S. Ansky: Prophet of Modernism

By Brian Horowitz


He was a poor politician, a middling writer, and as an ethnographer he was only moderately successful. So how did Shimon Ansky become one of the darlings of American Jewish intellectuals?

A recent volume by Stanford University Press, The Worlds of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century, succeeds at answering that question, while also fleshing out—in details and in broad strokes—S. Ansky’s life. And what a life it was! Ansky was the first to channel the powerful energy of the Jewish tradition for modern ends. His big idea was to secularize Judaism, to give every due to the ancient texts, rituals, and religion…and then supplant them with a new spirit based on modern ethnography, folk culture, and the experience of the Jewish people. But Ansky was not just a pioneer. He also correctly predicted the future of modern Jewry and the role of culture in the creation of modern Jewish identity.

But who could have predicted that Ansky would become a prophet of modernism?

Certainly, there were signs. Born in Vitebsk (today’s Belorus), Ansky—nee´ Shlyme-Zanvl Rappoport) became a “maskil,” an opponent of the Orthodox elite. As a teenager, he established a halfway house for freethinkers and rebels—until Jewish city leaders evicted him. Ansky then took up tutoring; besides teaching Russian grammar and math, he inculcated contempt for “the religious straight and narrow.” In 1892, Ansky left Russia—as a Jew he could not get a residence permit in St. Petersburg—for Western Europe. He settled in France, where he described his poverty and also his attraction to folklore—in this case, French folk culture.

It was a case of perfect timing. The European zeitgeist was especially alluring to a culturist like Ansky, and it was in Paris that Ansky indulged his love for Jewish culture. It helped that Jewish folk culture, especially in Eastern Europe, was ubiquitous: it defined the order of daily life, governed the Jewish home, and gave meaning to the experiences that composed Jewish life. Ansky’s early years in France seemed to set the course for his life: In 1912, Ansky organized the first of several expeditions to the Pale of Settlement to collect Jewish folklore, artifacts, art, and music. In 1917, he helped open a Jewish museum in St. Petersburg, exhibiting publicly his collection of Judaica.

By then, Ansky had developed not only a sensibility, as this volume makes clear, but also a politics, one that mixed Jewish nationalism and socialism. Ideologically he was committed to secularism, and while he paid tribute to religious Jewish culture, he conceived of Jewish texts as literary artifacts bereft of any religious or ritualistic dimension. Ansky saw the Torah and Talmud as examples of Jewish folk culture, rooted in their own time. Ansky esteemed—before anyone else—the cultural achievements of Hasidism, but he approached their culture as an ethnographer, not as a believer.

That was visionary enough, but, as we learn, it was only one facet of Ansky. There was also, let’s not forget, Ansky the would-be politician (a major figure in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Ansky made plans for an agrarian revolution to overthrow the tsarist government; a friend of the Jewish Bund, he also wrote the words of its hymn, “Der Shvuye”) and Ansky the writer, who lived a spare, even ascetic writer’s existence, sleeping on friends’ couches and sometimes even on the ground.

Though certainly precocious as a writer, Ansky was not immediately successful. After all, writing is one thing; getting published is another, and achieving renown as a writer, a third. Ansky began his literary career after absorbing Leo Tolstoy and Russian Populism. Initially, he found it difficult to publish his works. He did, however, make an important connection with Gleb Uspensky, the populist writer, who helped Ansky snare bylines in Russkoe bogatstvo (one of Russian most important journals at the time). Ansky’s unsentimental education continued in Paris, where he became the assistant to Petr Lavrov, the leading thinker among the radicals. Eventually, he became an editor and contributor to such Jewish journals as Perezhitoe and Evreiskii Mir.

But it wasn’t until 1905, upon his return to Russia, that Ansky became known as a fiction writer. And it wasn’t until 1916 that the work for which he’s best known—The Dybbuk—found a home with the Moscow Art Theater and The Habima group.

* * *

All of this is covered by the contributing scholars, who hail from the U.S., Israel, and Russia. Although little new is uncovered about Ansky’s life, the volume features a battle over his legacy. Several alternatives to Roskies’ “master narrative,” according to which Ansky represents the “paradigm of return” (i.e., modern Jews leave, but ultimately return to the Jewish people), are offered, all of which connect Ansky more closely with the European avant-garde and Russian intellectual life. From this perspective, Ansky’s return was not to the Judaism of his youth, but to an identity that he himself invented, and which reflected the experiences of one exposed to Western and Russian modernist culture.

What’s absolutely clear is that Ansky hoped to renew Jewish life by radically redefining how to understand it. He presented salvation through ethnography. For Ansky, Jewish ethnography served as an ersatz religion. The rabbi of the future would be was the ethnographer, the musicologist, the literary scholar.

No wonder, then, that American Jewish academics esteem Ansky so highly. He crowned them as modern prophets. Here, in this valuable if flawed volume, they return the favor, giving Ansky his proper due as a prophet of modernism.

Brian Horowitz is the Sizeler Family Chair of Jewish Studies at Tulane University. His books include Jewish Philanthropy and Enlightenment in Late-Tsarist Russia (University of Washington Press, 2009) and Empire Jews: Jewish Nationalism and Acculturation in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Russia (Slavica, 2009). In addition to his studies of Jewish History, he is a trained Slavist and has written on Russian intellectual history and the work of the poet Alexander Pushkin. 

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