Seduced by Eternity: Reflections on Culture and Peoplehood

October 1, 2006
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Nessa Rapoport

Last winter I sat, mesmerized, at a day-long conference of theater directors and scholars held at New York University. Its subject was S. Ansky’s play, The Dybbuk, written almost a century ago and still the most renowned work in Jewish theater. Born in 1863, Ansky was a highly acculturated, urbane Jew who wrote mostly in Russian until he was 41. His friends included Russian counts and revolutionaries, as well as the historian of the Jews, Simon Dubnow, and the writer Y. L. Peretz.

Ansky had cast off the traditional upbringing of his youth for the Haskalah movement, or Jewish Enlightenment. An active socialist who lived in Paris and Switzerland, he returned in 1905 to St. Petersburg, where he underwent a transformation, taking up Jewish and Yiddish culture. In 1911, he led an ethnographic expedition to document Jewish songs, stories, pictures, superstitions, and customs. Stopped by the outbreak of war in 1914, Ansky returned the following year to the Pale of Settlement and to Galicia, traveling the Eastern Front of the war on a relief mission for his devastated people.

I went to the conference on an instinct, but came away affirmed that despite immeasurable differences, Ansky’s quest as a writer is ours as Jews in 21st-century America. He sought to retrieve a Jewish authenticity, a compressed vitality that he might, through his art, release so that it could suffuse and enrich the present.

The relationship between culture and the Jewish people is marked by the way we continually give birth to ourselves, reclaiming chosen aspects of the past —inevitably partially — while making something new, singing to the Lord a new song, as the psalm urges.

Culture refers to the arts — painting, dance, film, music, writing — but it refers as well to any creation that arises when a Jew imagines a compelling alternative to what exists. The most generative expressions of Jewish imagination, those that have persisted over hundreds — even thousands — of years, were at their birth daring and disturbing, embraced by only a few and objects of dismay or fear by the rest. Such indisputably sacred texts as Shir Ha-Shirim, Song of Songs, or the prayer Lecha Dodi, which welcomes the Sabbath bride, were profoundly provocative.

Theodore Herzl, the writer and dreamer who imagined a country, wrote in his diary in 1897, “At Basle I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”

Note the prediction of universal laughter. When the playful, ironic work of young Jewish musicians and writers is met with derision, it behooves us to remember how startling new ideas must, by definition, be.

In 1992, as coeditor of The Schocken Book of Contemporary Jewish Fiction, I wrote that Jewish writing could be capacious and embracing of all kinds of experience by Jews and about Jews we had not yet seen in print. The essay’s title, “Summoned to the Feast,” was chosen to express the idea that Judaism is a banquet at which all Jewish writers have a place.

Substitute “Jews” for “Jewish writers.” Instead of inviting the entire Jewish people to the feast, we have cultivated a legacy of disparagement, vilifying this or that faction of our minuscule people until no one is deemed authentic enough to be at the table. I regret to testify that I have heard representatives of every imaginable kind of Jew — from every denomination and lineage, with every conceivable cultural or political identification — talk with scorn about Jews unlike themselves.

It does not have to be this way. We could choose to see each Jew as precious beyond measure, to accept that there are Jews with whom we ardently disagree and in whom we may find grandeur, Jews capable of a height in one realm or another we have yet to attain.

Culture is a most eloquent witness when we allow that Judaism is an ecology to which every Jew can make a unique, unprecedented, and necessary contribution. It is the texture of our Jewish lives, born of our five senses in exchange with our most profoundly acquired knowledge. Culture arises from paradox — the sense of being replete, rich with a past we know, merged with a longing for something intangible and beautiful that can never be had in precisely its old form but must be distilled and made new.

I, a Jew enchanted by a not-yet-realized future always shimmering before me, intoxicated by the perfume of the past, have been lucky enough to know a few people from the world of before. One was my paternal great-aunt Bella, a broadcaster in Yiddish on Israeli radio to Soviet Jews. Bella was born in Poland into yichus, illustrious rabbinic descent, even as modernity encroached upon it. When she told her parents she was staying at a friend’s house but in fact went to the theater, and the town’s elders came to protest to her father, the rabbi, he declared that any place into which his daughter stepped was a holy place.

Which brings me once more to Ansky, a writer who loved his people. Ansky wrote The Dybbuk around 1914, initially in Russian, which he then translated into Yiddish. In 1916, he revised the play in accord with advice from friends and theater professionals, including Konstantin Stanislavsky, director of the Moscow Art Theater. Two years later, Chaim Nachman Bialik translated it from the Yiddish version into Hebrew.

Fleeing from Russia to Vilna in a turbulent era, Ansky lost the Yiddish version and retranslated The Dybbuk from Bialik’s Hebrew back into Yiddish. And so it came to pass that The Dybbuk was produced for the first time in Yiddish by the Vilna Troupe in Warsaw, shortly after Ansky’s death in 1920. A year later, it was staged by Maurice Schwartz at the Yiddish Art Theater in New York. Then in 1922, Habima produced the Hebrew version, directed by Yevgeny Vakhtangov, in Moscow.

Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Hebrew: The Dybbuk continues to possess us, representing in a single work the density and fluidity of Jewish culture.

In her Jerusalem home as we sipped tea, Bella told me that Ansky was a pen name. S. Ansky was born Shloime Zanvel Rapoport.

I came to the Ansky conference not out of ancestor worship but in communion with a past to which I had the tie of yichus — albeit obliquely: I am a woman and I live in modernity. I left renewed in my quest for yichus atzmi, the inheritance that must be chosen and earned throughout a Jew’s life.

The journey I describe is not mine alone. It is ours, each of us heir to a royalty whose mantle we are given at birth, but folded in the past. Only we can shake it out, revealing its glory. Only we can wrap ourselves in it to contribute, one by one, to the culture of this remarkable people.

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Nessa Rapoport is the author of a novel, Preparing for Sabbath; a collection of prose poems, A Woman's Book of Grieving; a memoir, House on the River: A Summer Journey; and editor, with Ted Solotaroff, of The Schocken Book of Contemporary Jewish Fiction. Her meditations appear in Objects of the Spirit: Ritual and the Art of Tobi Kahn. This article draws on a talk given at the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumni Institute.

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