We are fortunate
to have the memoirs of one Mark Rivesman, who met Ansky face-to-face
on several occasions. Here Rivesman provides a remarkable description
of the writer and his bohemian existence in St. Petersburg. The
meeting took place in the Jewish almhouse at 50 Fifth Liniya (that
housed several Jewish cultural preservation organizations as well)
where itinerant Jewish bohemians such as Ansky
who were usually visiting the capital illegally
could spend the night safe from the Russian authorities.
We include as
well the selection expressing Rivesman's strong reaction to Ansky's
reading of portions from The Dybbuk.
Ansky was once
in St. Petersburg without a permit, either as a "political" or
as a "deprivee," and had nowhere to spend the night. In fact
he was living illegally in the capital, going from place to place to sleep.
The last time I met him was in the morning in a little room on Vassilevsky
Ostrov at the almshouse, and in the evening in the Zoo. When I saw him
in the morning he was lying on something or other that did not even remotely
resemble a bed. It would take the pen of a Gogol to describe the "furnishings"
of that room. I will merely say that every single thing there seemed to
be in the wrong place. Only a real "Bohemian" could live that
way. He stood up, sat down on the "bed," rubbed his eyes and
when he recognized me he said:
"It's a good
job a thief didn't break in...," and he burst out laughing at his
own joke with such gleeful laughter that for a moment he even infected
put the evil eye on me. You see I was beginning to yawn.... What's
the time? Someone stole my watch a couple of days ago."
"Not bad! I
promised to meet Dubnow* at eleven, and at twelve... I'd better not tell
you that. You must have been hoping to have a glass of tea with me ..."
"You're a lucky
chap. Now look. Will you fetch me that writing pad off that shelf. Thanks.
Sit down and listen. Only when I've read it to you don't start being critical."
And he started to
read the first scenes from his mystic play The Dybbuk. He read
splendidly and I listened with bated breath. When he finished reading
Act One he asked me:
"What do you
think? Is it a well-formed baby? No rickets, no other infantile ailments?"
"My dear S.A.
do read on."
"Ah, it's got
you has it... I'd like something to eat."
"I'll slip out
and get some rolls and a few things."
talking sense. Run like the wind."
I ran, spurred on
by the prospect of hearing from the very lips of the gifted author the
second act of his marvelous dramatic poem. Ansky was very pleased with
his breakfast and carried on reading but not forgetting the rolls, butter,
and cheese. The more he read, the more interesting it became. At last
he stopped and said:
"Up to now we've
been reading on Shabbat Hagadol and I've not written any more. I hope
I'll finish the play before my own glorious demise."
Ansky performed readings
both in Yiddish and Russian in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and later in Vilna.
There were varied, ambivalent and frequently critical reactions. Some
audiences were left absolutely cold and unenthusiastic. Others were ecstatic
and deeply moved.
During one particular
reading in Moscow during 1916/1917, the audience was completely captivated.
The reading took place at the home of Hillel Zlatopolski, a philanthropist
and Zionist activist. A member of the 22-person audience describes the
"They sat there
entranced, not realizing how time was passing. An-ski gave each character
the proper accent. I remember well how he emphasized the voice of the
'batlon' [idle person], trying to make it real to his listeners.
He also tried to imitate the voices of the beggar women."
It was after this
reading that the host decided to buy the manuscript and persuade the great
poet H.N. Bialik translate it into Hebrew.
Well-known Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, active in the St. Petersburg
community's Jewish cultural preservation efforts, and in the creation
of the Historical-Ethnographic society for which Ansky led his expedition.
of Rivesman's diary from Mikhail Beizer, The Jews of St. Petersburg
Michael Sherbourne trans. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication
Society, 1989), pp. 92-122.