Ansky's career lays
bare the dialectical movement of modernism and return in Jewish life.
Because Ansky's debt to Russian culture was so great and because Russian
Populism provided so clear a blueprint for rediscovering the folk, we
can see how the selective retrieval of the Jewish past could never have
come about without his prior immersion in culture at large
Instead of a bifurcated
life, half of which was lived in error, the other half in a state of grace,
Ansky's career was a four-act drama. First came the break with Jews and
Judaism, accompanied by the total embrace of Russian radical culture.
Then came a series of jolts political, cultural,
and if the tale of conversion has any validity at all, spiritual
that awakened in him a longing for what he had left behind. Seeking a
renewed affiliation, Ansky did public penance and turned his attention
to the study of Jewish folklore.
Thus far, the standard
homiletical reading of his life as a typical tale of rebellion-loss-and
penitent return. But the very culture that seduced him away provided him
with the rationale for and the means of retrieval. It was as a Russian
Populist that Ansky took the critical next step toward a creative, dynamic
appropriation of the east European Jewish past. He did not renounce modernism
or his radical faith in order to become a good Jew; he acted upon that
faith and reinvented Jewish culture accordingly. He turned the disparate
remains of Jewish folklore and folk life into an all-embracing Oral Torah.
His return, in all
its complexity, was the paradigm for the Jewish cultural renaissance as
a whole. The hero of the modern age was a born-again Jew in a Judaism
of his own remaking.
Roskies, David G., "S. Ansky and the Paradigm of Return,"
in The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era,
ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of
America, 1992), p. 260.