Dr. Benjamin’s Jewish Studies Class Performs The Dybbuk
THE DYBBUK Program Notes
Do the dead go at night to pray in synagogues? Do the dead, like the living, hear everything that people say to them when they come to their graves? Do dead people ever come back to ask for something to be put right that had been left undone, or to correct a sin in a past life? Do you know any stories in which the soul of a dead person that cannot find rest becomes a malevolent spirit and attaches itself to a living person?
Ghosts and evil spirits might not be common Jewish beliefs today. But just one hundred years ago, these ideas were widespread among the Jews who lived in small towns in modern-day Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. The writer S. Ansky traveled around these villages as the leader of the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in 1912-1914. He asked questions like these, and others, including: “What beliefs are there about a person’s soul before it enters the body?” “Is it a custom to go invite deceased relatives to the wedding?” “Do you know any stories in which two dead people bring a legal dispute to a rabbi?”
Ansky himself had been trained in a traditional religious home, and studied Talmud in school, before leaving his family and becoming a secular writer and ethnographer. But he did believe that these, and other Jewish folkloric ideas, were beautiful and powerful. Ansky described them as on par with the Torah and the ideas of the Sages. This new Oral Torah, Ansky wrote, was written by “the people, especially the common folk”:
This Oral Torah, which consists of folk tales and legends, parables and aphorisms, songs and melodies, traditions, habits, beliefs and so on, is also an enormously significant product of the same Jewish spirit that created the Written Torah. It reflects the same beauty and purity of the Jewish soul, the gentleness and nobility of the Jewish heart, the height and depth of Jewish thought.
Ansky compares Jewish folk beliefs to the Mishnah and Talmud, which is traditionally referred to as the “Oral Torah.” Just as the rabbis had recreated Judaism with new laws to adapt to the destruction of the Temple, later Jews had created folktales, songs, and traditions to maintain the Jewish people in their own times.
Ansky wanted to preserve these creative works of tradition for the future of the Jewish people. At the turn of the 20th century, traditional Jewish life in Europe was changing dramatically. Some people were moving to cities, attending secular schools, and giving up religious ways of life. Many emigrated to the United States, fleeing anti-semitic violence. With traditional ways of life changing, Ansky feared that the folk tales and traditions of the Jewish people would be lost. He hoped that preserving them would inspire artists to create future creative works. And he himself wrote The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds, whose stories are taken from his ethnographic expedition.
Ansky died 1920 without seeing The Dybbuk performed. The leading Yiddish theater group The Vilna Troupe produced the play just a month after he died, as did the Hebrew theater company Habima, then based at the Moscow Art Theater. The play has since been performed countless times and adapted into film, ballet, opera, and radio formats.
by Dr. Daniel Benjamin