Thursday, April 9, 2009

There are also souls who belong nowhere - Ansky's The Dybbuk

"The souls of the dead do return to the world, but not as disembodied spirits. There are souls which must go through several incarnations before they are finally purified. Sinful souls return to earth in animals, in birds, in fish, and even at times in plants... There are also souls who belong nowhere, who find no peace anywhere; they take possession of another person's body in the form of a dybbuk, and in this way they achieve their purification." (The Messenger, Act II)

An arranged marriage is announced. A young man, a mystic, a student of the Kabbalah, is in love with the bride; hearing the news, he dies (he was not what you would call healthy). The bride, on the day of her wedding, becomes possessed by a dybbuk, the unhappy spirit of her lover, the student. A famous rabbi tries to exorcise the dybbuk. That's most of the story of S. Ansky's The Dybbuk, I guess. Not too complicated.

That's not how it seems on the page, though. In the first act, set in a synagogue, a dozen or so characters wander in and out, most with at least a line or two. Modernist, definitely. Leah, the star of the show, only appears briefly. The students debate and tell stories. It's unclear what the story might be. The short second act is a spectacle of its own, mostly a pre-wedding dance.

The play is based on folklore about dybbuks that Ansky had collected during the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition. It weaves in the old tale of the couple killed on their wedding day that I mentioned yesterday. But, ingeniously, almost everything in the play can be interpreted psychologically. For example, the quotation up above is spoken by the mysterious Messenger. He is telling Leah the legend of the dybbuk. Soon after, she claims to be possessed by one. Is Leah actually possessed by the spirit of her lover, or is she resisting the forced marriage?

That must be a great part for the actress. Must be great fun to watch, too. This is Hanna Rovina, in the 1922 Moscow production.

I read The Dybbuk in the Golda Werman translation in The Dybbuk and Other Writings. Joachim Neugroschel's version, in The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination (2000), seems good, too, a bit more slangy, perhaps. The latter is an ingenious idea, an anthology of nothing but dybbuk-related writings, from 1602 to 1956. One thing I learned from it is that I don't care about dybbuks, in and of themselves, enough to read the whole book. Neugroschel has also edited an anthology about golems, which awaits me at the library as I write.


  1. I just read The Dybbuck. In same version you did. There was a 1939 Yiddish language movie made in Poland based on itthat looks interesting. My wild guess is it did not get much of a run in Nazi ruled PolandI would like to see it preformed but doubt I ever will. I enjoyed all of the cultural data in the play.

  2. What a sad artifact, that movie. A tribute to a culture on the verge of destruction.

  3. 1937 film director of The Dybbuk a recent (2017) documentary about the director of the film The Dybbuk.

  4. Also the Red Cavalry stories by Isaac Babel reflect on this world a bit later during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919. There is also a walk on appearance by Merian C. Cooper in one of the stories as well.

  5. Thank you for the links. I finally got to Red Cavalry just last year. Astounding.