S. An-sky created a survey—never completed—on shtetl life in the 1910s. Its 2,087 questions offer a fascinating window on the Pale of Settlement.
Is there a custom to place a cat, pieces of cake, or something else in the crib before one lays the child in it? Is biting off the protuberance at the end of an etrog considered a protection for a pregnant woman? If two zaddikim quarreled in this world, do they make peace in the next world?
These are questions from the Jewish Ethnographic Program, a vast questionnaire developed by ethnographer S. An-sky between 1912 and 1914 for dissemination throughout the Pale of Settlement, the part of Eastern Europe that was then home to 40 percent of the world’s Jews. An-sky, best known as the playwright of The Dybbuk, hoped the questionnaire would record waning folk beliefs and practices that he believed were at the core of Jewish life. But World War I interfered, and his ethnographic expedition was called off. An-sky died in 1920, and Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement would soon disappear forever.
Now the entire questionnaire, originally written in Yiddish, has been made available in English, in The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement. Nathaniel Deutsch, a professor of literature and history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, consulted with Yiddishists, former shtetl inhabitants, and Brooklyn-based Hasidim to produce this translation. Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry spoke to Deutsch, who argues that the questionnaire, while clearly a failed endeavor, nevertheless reveals many details about shtetl life that would otherwise be lost. [Running time: 27:42.]
My father loved my grandmother’s poppy-seed cookies, or mohn kichlach, but she never made them for me. Could I duplicate her recipe?
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180
WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.
I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at email@example.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.