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Survey Says

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.

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Question No. 333, “Do people smear the alefbeys tablet with honey so that the child will lick it?”(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)

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.] 

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Is the Yiddish version of the questionnaire available somewhere for the general public?

Dos yidishe etnografishe program (1915):
seems to be at Columbia.

Volume 15 of An-sky’s “Gezamlte shriftn”, which includes ethnography, does not seem to be at the NYBC.

However, this book about the expedition is oft-cited:

Der Alter says:

Sounds like a wonderful idea to continue with. For anyone interested in assisting, please send your Jewish/Yiddish folklore to DERALTERHAIM2GMAIL.COM.
This will be undertaken as a new project, at not cost to the contributor.
A Sheinem Dank.

Der Alter

I’d title your site the actual dreamland! While Santa claus scrapes from our doorway just once each year, you weblog is open up the whole year C amazing!

Dr. Mark Pinson says:

Tovim hashnayim min ha ehad. (Koh.)
a] Please give me email address to your film selection committee. As a former professor of E. Eur.history I have some suggestions – films from E. Europe.
b] On E. Eur shtetl life you mentioned a packet of 2000+ questions used. Where can I go to download or print out this questionnaire?
A shaynem dank

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