word dybbuk comes from the Hebrew verb ledavek, "to
cling." While the concept of an "evil spirit" is
common in Second Temple, talmudic and kabbalistic literature, the
term dybbuk only came into use during the 1700s.
The following selections comes to us from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research of E. European Jewry
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
actress Paula Varter in a scene from The Dybbuk performed
by the Vilna Jewish Theatre Group, 1920
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.
was composed over the period 1912-1919, and its evolution outlived the
author himself. Ansky wrote the play in Yiddish (originally called Tsvishn
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)
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.
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
Productions in German,
English, Polish, Ukrainian, Swedish, Bulgarian, and French followed. The
Italian composer L. Rocca based an opera on the play, musical versions
by Renato Simoni and David Temkin appeared in New York, and movie versions
in Poland in 1938 and Israel in 1968.
for The Dybbuk program at the Habima Theatre Studio, Moscow,
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."
Werses.S. An-ski's "Between Two Worlds' (The Dybbuk):
A Textual History." in Studies in Yiddish Literature and
Folklore. Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1986.
from the memoirs of one Mark Rivesman
expressing his strong reaction to Ansky's reading of portions from
excerpt from The Dybbuk (a discourse by Reb Azrielke):
Day is a Day of Atonement.