Friday, April 10, 2009

The Dybbuk as Greatest Yiddish Play

Somewhere or another I called The Dybbuk the Greatest Yiddish Play. That's not really my judgment - what do I know, I've read a few and seen none. It seems like a first-rate modernist play, psychologically complex, culturally rich, with an original subject. I enjoyed reading it; I'd love to see it performed.

The Dybbuk has acquired a symbolic status that I wouldn't wish on any single work of art. Because of its history, and setting, and use of folklore, it has become The Representative Yiddish Play.

Ansky never saw it performed. It's 1920 debut, in fact, was as a memorial to Ansky himself, performed thirty days after he died. The superb poster is from that Warsaw production. So from the beginning, it had extra-aesthetic weight. The play became a stand-in for the lost world of Eastern European Judaism, destroyed by emigration, destroyed by World War I. And this was all before the Holocaust.

Habimah, a Moscow Yiddish theater company, now the National Theatre of Israel, put The Dybbuk at the heart of its repertoire. They still own, and often use, the original sets. How can a performance of the play not also be a memorial service? How does one judge such a thing?

There's another irony, come to think of it. The curators of The Dybbuk perform it, mostly, in Hebrew, in H. Bialik's 1918 translation. It's surely now performed more often in English and German than in Yiddish. One more irony: the Yiddish Dybbuk is a translation from the Hebrew! Ansky lost his Yiddish version when he fled the Bolsheviks, and created a new Yiddish text from Bialik's Hebrew.

Well, it's still a great play. But what complications. Typical, though, of the life and works of S. Ansky.


  1. That's actually pretty great. It's kind of like a mobius strip - it started with Yiddish, was translated to Hebrew, and was then translated back into Yiddish... Or maybe an hourglass.

    "The play became a stand-in for the lost world of Eastern European Judaism, destroyed by immigration, destroyed by World War I." That's a very interesting point. The cultural shock at the beginning of the 20th century is often forgotten. A play like this could be important in that sense, even if it only shows something different. Sounds like a good one to see.

  2. I'd love to see "The Dybbuk". I'd watch it in Hebrew if there were an English translation, in supertitles or a headset.

    I have probably underemphasized the relationship between Yiddish and Hebrew literature. It's a complex topic and I don't pretend to understand it well. You're right - lots of curious twists and turns.