The Jewish Dark Continent: A Revival of Jewish Culture

By Shani Chabansky

If you’ve ever considered Jewishness a part of your identity, you’ve probably faced the question, “what is Jewish?” For centuries, this question simply was not asked. Jewishness took place in the domestic realm, transferred from parents to children through mimetic pedagogy. A mother would teach her daughters to bake challah and a father would teach his sons to read Torah. But in the modern era, the time spent in the home has become increasingly shortened, as the period between childhood and marriage has grown. So, as family becomes less and less central to the life cycle, where does Jewishness happen?

One place where Jewishness flourishes is in literature. Historically, the phrase “people of the book” refers to the Jewish relationship with religious texts. Yet words have also held a special place in less traditional forms of Jewish writing; recently the number of Jewish novels, magazines, and newspapers has skyrocketed. For instance, just before Passover, the Jewish media (and even The Colbert Report) gushed over The New American Haggadah, an artsy version of the user’s guide for the Passover seder. Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the much-loved Everything is Illuminated, and re-translated by Nathan Englander, this version of the Haggadah is laced with commentaries from the cherished authors Rebecca Goldstein, Jeffery Goldberg, Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snickett), and the co-director of UC Santa Cruz’s own Jewish Studies Program, Professor Nathaniel Deutsch.

It turns out that Deutsch is a major player in what seems to be a nation-wide project to revitalize Jewish culture through literature. In his recently published book, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Deutsch dusts off the pages of The Jewish Ethnographic Program, a survey of the rituals and traditions of the Pale of Settlement. Renowned historian Simon Dubnow called this territory of land, the only place the Russian Empire permitted Jews to live, a Jewish “Dark Continent,” inspiring the title of Deutsch’s book. The survey was part of a larger project called “The Jewish Ethnographic Expedition” and was led by An-sky, a Jewish-Russian revolutionary who was born in the Pale, but lived the majority of his life illegally in St. Petersburg. Afraid of Jewish culture being wiped out as a result of the dramatic rise in anti-Semitism and assimilation during the turn of the twentieth century, An-sky conducted his expedition in order to document the cultural patterns of the shtetls (Jewish villages) before they were destroyed. The Jewish Dark Continent is the impressive product of Deutsch’s eight-year multidisciplinary enterprise to offer the first English translation of An-sky’s survey from its original Yiddish version.

Partly as a result of heightened anti-Semitism, but also in response to the elite status of Jewish intellectualism, An-sky’s goal was to make Judaism accessible to all Jews, regardless of social status or class. In order to facilitate this process, he had to draw upon traditional Jewish scholarship and simultaneously push against it, redefining Torah so that it would include the folk culture of the shtetl. In the introduction of his survey, An-sky argues that songs, dances, rituals, jokes, and myths should form the basis of the Torah Sheba’al Peh (Oral Torah), and what was formerly part of the Torah Sheba’al Peh, the Talmud, Midrash, and Mishnah, should be placed into the category of the Torah Shebichtav (Written Torah), along with the Tanakh. This new Oral Torah would “…[reflect] the same beauty and purity of the Jewish soul, the tenderness and nobility of the Jewish heart, and the height and depth of Jewish thought.”[1] By elevating folk culture to the status of Torah, An-sky both broke from and continued religious Jewish scholarship. While he remained consistent with categorizing something as Torah in order to legitimize it in the eyes of rabbis and Jewish religious scholars, he also made a radical move by redefining Torah itself. In doing so, he brought Jewishness to the common Jew, so that no matter what his or her background—tailor or rabbi, matchmaker or rebbetzin—they too could, as Deutsch says, “become amateur ethnographers, or zamelers (literally, ‘collectors’).”[2]

The Jewish Dark Continent is a metaphorical resurrection of An-sky’s project. Deutsch’s annotations in the survey read like a conversation with An-sky. Just as An-sky hoped that his ethnographic work would inspire common Jews to become ethnographers of Jewish culture themselves, so too does Deutsch extend “… an invitation to those interested in doing their own research, whether by asking the questions of someone they know or by examining the many books, articles, and Internet resources that are available.”[3] As an atheist, An-sky’s project to revitalize Jewish culture was an attempt to divorce culture from religion, opening up culture to individuals who don’t identify as religious, but wish to remain connected to Jewishness. Using An-sky’s ethnographic study as a launching-pad, Deutsch calls upon today’s Jews to take a deep look at their cultural roots.

In many ways, the anxieties of today’s Jewish communities echo the anxieties felt by the Jewish communities in the Pale. Today, just as then, Jews face assimilation. Thus, the question what is Jewish becomes an especially heated debate. Ultimately, Judaism is based on practice, the activities that fill up the hours in a day. During the destruction of the Russian Empire, anti-Semitism directly threatened the Jewish community, so that the daily activities documented in An-sky’s survey became a danger to Jewish existence. An-sky’s project to revitalize Jewish culture was a way of legitimizing, and thereby safeguarding, the Jewish people. Similarly, now in the United States it is difficult to integrate Jewishness into a daily routine without turning to religion or Zionism; the amount of synagogues and Israel advocacy groups far outweigh the number of non-religious or non-Zionist Jewish organizations. Yet now more than ever, Jewish communities have the luxury of being able to practice Jewishness without risking persecution. The Jewish Dark Continent serves as a reminder that Jewishness has a rich and vibrant history, one that can serve as a basis for rethinking our current experiences. Unlike the Jews of the Pale, Jewish communities now have the opportunity to explore our cultural ancestry, to wrestle with its contemporary significance, and meditate on what makes us Jewish.

1. Nathaniel Deutch, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, (Cambrige: Harvard University Press, 2011), 103.

2. Deutch, Jewish Dark Continent, 35.

3. Deutch, Jewish Dark Continent, 101.

Published on page 49 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.

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