(Left to right) Noach Nachbush, Miriam Orleska, and Alexander Stein in a Vilner Trupe production of Der dibek (The Dybbuk), Poland, 1920s. (YIVO)

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Dybbuk, The

(Yid., Der dibek; Heb., Ha-Dibuk), dramatic work by the writer, ethnographer, and revolutionary S. An-ski (Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport) that became the most celebrated play in the history of both Yiddish and Hebrew theater. The Dybbuk was based on material An-ski collected on an ethnographic expedition he had organized through Jewish towns of western Russia just before World War I; he had originally written the play in Russian, then translated it into Yiddish. In fact, An-ski lost his Yiddish manuscript of Der dibuk when he fled Bolshevik Russia; he reconstructed it on the basis of Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik’s Hebrew translation, published in Ha-Tekufah (vol. 1) in 1918.

During six years of war and revolution, An-ski tried unsuccessfully to have the play staged. But only his sudden death brought his efforts to fruition. Amid thousands of mourners at An-ski’s open grave at the Warsaw Jewish cemetery, the director of the recently organized Vilner Trupe, Mordechai Mazo, vowed to open An-ski’s play at the end of the traditional 30-day period of mourning. When, on 9 December 1920, An-ski’s play premiered in Warsaw (under director Dovid Herman; with Miriam Orleska as Leah, Alyosha Shtayn as Khonen, and Avrom Morevski as the Miropolyer Tsadik), the idea of its popular success was not just unlikely, but beside the point.

Members of Habimah in a scene from Ha-Dibuk (The Dybbuk) by S. An-ski, Moscow, 1922. From Habimah by R. Ben-Ari (Chicago: L. M. Shtayn, 1937). (YIVO)
Der dibek: Tsvishn tsvey veltn (The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds) proved a stunning success, however, among both audiences and critics alike. It blazed an extraordinary career: from the Warsaw stage to all the cities and towns of interwar Poland, then into the repertoires of Yiddish companies, professional and amateur, throughout the world, and very quickly beyond the Yiddish stage. Crucial to this development was the Hebrew production by Habimah, which opened in Moscow in 1922 (using Bialik’s translation; directed by Evgenii Vakhtangov; and starring Hanna Rovina as Leah) and beginning four years later accompanied the troupe all over the world. Staged for audiences that could rarely understand Hebrew, Habimah’s Ha-Dibuk reached beyond language to a powerful and universally accessible theatricality shaped by gesture, sound, and spectacle. Subsequently produced in Polish, Ukrainian, German, English, French, Danish, Swedish, Bulgarian, and Russian, and becoming the subject of several movies (including a 1937 Yiddish version filmed in Poland, directed by Michał Waszyński, with Lili Liliana as Leah, Leon Liebgold as Khonen, and Avrom Morevski as the Miropolyer Tsadik), an opera, and a ballet, The Dybbuk became the accredited emissary of Jewish theater art to the world at large.

The play, set in a small East European town presumably in the nineteenth century, tells the story of Khonen, a poor yeshiva student, and Leah, the rich man’s daughter, who fall in love. But Leah’s father scorns Khonen’s proposal and prepares to have her married into a still wealthier family. Amid unsavory kabbalistic manipulations designed to win the hand of his beloved, Khonen falls dead. But then, just before the wedding, his spirit enters Leah in the form of a dybbuk (from a root meaning “to cling, to adhere”) and refuses to leave. Before the miracle-working tsadik of Miropol, the reason for the dybbuk’s obstinacy is revealed: a solemn vow made between Leah and Khonen’s fathers before their children’s births. The fathers had obligated themselves, should one have a son and the other a daughter, to wed them to each other. But Khonen’s father had died, Leah’s had forgotten the vow, and now the spirit of Khonen’s father demanded justice, while his son’s dybbuk possessed Leah. Summoned to a rabbinical court, the father’s spirit is told that it must content itself with a compromise. To no avail: the ghost of Khonen’s father rejects the compromise. Lighting black candles and blowing a shofar, the rebbe then excommunicates the dybbuk and drives it from Leah’s body. Again to no avail: the son’s spirit, banished from his beloved’s body, returns and claims her soul. “It is only through your thoughts that I can remember who I am,” Khonen’s spirit declares to Leah (An-ski, 1992, p. 48). Normative Judaism, both legalistic and charismatic, fails to separate these lovers. What triumphs in this play, along with the lovers, is the world of folk belief, that primal universe “between two worlds,” in which good and evil, living and dead, are intimate, and awesome mystery inheres in the everyday. In Dovid Herman’s production, the voices of the living and the dead mingled in the Song of Songs as the curtain slowly fell over Leah’s body.

Lili Liliana in Der dibek (The Dybbuk), directed by Michał Waszyński, Poland, 1937. (YIVO)

The play, in its Yiddish and even more in its Hebrew version, broke definitively with naturalistic theatrical tradition to create an expressionist pageant, a mystery play (misterye, misterium), as it was commonly called, woven of folklore and Hasidic legend. For Yiddish theater, the play was the longed-for masterpiece that proved that this theater, born out of purim-shpils and operettas, could attain to the realm of high art. The aspirations of the new Yiddish culture were thereby validated: a work of modern secular art could take its place in the millennial “golden chain” of Jewish creativity. For Hebrew theater, the play was, if anything, even more important; for decades Habimah and Ha-Dibuk were virtually indistinguishable. Indeed, both Yiddish dramatic theater and Hebrew theater found it difficult to move on from The Dybbuk and play anything else; some critics began to see the play as a curse. Others denounced it for its supposed glorification of superstition that “lulled its audience in dreams, transported it to far-off worlds, allowed it to forget the here and now,” and thereby threatened to “weaken its energies” in the struggle for its rights (Weichert, 1961, p. 68). In Poland, the play attracted an intellectual Polish audience as well and was seen by some Jewish writers as a route to Polish–Jewish understanding. Others denounced what they claimed was toadying to the gentiles through a display of Jewish exotica.

Since the fall of communism, The Dybbuk has been staged in a great number of Polish productions. The play has become emblematic of the Polish quest to explore the meaning of the lost Jewish presence in Poland. A Russian version of The Dybbuk that An-ski presented to the censor in 1916 was recently discovered by Vladimir Ivanov and published in Moscow. A ballet based on The Dybbuk, entitled Lea, was recently staged in Moscow by Aleksei Ratmanskii, chief ballet master of the Bolshoi Theater, in two versions: at the Aleksei Fadeevich Dance Theater in collaboration with the Postmodern Theater, with Nina Ananiashvili as Lea, 2001; and at the Bolshoi Theater, with Nadezhda Gracheva as Lea, 2004.

Suggested Reading

S. An-ski, The Dybbuk and Other Writings, trans. Golda Werman, ed. David G. Roskies (New York, 1992); S. An-skii, “‘Mezh dvukh mirov’ (‘Dybuk’),” publication and glossary by Vladislav Ivanov, in Polveka evreiskogo teatra 1876–1926, ed. B. Entin, pp. 319–385 (Moscow, 2003); S. An-skii, “‘Mezh dvukh mirov’ (‘Dybuk’), tsenzurnyi variant,” publication, introduction, and glossary by Vladislav Ivanov, in Mnemozina. Dokumenty i fakty iz istorii russkogo teatra XX veka, ed. Vladislav Ivanov, pp. 2–63, 517–518 (Moscow, 2004); Vladislav Ivanov, “Iz istorii formirovaniia teksta,” in Polveka evreiskogo teatra 1876–1926, ed. B. Entin, pp. 527–542 (Moscow, 2003); Gabriella Safran and Steven Zipperstein, eds., The Worlds of S. An-sky: A Russian Jewish Intellectual at the Turn of the Century (Stanford, Calif., 2006); Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, “O czymś, co zginęło i szuka imienia,” in Rzeczy mgliste: Eseje i studia, pp. 210–215 (Sejny, Pol., 2004); Michał Weichert, Zikhroynes, vol. 2 (Tel Aviv, 1961).