The Aesthetics of Meaning:
Jewish Arts & Culture Aleph: On Ansky's The Dybbuk
by David Chack
So read the stage directions in the second act of The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds by S. A. Ansky. In these directions we see encapsulated the world Ansky tries to present in the play, but more, we are given a visual matrix for a Jewish performance aesthetic. We must start our study of the formation of a Jewish performance aesthetic with the play and film The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds by S. A. Ansky because of its influence as a play from which the standard was set for Jewish Theatre and Performance in years to come and was the accumulated repository for a history of Jewish culture in performance. This history, is represented by this play, the story of its author, and the story of its first productions. Further, as we analyze the play (and look at its film versions) we will see that within it is, not only a transmission of Jewish folklore but, the transmission of performance styles, motifs, and themes that will continually occur in the work of Jewish performers in film and theatre.
When The Dybbuk was first performed, much to the surprise of the Vilna Troupe, a Polish Jewish theatre company that Ansky was very close to, it was an incredible success. Their performance was a memorial to Ansky, who had died a month earlier. Though they had been close to him, the play had not been produced because it was deemed as a nice piece of folklore, but not good theatre. Yet the play not only spoke to its audiences in a deeper way than anticipated, the performances transcended the written word. All accounts of well-done performances of it, have nearly always given it the highest tributes. When it was performed by the Habimah Theatre from Russia in 1923 (becoming its signature piece to this very day) reviewers the world over saw it as a piece of theatre that defied description. Performed again in New York in 1933 by an American company, the Neighborhood Playhouse Theatre, in English, it was seen as, "one superb tragedy of pure mysticism" and "a resounding theatrical success." In that production, it gave the career of the actor who played Leah, who had only played musical comedy up until that point, a new direction. When the Polish film by Michael Wyzynski was released in 1937, it was seen by many, Jew and Gentile alike, as one of the finest films from Europe. The only purely negative review came from Frank Nugent of the New York Times, who saw it as a "documentary film of life among the pygmies or a trip to the Middle Ages". A reflection on that review will be done later.
Few plays written until this time focused on the Jewish life of the shtetlach, the small villages of East European Jewry. Most were melodramas like the ones by Avrom Goldfaden or other former cantors, turned theatre producer/directors. Some did center on Jewish Biblical themes, that could be seen as appropriating mythical themes in the existence of the Jewish people. Nahma Sandrow in her work, Vagabond Stars, the history of the Yiddish Theatre, sees The Dybbuk embodying both the history of the Yiddish Theatre and the artistic aspirations of the Yiddish Theatre which set the stage for Jewish performance for years to come. "It was with their production of The Dybbuk that they influenced other theaters, especially Yiddish theaters. And with it they set a direction for themselves." She continues later, "Herman's approach (the director for the Vilna Troupe) also had an affinity with the Neo-Romanticism that was a dominant Polish mode. It was also, in a way, a return to the Purim play." Sandrow points out that The Dybbuk was this embodiment of the past and future.
From this as well as from its acclaimed reception, we can see that its influence was considerable. What does it have that no other drama had before it and what does it have that makes it the quintessential Jewish play? By answering this core question we will extrapolate an emerging Jewish Performance Aesthetic, that can be broken down into its designated principles for future Jewish performers, whether they are aware of them or not. Clearly, the Vilna Troupe was unaware of them, because they did not even consider the play important enough to be performed in Ansky's lifetime. The surprise of the positive reception is at the very least, a tribute to Ansky's ability to tap into the sensibilities of the audiences of his time. This production and the production of the Moscow Jewish theatre company, Habimah, shows that the realization of the play does not occur on the written page, but through its performance. This play continues to be one of the most performed plays in the world and we will look at that as well by examining contemporary performances. And in this continuity of performance we will also see how a Jewish Performance Aesthetic emerges.
Historical and Biographical Context
Let us first understand S. A. Ansky and see his life as a context for the play. I am indebted to the work of David Roskies in his wonderful introduction to The Dybbuk and Other Writings by Ansky, and Roskies' seminal work Against the Apocalypse. Solomon Rappoport Ansky was born in 1863 in Vitebsk in the Lithuanian province of Russia, the same city of Marc Chagall. His original name was Shloyme-Zanvl ben Aharon HaCohen Rappoport. This town was both a center for the mystical, intellectual sect of Chasidism known as Chabad and had one of the finest yeshivot (Talmudic learning academies) in Lithuania.
A strong influence on young Rappoport's life was the economic fortune of his family. While growing up, he experienced both relative wealth and then poverty. His father lost his fortune and was forced to travel while his mother ran a tavern. They lived in the poorer section of town. His movement into secular Judaism and Russian socialism can be seen as having its roots here. The precociously intelligent Shloyme-Zanvl started to read militant works of the Hebrew Haskalah/Enlightenment such as Chattot Ne'urim (The Sins of Youth, 1876). This on top of Russian nihilism influenced him greatly. He also was enamored of the theatre and submitted scripts for review by the great Yiddish director, Jacob Adler, though Adler was not impressed. Eventually Shloyme-Zanvl lost his faith, became almost totally secular and was known as a "critical-realist". He ran a commune for poor boys on the outskirts of town who had left the yeshiva, taught them math and Russian and encouraged them to go on to "productive labor."
Eventually, Rappoport changed his name to Solomon Aronovich and then to Semyon Akimovich while immersing himself in the Russian revolutionary movement of the 1880's and 90's. Following the populist theoretician Peter Lavrov, he educated himself on the life of the peasants and then worked with and educated the miners of the Donets Basin. He lost most of his teeth to scurvy, maintained spartan surroundings, proteletarian dress, and according to Roskies, saw that the folk were an utterly distinct cultural and psychological group. He continued his writing and under the pen-name S. A. Ansky wrote Sketches on Folk Literature. It is not clear what the full meaning of his new name was to him. Possibly the "S. A." stood for Semyon or Solomon, Akimovich or Aronovich, but the Ansky was whimsical. One version is that it represented his mother who was named Anna, but another version was that it was coined for him by radical Russian writer Gleb Uspensky. As Roskies speculates, this name in its unclarity shows the two worlds of Ansky -- the Jew turned Russian radical and the revolutionary who could not give up his Jewish roots.
Ansky's inability to leave his Jewish roots came to a climax when friends of his in 1905 brought him to meet with Zionist youth groups and he reconsidered the writings of secular Jewish writers like I. L. Peretz who wrote about a Jewish nationalism with a modern European sensibility. Ansky, quickly, became part of a group of Jewish intellectuals to preserve the facts and culture of the Jewish folk in the shtetlach. He joined the Jewish History-Ethnographic Society, the Jewish Literary Society, became the literary editor of the Russian-Jewish monthly Evrieski Mir, and was close to the Jewish Folk Music Society based in St. Petersburg. In 1910 at a celebration of his twenty-fifth literary anniversary he said:
Twenty-five years ago when I first began writing, my striving was to work on behalf of the oppressed, the laboring masses, and it seemed to me then -- and that was my error -- that I would not find them among the Jews. I thought it was impossible to hold oneself aloof from politics and, again I did not find any political currents among Jews. Bearing within me an eternal yearning toward Jewry, I nevertheless turned in all directions and went to labor on behalf of another people. My life was broken, severed, ruptured. Many years of my life passed on this frontier on the border between both worlds. Therefore, I beg you, on this twenty-fifth year of summing up my literary work, to eliminate sixteen years.
Then in 1911 he headed and organized a trip that was to permanently change his life. This expedition was anthropological, to gather folklore by recording the songs and stories of the region with the Jewish History-Ethnographic Society from 1912-1914, particularly in the Ukraine, where Chassidism had originated. One might say that Ansky was on a personal search as well as a search for the survival of Jewish Culture. It was here that he found a new "Torah" for the masses. He collected:
1800 folktales and legends
500 cylinders of folk music
1000 songs and biblical Purim plays
1,000 melodies of songs and niggunim
100 historical documents
700 sacred objects
He wrote in 1914 in in the preface to The Jewish Ethnographic Program:
The Oral Tradition consisting of all manner of folklore -- stories, legends, parables, songs, witticisms, melodies, customs, and beliefs -- is, like the Bible, the product of the Jewish spirit; it reflects the same beauty and purity of the Jewish soul, the same modesty and nobility of the Jewish heart, the same loftiness and depth of Jewish thought.
As Ansky was collecting this material and as he was on his own personal search, and even as he was on a mission to save Jewish Culture, he was also engaged in something more. He was helping to quantify the elements for an aesthetic that is Jewish. The aesthetic which he identifies, he believes, is as old as the ancient texts of the Bible. As he said at a meeting of the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition on November 24, 1913, Chasidic tales and legends were the best possible means of acquainting non-Jews with the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of Jewish culture. Coupled with the immediate artistic considerations was Ansky's desire to save what was being lost through the destruction of the shtetlach.
With every old man who dies with every fire that breaks out, with every exile that occurs, we lose a piece of our past. The finest examples of our traditions are disappearing. In short our past sanctified by the blood and tears of so many innocent martyrs is vanishing and will soon be forgotten.
Even this need, to save the culture, was incorporated into the aesthetic. A survival myth, that can be seen as going back to the stories in the Hebrew Bible, is prominent in Ansky's thinking. This reaction to and response to martyrdom was very real for Ansky. He was aware of the pogroms and anti-Semitic actions of his time of which he knew first-hand. He, also, carried within him the memory of past catastrophes to the Jewish people. As Roskies writes in Against the Apocalypse and Yosef Yerushalmi in Zachor , the historic memory of these catastrophes was absorbed into an ongoing myth of Jewish response and survival to suffering and persecution, going back to the near-sacrifice of the Biblical Isaac by Abraham to the destruction of the two Temples. This survival myth has been elasticized to include the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the massacres of Jews in the Crusades and the Middle Ages, the slaughter of Jews in Poland and Russia by Cossacks led by Chmielnicki in 1647-48 ( which is referred to inThe Dybbuk ), and other smaller pogroms, blood libels, and violence up until this day. The Holocaust is sometimes placed in this mythical paradigm, but more as an exception to the paradigm.
Clearly the way the myth is expressed is dependent on the particular group of Jews and their circumstances. Yet there was always a need to find a way to express it and remember. As Yerushalmi writes of Biblical narrative and its stress on memory, "(The Hebrew Bible's) injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is pivotal. Altogether the verb zachar appears in its various declensions in the Bible no less than one hundred and sixty nine times, usually with either Israel or God as the subject, for memory is incumbent on both."
In finding a paradigmatic memory, which is myth, for a response to suffering and persecution the Jewish people often turned in their narratives to the myth of the Akedat Yitzchak or the binding of Isaac. This myth was used as a narrative to understanding suffering because, not only does Abraham have to go through a test, but Isaac as the offering, is defenseless. This is different than the sacrifice of Jesus as the central pradigm for the Christian religion because Jesus' crucifixion is meaningful in its removal of sin. Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. On the other hand, Isaac goes through the trauma of nearly being killed by his father for no reason that is apparent to him, except blind faith. Through this paradigm, as Shalom Spiegal writes about so eloquently in The Last Trial , the rabbis (in midrashic narratives) seek a meaning for suffering and persecution and find it in the blind faith of Isaac, who ironically goes blind later on in the Bible.
In the case of Jews being slaughtered during the Middle Ages by the Crusaders for not allowing themselves to be converted, the Jews themselves took the slaughters knife to mercifully kill their own children rather than face death at the Crusader's hands. And the story of Isaac is constantly evoked. One chronicler relates:
Has there ever been an akedah like this in all the generations since Adam? Did eleven hundred akedot take place on a single day, all of them comparable to the binding of Isaac son of Abraham? Yet for the one bound on Mount Moriah the world shook, as it is stated: "Behold the angels cried out and the skies darkened."The Dybbuk is an aesthetic response to survival, suffering, and persecution. When, as inThe Dybbuk , there is a need to understand the senseless deaths of innocent Jews by Chmielnicki and the Cossacks, the mythic narrative of the Akedat Yitzchak collapses into the generalized concept of dying al ha-Kiddush ha-Shem , for the sanctification of God's name. As it was described in the Scroll of Darkness by Shabbetai HaCohen Katz, an introduction to penitential prayers, in 1651:
And in the synagogue, before the Holy Ark, with slaughtering knives they slew the choirboys, the cantors, and the attendants. There the sons of our people brought up burnt offerings and sacrifices; they performed an Akedah on themselves as on rams and sheep and goats, and with fragrant smell rose to the dwelling place of angels. Then the enemy destroyed the synagogue, our surrogate Temple; they rampaged, they removed all the Torah scrolls, both old and new, and tore them to shreds, and cast them aside to be trampled upon by the feet of man and beast, horses and their riders, and they also made sandals and boots called posteles out of them and garments of several kinds and cast Scripture to the ground and trampled the parchment with their feet.
The need to make meaning out of catastrophe in Jewish narratives continues to the time of the writing of the play The Dybbuk. Pogroms, blood-libels, forced conscriptions of Jewish boys at the age of twelve into the army, and other forms of anti-Semitism continued in Eastern Europe and Russia. The list of pogroms in Russia boggles the imagination. Fourty-nine were killed in Kishinev during Passover of 1903; 800 were dead between 1905-06 in 726 pogroms; and in the Ukrainian civil war of 1918-19, between 60,000 and 250,000 Jews (according to different historians) were killed in pogroms.
Ansky's The Dybbuk
In this context we can better understand and view the performance narrative of The Dybbuk. When Ansky wrote the play, he had resumed his involvement with the Jewish people and artistically placed in the play his revolutionary inclinations, his pursuit for meaning in his own life as a Jew and a secular Russian, his vocation as a preserver and celebrator of Jewish folk and religious culture, and his fear for the destruction of East European Jewry. The Dybbuk is an expression of all of these aspects and one might say that the play's aesthetic is based on all these aspects. When Ansky wrote the play he claims to have met the characters the play is based on. Drawing from relity, Ansky constructs a narrative that deals with the Jewish experience as he saw it. Let us look at what Ansky constructed and see how Ansky made the choices he made, for performance.
The Dybbuk is a play presenting small town Jewish life (shtetlach) in Russia through the story of two young people who are in love, and are not allowed to wed, by Sender, the father of the bride (Leah) -- even though he had made a vow many years before that he would wed his first-born daughter to the first-born son of his closest friend, Nissen. He betrothes Leah to another man and Chonon, the son of Nissen, dies-- coming back, through mystical incantations, into the body of the Leah ( a dybbuk is a lost soul that cleaves to another soul ). After much suffering and introspection on the part of Sender, the soul of the young man is exorcised from her body and excommunicated. Chonon is then reinstated in the Jewish people and at the play's end Leah willingly gives up her life for him in an ecstatic moment. This joining, is seen in the context of the historic deaths (narrated in the play) of a bride and groom who were murdered by Cossacks as part of the Chmielnicki massacres against the Jews, in their town of Brinitz, on the wedding night in 1648. It is in this context the play explores themes that are taken up again and again in Jewish performance narratives; love, faith, theodocy, suffering, exile, anti-Semitism, and the confrontation with modernity. Let us analyze the play more closely to see how.
The play opens with a chant from afar that says:
Why, oh why did the soul plunge
From the upmost heights
To the lowest depths?
The seed of redemption
Is contained in the fall.
Then the curtain is raised to reveal the synagogue, in the mythical town of Brinitz. Idlers are sitting around studying or gossiping. The Messenger lies on the bench in the synagogue. Chonon stands meditatively.
Immediately, the tone is set and two characters of importance are both linked and introduced to the audience. First the tone. This is set throught the chanting, that immediately gives the play a sense of ritual and mystery. Then the words themselves, foreshadowing the plays events and outcome, provide the audience with tragic foreboding. But even more than this, stylistically, the words contextualize the play in a Jewish meta-historical sense. As mentioned earlier, the Jewish people place a great deal of emphasis on memory and placing it in a mythical paradigm. These words both evoke the destruction of the Temple (churban ) through the contrasting imagery of redemption, and the hope for the coming of the Messiah. And by mentioning the heights and dpeths to which a soul plunges, Ansky is not only foreshadowing the fall of Chonon in the play, but he is also evoking the hope of redeeming all the souls of Jews who died in persecutions and sufferings. Just as the liturgist in the Scroll of Darkness wrote about an akedah and churban , so are another about to take place in the long line of akedot and churbanot . And there will be deaths al ha kiddush hashem (for the sanctification of God's name). The irony of the play is that these deaths will come from an internalization of sufferings and persecutions. Yet it is in Ansky's this counter-response to sufferings and persecutions that Ansky is also responding and lamenting them.
In the two characters we see at the beginning of the play, we see the characters who most represent Ansky's voice. Chonon, as the highly principled, spiritual, ecstatic, mystic, who loves without bounds or cares for materialism-- is of course just like Ansky, the Russian revolutionary. The Messenger who personifies the richly woven tapestry of Jewish folklore and culture in the play is Ansky the preservationist. And both are Ansky, the young Talmudic scholar, who provides a new textual reading, through this folklore, inmidrashic fashion , to the action of the play. This, then shows Ansky as a creator of a performance narrative which weaves into it, a particularistic Jewish aesthetic.
As the scene moves along we learn that Chonon is a very mystical student and that he hopes to marry Leah the daughter of Sender, through the incantations and meditation on mystical texts. He is also participating in physical self-abnegation by fasting, depriving himself of sleep, and going to the ritual baths late at night. His soul is one that yearns to reach the heighest heights, as he says:
Kabbalah tears the soul from its earthly bounds! It lifts man to the highest spheres and opens up the heavens so that he can see inside. It leads straight to Paradise, it draws you to the Infinite, it opens a corner of the great curtain. (Falls) My strength... is failing.
Not long after this we meet Leah, the woman he loves that he hasn't directly asked to love him. Yet they are inexplicably drawn to each other. She comes to the synagogue to help fix a curtain for the ark and Chonon stares at her. Then as she is about to go she asks to kiss the Torah. She is granted permission and comes closer to Chonon as she gets closer to the scroll. She kisses it with passion and then they leave. Chonon then sings verses from the Song of Songs , which is seen by the rabbis as a book of love poetry and which is also, mystically, about God's desire for Israel. But Chonon's ecstasy does not last long. Reb Sender arrives to celebrate the betrothal of his daughter Leah to a young man in another town. Chonon, at first in deep despair over how his mystical incantations failed, suddenly reaches higher heights than he has ever reached and declares that he sees the two-fold name of God and perishes. The scene ends as the celebrators of Reb Senders' discover Chonon's body and the Messenger says, "He has been damaged-- beyond repair."
Two other things to note in this first scene. The first is that Chonon knows that what he is doing is not condoned by normative Judaism and that he is verging on great sin. This can be seen in the play's text, as follows:
Chonon: We need not wage war against sin, we need only to purify it. Just as a goldsmith refines gold in a flame or a farmer threshes the chaff from the wheat, so must we cleanse sin of its dross until nothing but holiness remains."
Henech: Holiness in sin? Where did you get such an idea?"
Chonon: Everything in God's creation contains a spark of holiness.
Henech: God did not create sin; that was the work of Satan!
Chonon: And who created Satan? It was God. Satan is the opposite of God, and as one of His aspects, he contains a holy spark.
This exchange could have been inspired by an occurence in Ansky's life when he was a witness to a desecrated synagogue. The fragments of the Ten Commandments from the building, lay on the ground and all that remained was Thou Shalt Kill and Thou Shalt Commit Adultery. For Ansky, because the rest of the commandments were missing, their strength was diminished. Just as Ansky saw the loss of Jewish Law, in the wake of catastrophe and called for the need of a new Jewish culture, Chonon sees the need to enter into the realm of sin to redeem love in the face of desecration.
This is amplified in another part of the scene between the Messenger and Sender, after Sender returns from getting his daughter betrothed. The Messenger tells Sender a parable. "Once a rich but stingy Chasid visited the rebbe. Taking him by the hand, the rebbe led him to the window and asked him to describe what he saw through the pane. "I see people in the street," the Chasid said. Then the rebbe took his hand again and led him to a mirror. "Now what do you see?" he asked. "I see myself," the Chasid answered. "Do you understand? Both the window and the mirror are made of glass; but as soon as you cover the glass with a small amount of silver you no longer see others but only yourself." Clearly, Ansky's socialist background is part of the context for this message. But as mentioned earlier, the Messenger not only represents Ansky, but he presents the midrashic discourse that is intertextual to the action. That being the case this parable is meant to relay a sacred value to counter, what Ansky believes is, the profane value of capitalism. Through this particularistic Jewish aesthetic, the action is furthered and so is Ansky's perception of sacred Jewish values.
Act II opens with the focus on the gravesite of the young man and woman who were murdered by the Cossaks in 1648. This is the only date mentioned in the play and so anchors the play, meta-historically, but leaves the "real" time of the play loose and unfixed. By doing this, Ansky amplifies the context of memory and suffering. The perception is given that for time immemorial there is still that connection, and this creates an even stronger contrast to the desecration of Jewish values by Sender. Everything is placed within this myth of loss, exile, suffering and catastrophe--even love. As the story of the couple is told in the play:
When that enemy of the Jews, Chmielnicki, may his name be blotted out, came to our town with his Cossaks and slaughtered half the Jews, he killed the bride and the groom just as they were being led to the wedding canopy. They were buried in one grave on the very spot on which they were murdered, and their grave has been called "the holy grave" ever since. (In a whisper ) Each time the rabbi performs a wedding ceremony he hears sighs coming from the grave. In order to bring comfort and cheer to the buried bride and groom, it has long been a custom in our town to dance around the grave after every wedding."
From this point on, the preparation for the wedding commences. Leah must first dance with the poor, which is done in a stylized and macabre fashion. In many productions, though it is not specified in the play, a character depicting death also dances with Leah. She then prepares to go to the cemetery to bring back any souls that she would like to have at her wedding. At this point she remembers Chonon. It is a poignant memory of passion and longing.
Once there was a young man with a lofty soul and a profound intelligence-- a long life lay before him. And then in an instant, his life was cut down; strangers came to bury him on foreign soil. (Sorrowfully) What happened to his unlived life, his unspoken words, his unuttered prayers? Grandma, when the flame of a candle is snuffed out, you can relight it and it burns to the end. So how can the uncompleted life of a person be stamped out forever? How can it?
Then she looks at the grave of the bride and groom.
I have known this holy grave of the bride and groom who are buried here since I was a child. Awake and asleep I have often felt them with me; they are as close to me as my own flesh and blood. (Thoughtfully) A young and handsome couple on their way to the bridal canopy, looking forward to a long and beautiful life together, and in a flash all was over-- evil people with axes hacked the bride and groom to death. They were buried in one grave so that they would be together for all eternity. And at every wedding as we dance around their grave, they join in the festivities. Beloved bride and groom I invite you to my wedding! Come and stand beside me under the canopy!
Leah makes the linkage between the death of Chonon and the deaths of the bride and groom. And this is what many in the original audiences would do as well. Remembering all too clearly the deaths of those who suffered the consequences of catastrophe, as Leah mourns for Chonon, she is also mourning for all Jews whose lives were cut short and who had so much to give. Once again this points up Ansky's purpose in creating a performance narrative that both shows the results of anti-Semitism leading to an internalization of suffering and that taints the lives of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe.
This makes perfect sense in light of what is to come. Leah returns from the graveyard, inviting her mother and Chonon to her wedding. Then when the groom comes forward to veil Leah, she pushes him away and says:
You are not my bridegroom! (She runs to the grave and throws herself on it ) Holy bride and groom, protect me! Save me!
( She falls; people run to her and lift her up; she looks wild-eyed and cries out, not with her own voice but with that of a man )
Ah! Ah! You have buried me! But I have returned to my promised bride and will not leave her!
(Nachman goes to Leah; she shouts at him) Murderer!
Nachman: She is mad!
The Messenger: A dybbuk has entered the body of the bride.
At this point, when the dybbuk of Chonon enters into Leah, it comes after a progression of things and builds the suspense about the death of Chonon in light of his mysticism. She dances with the poor and the beggars, which also culminates in her dance with death. She goes to the dead in the cemetary, of which many had been killed in pogroms and invites her mother's soul to the wedding. This was a common practice in villages in Eastern Europe.
At Chonon's grave, which had been revealed to her in a dream when he came to her, something unspeakable occurs, according to Frayde the nurse. So when she returns to the wedding party, the dybbuk's enterance into her, is the result of a ritualistic journey into personal memory and collective memory. The dybbuk joins her, not only for what had been done to Chonon, but also for the loss of all Jewish souls who are in exile and who gave their lives al ha-kiddush ha-shem . As mentioned previously, Ansky wrote, "With every old man who dies with every fire that breaks out, with every exile that occurs, we lose a piece of our past. The finest examples of our traditions are disappearing. In short our past sanctified by the blood and tears of so many innocent martyrs is vanishing and will soon be forgotten." On some level, the dybbuk is the result of Akedat Yitzchak , except instead of the binding of Isaac it is the sacrifice of Isaac that has come back to his father Abraham and wants to bear witness to the suffering of the world. When the Messenger sees the dead Chonon on the floor in Scene One, he says, "He has been damaged-- beyond repair." This damage points to the mystical concept that the world is broken, fragmented by the evil that it faces and the suffering that exists. This is not unusual in modern, pre-Holocaust era literature. One might even see thedybbuk similarly to the character of the madman in the Russian Jewish novelThe Mare by S. Y. Abramovitsh who pointed to the maddening effect the world was having on the Jews at this time, resulting in misery afflicted by Jews on each other. In the creature of the dybbuk we may even see foreshadowings of post-Holocaust literature, in the character of the madman who, in the tales of Elie Wiesel, Aharon Appelfeld, or I. B. Singer, comes back from a place of suffering, to bear witness, and yet is not believed. The dybbuk returns to attest to the need for wholeness in body and spirit, in the individual and in the collective.
As we move on to Act III, we are in Miropol, the home of Reb Azriel, a Chasidic rebbe. We see the small shtiebl or place to pray in Reb Azriel's home. The scene begins with a story by Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, the great grandson of the founder of Chasidism. The story is being told by the Messenger. In this intertextual moment, the story is told of a mountain with the heart of the world that longs to join the clear stream, at another mountain, to quench its thirst. But paradoxically, if it moves towards the stream, it loses sight of the stream and if it loses sight of the stream it dies. So it exists from day to day, longing for the stream and not beign able to draw closer. Yet a just man, a tzaddik ( an attribute given to Chasidic masters ) gathers the songs of the heart and the stream and gathers the shining threads that come from their singing and weaves them into time. and whne he weaves a full day he gives it to the heart of the world, and the heart of the world gives it to the clear stream and all live another full day. Once again, the scene is set by a text. In this case, a text that amplifies the tenuous nature of the existence of the world.
And then Reb Azriel, the tzaddik , comes in and tells the story of the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the day of judgement, where the High Priest alone enters the Holy of Holies, and then says the single name of God in order to save the world. Reb Azriel goes on to say that every day is Yom Kippur in a person's life. Therefore every sin and every wrong committed by a man brings the world closer to destruction. Then Reb Azriel paraphrases the chant, heard at the beginning of the play, that after a soul has soared to the highest height, sometimes it falls to the lowest depths. Then a world is destroyed, and all the emanations of God mourn the loss.
When this collage of telling Chasidic and Jewish tales is over Reb Sender comes with Leah and the nurse. Reb Azriel remembers Reb Sender as a former student of his. He has misgivings about his own strength in dealing with the dybbuk in Sender's daughter, he calls Sender in to listen to him. After hearing Sender's story and wondering if Sender did anything wrong, he calls ten men in to be the minyan (quorum) for the service of exorcism. When Reb Azriel speaks to the Rabbi in the town, he discovers that Sender is holding something back from his story. Rabbi Shimshon related to Reb Azriel that a dead former student, Reb Nissen, appeared to him in dream and demanded that a rabbinical court be summoned to try Reb Sender. Just as on Yom Kippur, as was alluded to at the beginning of the scene, a tribunal is called to account for the sins of Reb Sender.
Scene IV begins with the preparation for the court. Reb Azriel summons Reb Nissen from the grave and when it is determined that he is present the court begins. Rabbi Shimshon, speaking for Reb Nissen, says that Reb Sender was supposed to marry his daughter to the son of Nissen. And when the son of Nissen reached the town of Brinitz and even lived with Reb Sender and fell in love with his daughter, Reb Sender turned him out becuase the son was poor and Reb Sender was rich and he wanted a rich person for his daughter Leah. His son's soul is now in the body of Leah and caught between two worlds. Sender replies, by apologizing and saying he knew his friend had died and that he didn't know that a son had been born. And then with the passage of time he had forgotten his vow to his friend. The court in the name of Reb Azriel decreed that though Reb Sender had broken his vow and had been jaded by his own wealth, he still is not totally responsible because a vow cannot be made over something not yet created, like a child. Nevertheless, Reb Sender must sayKaddish over Nissen for his entire life. So, it is the decree that due to Reb Sender's forgetting he must remember Nissen for the rest of his life. Yet Nissen left the court dissatisfied.
Then Reb Azriel assmbles the court to exorcise the dybbuk from Leah. After commanding the dybbuk to leave, to no avail, Reb Azriel has seven ram's horns blown to excommunicate Chonon's soul. This is seen as the worst possible punishment. This horn, called a shofar, is blown signifying the end of Yom Kippur, that the gates of heaven are closed and the heavenly tribunal is over. With these overtones of heavenly judgement, Reb Azriel has the shofar blown three times, with appropriate commands for the dybbuk to leave. Finally the dybbuk is excommunicated after the third blast, and leaves Leah's body. Almost immediately afterwords, Reb Azriel revokes the excommunication on Chonon's soul crying out for mercy on Chonon's soul. All of those present, led by Sender, say the Kaddish for him, and they leave quickly to assemble the wedding.
While they are out Leah is taken care of by Frayde, her nurse. As the nurse sings her a lullabye, the she falls asleep. Leah immediately notices someone sighing. It is the soul of Chonon. They speak of each other, almost as though they gradually need to gain memory of each other. They speak of their undying love for each other. She says:
I will bear you in death, in my heart. And in our dreams at night we will both rock our unborn little babies to sleep. We will sew little shirts for them to wear and sing them lullabies.
"Hush, hush little ones without cradle,
without clothes dead you are and still unborn
timeless and forever lost...."
Chonon: I have departed from your body. I am coming to your soul. (He appears against the wall in white. )
Leah: (Happy ) The circle is broken. I see you, my bridegroom. Come to me!
Chonon: Come to me!
Leah: I am coming to you.
Chonon: I am coming to you.
Voices: (Offstage ) Lead the bride to the wedding canopy!
Leah: I am enveloped in a blaze of light. My bridegroom, my destined one, I am united with you for all eternity. Together we will soar higher and higher, ever higher. (Stage darkens )
Reb Azriel: (Head bowed ) We are too late.
The Messenger: Blessed is the true Judge. (Total darkness )
Why, oh why did the soul plunge
From the upmost heights
To the lowest depths?
The seed of redemption is in the fall.
As Ansky ends the play he leaves us with the love that Leah and Chonon have for each other. But there is disquietude in the ending. This is due to Ansky's ability to write a dramatic conclusion that presents an unfinished matter. The dialectic exists between the suffering of the Jews, the need to be true to themselves as Jews, and the need to examine the old religious ways in light of modernity. It is unfinished because Ansky doesn't come up with any answers. He is as perplexed as we are. But he is also in awe and trembling of the tremendous Jewish culture of East European Jewry, the impending doom for East European Jews, the fossilization of the culture that seeks answers in capitalism, and the search for his own Jewish identity which is also between two worlds. The Dybbuk is his response and counter-response to suffering and persecution. It tries to understand suffering that turns against itself and on those who are themselves suffering. Perhaps, the cruelest torment of all, is to endure suffering from the ones who themselves are suffering.
Ansky wrote The Dybbuk to be performed. Unfortunately, he never saw it performed. He tried to get the Polish Vilna Theatre Troupe to do it but they kept putting him off, though they personally admired him.
Copyright 2004 by David Chack. All rights reserved.
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