In the early 20th century the Pale of Settlement was home to more Jews than anywhere else in the world.
Some five million Jews lived in this vast area that encompassed Western Russia and parts of what is now Poland, Lithuania, Moldavia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. Memory homogenizes, but in fact this was a population with vast differences: The political agitators, including the socialists, Communists, Zionists, and others, and the steadfastly traditional, both Hasidic and Mitnagdim, all jostled against one another in town and marketplaces, villages and small shtetls. This was the world known to modern Jews through the etiolated lens of Shalom Aleichem put to Broadway music. In fact, it was a world of superstition and enlightenment, traditional practices, and the sound of old bonds daily bursting.
Into this colorful world went Shloyme Zanvil Rapoport, best known to the Jewish world by his pen name An-sky. He was a writer, a revolutionary, and became an ethnographer. Although he is remembered by the general public, if at all, primarily through his play The Dybbuk (1914), An-sky devoted years to a remarkably ambitious mission: He decided to travel through the Pale and chronicle daily life there before it disappeared.
Striking as this story is in itself, the coda is perhaps even more astonishing. In 1914 An-sky distributed a questionnaire containing over 2,000 questions about the details of Jewish life. The questions were never answered. The Great War and then the Revolution put an end to the ambitious project. The questions themselves, along with the documents and wax-seal recordings of folk songs—the material An-sky accumulated in his journey—it was all lost.
In the mid-1990s, with the opening of the Soviet archives, the material was resurrected. The Jewish Dark Continent translates the questionnaire and allows the reader to follow An-sky’s remarkable journey.
It has been famously said that there are only two plots: a stranger comes to town or a man goes on a journey. For An-sky, both were simultaneously enacted in his research. First, the young firebrand had to go through his own internal journey, leaving the tradition whose chronicler he would become:
When I first entered literature 25 years ago I wanted to labor on behalf of the oppressed, the working masses, and it appeared to me, mistakenly, that I would not find them among the Jews. . . . Possessing an eternal longing for Jewishness, I [nevertheless] threw myself in all directions and left to work for another people. My life was broken, split, torn. . . . I lived among the Russian folk for a long time, among their lowest classes. Things are different for us now than when I wrote my first story. We have cultural, political and literary movements. . . . I believe in a better future and in the survival of the Jews!
Then An-sky had to become the stranger in town, walking through the villages and gaining the trust of those (sometimes by mild trickery) who would recount their imprecations and blessings, lullabies and customs.
As Nathaniel Deutsch points out in this perceptive and intriguing work, Jews were “at once civilized and semi-savage, ethnographers and potential objects of ethnography.” An-sky was a member of the tribe he chose to study. Yet as an enlightened Jew he was also different from many among whom he walked. His charm could gain their trust, but his interest was in preserving a world that his peers had long since scorned and left behind.
Of course, An-sky did not know he was creating a time capsule. Much of Deutsch’s short work—the text itself is about 100 pages, the rest devoted to the questionnaire—is an explanation of An-sky’s program, his travels, and his frustrations. Knowing the sad coda, that An-sky died, sick and broken, in Warsaw in 1920, the book is a homage as well as an act of reconstruction.
At first, one might imagine that questions could not be nearly as revealing as the never-offered responses. But some open up remarkable vistas of speculation: “What do people do if they dig a grave and then don’t need it? Do they bury a live rooster there?” “Does a girl ever lose her virginity because of an accident? Is this recorded in a pinkas (communal record book)?”
The very first question asks about beliefs concerning the soul before it enters the body; the very last question asks what life will be like after resurrection of the dead. Here, in 2,087 questions, is the vast range of Jewish life and custom, from before-cradle to after-grave. Even without the answers, they provide considerable insight into the world of the Pale. In some ways, the silence of no response is an act of fidelity to the destruction that followed.
The story is told of the Hasidic master Rabbi Bunim that he was walking with his disciples and they spotted another group
“They are dead,” said Rabbi Bunim.
“What can you possibly mean?” asked his students, as the other group milled and spoke.
“They stopped asking questions, and one who stops asking is dead,” replied
He and his disciples walked on a bit, but one of them was visibly troubled, and finally spoke: “Rabbi, how do I know that I’m not dead?”
Rabbi Bunim answered, “Because you asked.”
An-sky’s questions have been retrieved. From the wreckage of a world wiped away, through questions, he lives—and gives others life.
David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters.