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 me.

"Well don't 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."

"About twelve," I said.

"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 ..."

"I've already had tea."

"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."

"Now you're 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 scene,

"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.


notes * 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.

Translation of Rivesman's diary from Mikhail Beizer, The Jews of St. Petersburg Michael Sherbourne trans. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), pp. 92-122.

ANSKY Introduction



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