Jewish Studies An-sky (Shloyme Zanvil Rapoport)
Brian Horowitz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0189


Semyon (Shimon) An-sky was a Jewish author, playwright, researcher of Jewish folklore, revolutionary, and political activist. He was also an aid worker during World War I. He was born Shloyme Zanvil Rapoport in Chasniki, Belarus (near Vitebsk) on 27 October 1863, and died on 8 November 8 1920 in Otwock, Poland. He was born into a relatively poor family; his father was notably absent, while his mother owned and ran a small inn. An-sky grew up in contact with the local peasantry, drinkers, and brawlers—the unfortunates of the Northwest Territories in the Russian Empire (now Belarus). Although he attended a religious primary school (heder), at an early age he rejected a life of traditional Jewish observance and the authority of rabbinic law. In Vitebsk, he became friendly with Chaim Zhitlowski, the future leader of the Jewish Autonomy movement, and the two studied revolutionary literature in Yiddish and Russian. At age sixteen, An-sky left his home to become a tutor of Russian among Jewish families; he used his position to convince his charges to leave the “straight and narrow” life of Judaism. By the age of eighteen he had organized a half-way house for runaways among young Jews. Soon after he left Belorussia and traveled to the coal mines in the Don Basin in Ukraine, where he began collecting folklore among the miners. It was there that he wrote his first works on the peasant reader and his first stories about Jewish life in the Northwest Territories. He soon moved to St. Petersburg and served on the editorial board of the popular journal Russkoe Bogatstvo. In 1892, out of fear of the police, he left Russia and moved ultimately to Paris, where he found employment as the secretary to the famed Russian populist Pyotr Lavrov. After Lavrov’s death in 1900, An-sky became a leader in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. He continued to write stories about Jewish life, including the novel Pioneers (1903–1905). He returned to Russia in January 1906 as a result of the Tsar’s amnesty. He began publishing widely on Jewish folklore. In 1912 he organized the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition; together with a group of specialists, he traveled through parts of the Pale of Settlement and collected artifacts, songs, and folktales. In 1915, billeted with Russian forces, he volunteered to bring money to Jewish communities affected by war, predominantly in Galicia (Ukraine), Podolia, and Bukovina. His work resulted in a memoir about the destruction of Jewish life during World War I. At the end of the war, An-sky became a devotee of Zionism and the ideas of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky. He returned to St. Petersburg after the February Revolution, and to his collection of materials, which constituted Russia’s first Jewish Ethnographic Museum. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly on behalf of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, but the Bolsheviks never permitted the Assembly to operate and put out an arrest warrant for An-sky, who escaped to Poland. Living in a sanatorium near Vilna, with his health deteriorating, An-sky organized a new Jewish ethnographic project, an institute that would become the original YIVO. In 1920 he was moved to another sanatorium outside of Warsaw, where he continued his studies of Jewish folklore until his death.

Historical and Cultural Criticism

An-sky was widely known as an important figure in several different camps. During his own lifetime he garnered fame among readers thanks to his Russian-language fiction, his folklore writings, and the Bund anthem, “Die shvue,” which he authored. He was also known for his revolutionary activities, his collaboration with Pyotr Lavrov, a revolutionary theorist in Paris, and with Socialist Revolutionaries as well as the Bund. After his death, An-sky’s fame rose rapidly thanks to his play The Dybbuk, which was supposed to appear in Konstantin Stanislavski’s famous Moscow Art Theater, but was postponed. It ultimately appeared in Hayim Nachman Bialik’s Hebrew translation at the Habima Theater. An-sky entered into the heart of the Yiddish literary pantheon as a colleague of Itzhak Peretz, but in fact he was a primarily a Russian-language author. Most of the scholarship on An-sky in recent years has appeared in English. Several scholars have influenced the image of An-sky that we hold today. David Roskies, a pioneer in An-sky scholarship, advanced the view that An-sky “returned to the Jewish people” after devoting himself to Russian politics (see Roskies 1992a and Roskies 1992b). Others, such as Gabriella Safran and Brian Horowitz, promote the multi-faced An-sky who united Russian and Jewish in a large synthesis (see Horowitz 2009, Safran 2005, and Safran 2010). In his own day, and in the first decades after his death, scholarship appeared in Yiddish and Hebrew. Russian- and Ukrainian-language scholarship by Irina Sergeeva in Kiev, Valery Dimshits in St. Petersburg, and Vladimir Lukin in Jerusalem portrayed An-sky for Russian speakers as a forerunner of present-day Jewish ethnography (See Sergeeva 2006, cited under An-sky: Archival Information; and Dimshits and Haimovich 1994 and Lukin 1995, both under An-sky’s Folklore). They also enlisted An-sky in contests over the image of Jews in Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, whether they lived in harmony or conflict with their neighbors. The collection of articles in He’Avar is typical of a generation of writers, historians, and activists who were inspired by An-sky in their youth and continue to reflect on his contributions. Polly Zavadivker is pursuing work on An-sky’s activities during World War I (Zavadivker 2016), while scholars of The Dybbuk, such as Seth Wolitz, are represented in the very rich collection of essays The Worlds of S. An-sky, edited by Gabriella Safran and Steven J. Zipperstein.

  • Horowitz, Brian. “Spiritual and Physical Strength in Ansky’s Literary Imagination.” In Empire Jews: Jewish Nationalism and Acculturation in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Russia. By Brian Horowitz, 36–50. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2009.

    This chapter treats the two sides of An-sky’s career—his role as a Russian revolutionary, and as a Jewish nationalist. The author discovers that rather than “returning” to the Jewish fold, An-sky attempted to synthesize the two roles. An-sky embodies what the author calls an “Empire Jew,” an intellectual/activist who defends the Jewish people but also participates as an equal in Russian politics and culture.

  • Jeshurin, Ephim H. S. Anski: Bibliography. Buenos Aires, 1964.

    This is a full bibliography of An-sky’s works.

  • He’Avar 11 (1964): 53–105.

    In Hebrew. This issue comprises a series of articles in Hebrew written to honor An-sky on the 100-year anniversary of his birth. There are six memoirs and analytical pieces devoted to An-sky’s life and works. Since this historical journal appeared in Hebrew in Israel, the editors provided a justification for the interest, arguing that An-sky had achieved in his ethnography and creativity an example of “classic” Jewish nationalism.

  • Roskies, David G. “Introduction.” In The Dybbuk and Other Writings. By Semyon An-sky, xi–xxxvi. New York: Schocken Books, 1992a.

    This is the classic introduction to An-sky’s life and works by a genuine expert. The emphasis is placed on An-sky’s contributions to Jewish culture. There are many rare facts and insights about An-sky, and the bibliography, while dated, is worth consulting.

  • Roskies, David G. “S. Ansky and the Paradigm of Return.” In The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era. Edited by Jack Wertheimer, 243–260. New York, 1992b.

    Roskies offers a general biography and discussion of An-sky’s contributions to Jewish culture. He advances his central idea that An-sky embodies a repeating paradigm in modern Jewish culture: the figure who abandons Judaism and then returns to Judaism or to serve the Jewish people.

  • Safran, Gabriella. “Zrelishche krovoprolitiia: S. An-skii na granitsakh.” In Mirovoi krizis 1914–1920 godov i sud’ba vostochnoevropeiskogo evreistva. Edited by Oleg Budnitsky, 302–317. Moscow: Rosspen, 2005.

    This is an essay devoted to the study of whether An-sky supported or disdained terror violence. The subject is important because the author tries to situate An-sky in the debates within the Socialist Revolutionary Party.

  • Safran, Gabriella. Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-sky. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

    This is so far the only existing monograph on An-sky’s life. The author, a professor at Stanford, has tracked down a lot of information about An-sky’s life in exile, especially during the key years in Paris in the 1890s. The book deals with An-sky’s suspected homosexuality and his innovations as an ethnographer, such as the use of wax cylinders to record songs, stories, and prayers.

  • Safran, Gabriella, and Steven J. Zipperstein, eds. The Worlds of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

    This is a very important collection of essays on diverse aspects of An-sky’s life, writings, and ethnography. The scholars represented bring a wealth of information, based on both published and archival material. There are articles about An-sky’s drama, The Dybbuk, his fiction, his politics, and Jewish life in Russia and beyond. The editors provide a biographical timeline that is very useful.

  • Shternfeld. Sh. Ansky in Lutsk, Sefer Lusk. Tel Aviv, 1961.

    This short book, in Russian, offers a bibliography of written texts about An-sky and a summary of his work as an ethnographer and the Jewish folklore expedition. Sefer Lutsk [The Book of Lutsk] is a memorial book for the town of Lutsk. Memorial books (in Yiddish, yizker bikher) constituted a uniquely Jewish tradition: they were written by Jews in Hebrew and Yiddish, usually by expatriates and their descendants, after the Holocaust. An-sky appears as the subject of entries in memorial books for other towns (for example, his visit to Khorostkov during World War I).

  • Tcherikower, Elias. “Peter Lavrov and the Jewish Socialist Émigrés.” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Studies 7 (1952): 132–146.

    This article includes a treatment of An-sky’s relationship with Lavrov and the Paris center of the Socialist Revolutionaries.

  • Zavadivker, Polly. “Introduction.” In 1915 Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Writer at the Eastern Front. By S. A. An-sky. Translated by Polly Zavadivker, 1–38. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.

    In her introduction, the author provides a general overview of An-sky’s life and work. She offers an insightful summary of Jewish aid in Russia generally, and of An-sky’s wartime experiences in particular. She describes how he got involved in aid work and the difficulties he encountered in these efforts.

  • Zipperstein, Steven J. “The Politics of Relief: The Transformation of Russian Jewish Communal Life during the First World War.” In Studies in Contemporary Jewry. Vol. 4, The Jews and the European Crisis, 1914–21. Edited by Jonathan Frankel, 22–40. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    This article is important because few have analyzed An-sky’s activities as an aid worker during World War I. The author compares An-sky’s efforts on the ground as a kind of representation of Jewish leadership with the image of the rich shtadlan who interacts primarily with Russian officials.

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