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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Conference on S. Ansky starts this weekend at Stanford

"Between Two Worlds: S. Ansky at the Turn of the Century, an International Conference" will bring together more than 20 specialists in various disciplines to discuss the work of S. Ansky, including his fiction, ethnology and famous play, The Dybbuk. The conference, scheduled for March 17-19, will feature talks, music, an exhibit and films.

Shloyme-Zanvel Rappaport, better known as S. Ansky, was a poet, ethnographer, playwright, social activist, emergency-relief worker, novelist, journalist and short-story writer.

"He was a man who combined an unusual range of interests, talents and passions," said Steven Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History.

Zipperstein and Gabriella Safran, an assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures, have organized the conference at a time of renewed interest in Ansky's work.

Most people connect Ansky's name to The Dybbuk, a play he finished late in his life and never saw performed. It's the story of a poor student of Jewish mysticism who dies after he is unable to marry the woman to whom he is secretly betrothed. He becomes a dybbuk, a wandering spirit that possesses a person and controls his or her behavior. In this case, he enters the living soul of his beloved, Leah. The play has been translated into many languages.

Jewish and Russian traditions and cultures influenced Ansky's work and life.

"He was someone who very much integrated a commitment to Russian populism and a commitment to Jewish culture," Zipperstein said.

Born in 1863 in Vitebsk, then part of the Russian Pale of Settlement (now part of Lithuania), Ansky embraced socialist ideology early in his teen-age years. After leaving his hometown, he tutored young Jews living in villages and shtetls -- Jewish communities in Eastern Europe -- and, when he was 24, began working as a miner in southern Russia.

Politically, Ansky was a Russian populist. He based his "Sketches on Folk Literature," which appeared as a serial in a populist journal, on his experiences with Russian workers.

The pogroms of 1903 and 1905 probably played a role in turning his attention more fully to his Jewish heritage, Safran said. Beginning in 1911, Ansky headed a massive ethnographic project.

"He and other Russian ethnographers visited hundreds of shtetls and recorded songs, collected recipes and folklore -- collected all kinds of material about attitudes toward love, toward marriage, toward life and death," Zipperstein said.

Most of this material was locked away following the Bolshevik Revolution, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s some of it was found at the Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg and the Vernadsky Library in Kiev.

"This is arguably the largest, most important body of materials on Jews in modern Eastern Europe," Zipperstein said. And it's possible even more material will turn up.

Organizers hope the conference will lead to the first full-length scholarly work on Ansky in any language.

For more information about the conference, which is free and open to the public, contact the Jewish Studies Program office at (650) 725-2789 or visit the conference website listed above.


By John Sanford

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