Scene from act 3 in the Habima Theatre production of The Dybbuk in Moscow, 1922.
As head of the Jewish ethnographic expedition through the villages of Volhynia and Podolia from 1911 to 1914, Ansky came across the routine practice of exorcising dybbuks among the Hasidim with whom he came into contact. A dybbuk is a restless soul or evil spirit that “impregnates” a living person, usually for a limited period of time, causing mental illness and creating a separate personality for itself, and talking through that person’s mouth. This practice and other folkloristic material inspired his famous play The Dybbuk.
Set in Eastern Europe in the end of the 19th century, Ansky’s story revolves around a pair of ill-fated lovers — Khonnon, a penniless but devout student of Jewish mysticism, and Leah, the young woman he adores and is destined to marry. When Leah’s greedy father breaks the marriage contract to marry off Leah to a richer man, Khonnon dies instantly; his soul, however, lives on as a dybbuk, entering Leah’s body so to gain possession of her love for all eternity. After various nefarious deeds are revealed, the rabbi, aided by other rabbinical judges, finally succeeds in exorcising the dybbuk, using incantations and rituals, followed by blasts of the shofar. Leah, meanwhile, must confront the choice between marriage to a man for whom she feels nothing or an unworldly union with her dead lover’s spirit.
The Dybbuk was composed over the period 1912-1919, and its evolution outlived the author himself. Ansky wrote the play in Yiddish (originally calledTsvishn Tsvey Veltn) and translated it into Russian, continually making changes in characters, motifs, and text. Once the play was completed, Ansky performed readings and continued to make changes based upon his audiences’ reaction. The first production of the Yiddish play was by the Vilna troupe (1920).
The Dybbuk was further transformed by the great Hebrew poet H. N. Bialik, who completed a Hebrew translation. Bialik combined the significantly different Yiddish and Russian versions, and incorporated echoes and idiomatic expressions from his own poetry. Many credited Bialik with significantly improving the play. Even after 1919, the directors who staged the first productions of the play had their way with its scenes, dialogue, structure. Bialik’s Hebrew translation, which first appeared in Ha-Tekufah, vol. 1 (1918), was performed by the Habimah company in Moscow, Tel Aviv, and New York.
After Ansky lost the Yiddish original on his way from Russia to Vilna, he translated the play back to Yiddish from Bialik’s Hebrew version adding his own changes. This latter version was the one performed by the Vilna Theater group.
Along with confusions about the play’s genre — was it realistic or fantasy? — The Dybbuk was most frequently criticized for containing too many different folkloric elements. Bialik wrote: “I have the impression that as a collector of folklore, you went around to all the rubbish heaps. There you collected fragments of folklore and pieced them together like a tailor who takes bits of clothing and rags, and makes of them a patchwork quilt.”
Another critic, Z. Voyslavski after seeing the Habimah production of The Dybbuk in Berlin in 1927 wrote, “Take a Hassidic tune, the cry of a Jewess giving birth, a Jewish cemetery with crooked tombstones, an old shofar unfit for use, the curtain of an old ark embroidered in gold, a goblet for havdalah. Mix them with a little popular Hassidism and Kabbalah — and you have a nice batter for cooking.”
Although there were some who praised the play as true to the Hasidic home of its folklore, Ansky was called a dilettante, his work an “ethnographic museum.”