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.



From: 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.

ANSKY Introduction



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