At the same time, Stanford has for many years been a major center for the study of Eastern Europe, with over twenty faculty members specializing in Russian or East European literatures, politics, history, and sociology. Stanford's holdings in this field, especially in the Hoover Institution, are world-renowned.


Illustrations from R. Ben-Ari, Habima (New York, 1941); Carmit Gai, Ha-malkah nasah ba-otobus. Rovina ve-habima (Tel Aviv, 1995); Back to the Shtetl: Ansky and the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, 1912-1914, from the Collections of the State Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg, ed. Rivka Gonen (Jerusalem, 1994); Nahum Zemach, Breshit Habima (Jerusalem, 1966)

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