The man who would become S. An-sky—ethnographer, war correspondent, author of the best-known Yiddish play, The Dybbuk—was born Shloyme-Zanvl Rapoport in 1863, in Russia’s Pale of Settlement. His journey from the streets of Vitebsk to the center of modern Yiddish and Hebrew theater, by way of St. Petersburg, Paris, and war-torn Austria-Hungry, was both extraordinary and in some ways typical: Marc Chagall, another child of Vitebsk, would make a similar transit a generation later. Like Chagall, An-sky was loyal to multiple, conflicting Jewish, Russian, and European identities. And like Chagall, An-sky made his physical and cultural transience manifest as he drew on Jewish folk culture to create art that defied nationality.
Leaving Vitebsk at seventeen, An-sky forged a number of apparently contradictory paths. A witness to peasant poverty, pogroms, and war, he tried to rescue the vestiges of disappearing communities even while fighting for reform. A loner addicted to reinventing himself—at times a Russian laborer, a radical orator, a Jewish activist, an ethnographer of Hasidism, a wartime relief worker—An-sky saw himself as a savior of the people’s culture and its artifacts. What united the disparate strands of his life was his eagerness to speak to and for as many people as possible, regardless of their language or national origin.
In this first full-length biography in English, Gabriella Safran, using Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and French sources, recreates this neglected protean figure who, with his passions, struggles, and art, anticipated the complicated identities of the European Jews who would follow him.
What a life! Since An-sky himself came to realize that his life was his oeuvre, Gabrielle Safran has produced the book that An-sky himself had wanted to write, if only he could have settled down long enough to do so. This isn't just a book—it's An-sky's Dybbuk.
Wandering Soul brings back to life one of the most fascinating individuals to have emerged from the crucible of the Russian-Jewish encounter. In Gabriella Safran he has found his master interpreter.
Equal parts epic and tragedy, An-sky's life serves as a synecdoche for the experience of Russia's Jews on the eve of revolution. In this magisterial biography, Gabriella Safran illuminates and contextualizes An- sky's complex character, while remaining true to its profound ambiguities.
Wandering Soul is a masterful literary biography, undoubtedly the finest work we're likely to see on one of the most enigmatic, and culturally influential figures of late nineteenth-century Russian Jewry.
Author of the most famous Yiddish play, The Dybbuk, the radical activist Semyon Akimovich An-sky (1863-1920) was born Shloyme-Zanvl Rapoport into a poor Yiddish-speaking family in a Russian shtetl. But he mastered Russian as an adolescent and journeyed through Eastern and Western Europe during his successful, multifaceted career as a journalist, playwright, poet, fiction writer, ethnographer, and public speaker. Fluid in his identities and loyalties, An-sky never fit neatly into his society's categories, constantly reinventing himself as he shifted between his Russian and Jewish, traditional and radical, selves. His lifelong dedication to the Russian peasants often blinded him to their anti-Semitism, and his WWI diary reveals his sympathy for both the Russian soldiers he met as an aid worker and the Galician Jews they brutalized. His marriage to a much younger woman collapsed after she (fed up with a husband "who had more time for his cultural mission than for his wife") became pregnant by a lover. Although scholarly, this biography by Safran is lucid, accessible, authoritative, and nuanced and does justice to the restless, passionate artist and revolutionary.
Today, when "liminality" is a buzzword in literary studies, a figure like An-sky seems to hold a profound truth about the modern condition...He would also be gratified to know that, even after a century, he was still able to inspire such a rich and lucid biography.
Gabriella Safran's Wandering Soul, the first full-length English biography of An-sky, is an exhaustively researched and fascinating book that will challenge readers' preconceptions of what it once meant to be Jewish in Europe...[Safran is] an enchanting storyteller and painstakingly objective historian...[A] magisterial biography.
A marvelously detailed biography...Watching An-sky in context, we can start to understand what he was and what he meant.
[A] fascinating biography...[Safran's] book is designed to illuminate the larger life of a heroic Jew, whose restless and complicated journey has been eclipsed by a single, darkly brilliant play. Recent years have seen renewed interest in An-sky...This new book, deeply researched and authoritative, represents a high point in the An-sky revival. Safran's scholarly tour de force is a tonic for our own anxious age, a midrash on creative Jewish ambivalence.
In Wandering Soul, Gabriella Safran has written an erudite biography of the Yiddish radical, Russian revolutionary, writer, ethnographer, and playwright S. Ansky...He was a radical revolutionary who held on to the past, a modernist who longed for anonymity while assuming multiple identities; a romantic who dreamed of love and marriage while criticizing these institutions as bourgeois and decadent; a lover of men who could find no acceptable place within himself or in the world to express this love. Gabriella Safran has written an important book about the life of a courageous spirit.
- 392 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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