S-Ansky

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Its position as the great Jewish theater piece remains unassailable; its debut performance of the Dybukk a memorial to its creator who had died several weeks earlier. Ansky had conceived and organized the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition of 1912-1914. The Great War aborted that effort.. The indefatigable Ansky then organized an extensive War Relief project for the Jews of Galicia and the Pale of Russia and wrote a book about The Destruction of Galicia, which is a masterwork. At the onset of World War I the Russians had occupied Galicia which is the name for Austro-Hungarian Poland and had reigned terror on the small Jewish towns. Before the shelling had even started the Russians and particularly the Cossacks killed and destroyed what Jewish settlements they passed through. These settlements were poor and vulnerable and the misery inflicted once again in the Russian retreat elevated the casualties and left them with nothing.

Into this carnage and misery Ansky entered with eyes and ears acutely open and his heart breaking.

The terrible pogroms of 1903 and 1905 in Russia had instigated the Great Ethnographic Expedition. Ansky had anticipated thae oblivion that loomed over the authentic shtetl Jewishness Ansky fled from the Yeshiva before he turned fifteen.. He had then organized a commune for other yeshiva refugees on the outskirts of his town, Vitebsk.which is Marc Chagall’s hometown as well. Ansky worked various jobs. He left Vitebsk.. His name still Shloyme-vanyl, he eked out a meager subsistence tutoring young Jews in various Pale of Settlement towns.He had been a Yeshiva wunder-kind. Leaving the Pale Ansky worked as a miner where the miner’s changed his name to Semyon Akimovich, a Russified version of his birth name

My grandfather too, David Leventhal , abandoned his Yeshiva studies at fifteen, entered the world of Revolutionary politics and exiled himself from his family, birthplace and relation with Judaism. His scope was much smaller than Ansky’s, the impulse the same. For my grandfather the words of the Bundist Hymn were an ethos, as written by Ansky,-and like Ansky his life had been sacrificed on the plane of revolutionary politics. The Bolshevik Coup took everything away from him and left him a hollow man ranting about “racketeers” and “comes the revolution” at the dinner table where he barely ate anything and endured my own father’s alkaline criticisms.

Ansky had what looks like an ambivalence to traditional Jewish life up until the pogroms of 1903 and 1905. The poem Oath to the Bund starts by saying “ Messiah and Judaism-both have died, another comes-the Jewish worker….but by 1910 he said to his friends at a dinner in his honor in St. Petersburg in all transparency that his life had been fractured and broken by his neglect of his own people. His own people needed every ounce of help and support it could get.

If his encounter with the writing of I.L Peretz in 1901 had begun his shift toward the Yiddish culture he had previously ignored his salvation came during the Great Ethnographic Expedition he had conceived and implemented in 1912.

“Do you believe that when the last shovel hits the earth , the dead man forgets everything?”

“Have you ever heard any stories of a dead corpse that left unattended disappeared?”

unnamedAnsky died broken in health, his life’s work seemingly unnamed 2

disappeared by Bolshevik authority he himself smuggled out of Russia in a priests habit to Vilna. His play “The Dybbuk” was inaugurated by a performance three weeks after he died of complications from pneumonia.

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Joseph Roth 2

He spent his last four days of life in this world suffocating from pneumonia and stalked by delirium tremens. Among the throng of mourners at the grave-site eight came forward and carefully pushed the presiding Catholic priest aside and then intoned the Kaddish, each taking their turn to spill a shovel-full of dirt on the coffin lowered into the ground.

Das bin ich wirklich; böse, besoffen, aber gescheit

“May his great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen) in the world He created as He willed, (Amen)

Joseph Roth suffered in his life from complications knotted by profound distress and self abuse, by existential realization and cosmic irony, More than anything he knew that some unknown unknowable fault shadowed our lives., and that shadow had grown immense, more viscous and poisonous.than could be imagined and yet in plain sight. We would not see the end of it as it was the End itself.

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Joseph Roth came from Brody in eastern Galicia and during his youth he spent a lot of his time denying this and his orthodox Jewish family. He spoke Yiddish fluently and wrote in an elegant and literary German. He was happiest in the cosmopolitan mileu of Paris.and miserable even there. He was most of all conscious and made ragged by the events unfolding around him and wrote about them with power induced by urgency.

My Father’s Violin 1

When my father was in his forties he precipitously took up playing the piano. His posture at the keyboard, elegant and authoritative, immediately announced a virtuosity that disappeared in the first few notes of Fur Elise, notes that drove a stake into the heart of Beethoven’ intentions, so that we all felt injured, damaged by the constantly atrocious sounds emanating from the belly of the infected piano.

I had been offered the opportunity of taking lessons on this same instrument and abjured. Could I have done better? I doubt it. It was not the first musical instrument my father attempted. A violin lay unattended in a closet for many years. A violin.

My mother’s older brother Charlie Binder had played violin for us for many years. He played with infectious verve and panache delighting us with his virtuosity and inventive progression from classical to popular tunes, forward and back. On Saturday in summer nights outside our “dacha” a little bungalow in the wilds of the Pocono hills of Pennsylvania Dutch country, Charlie played his violin with a country square dance band and between sets played pieces of Yiddish music; Romanian horas , and songs with names like Beigelach, and Oifin Pripitchik. He taught the bass player and the clarinetist these and other tunes. Charlie played with an authority that might have led to virtuosity, or at least first chair orchestra. He gave up aspirations to devote himself to his family.

After my father and mother were reunited in the winter of 1945 the air of love and devotion between them was tempered only by the economic fragility of returning to the beginning of his career as a textile designer and so part of the apartment filled up with his mammoth drawing table and tabourettes and a particularly cumbersome eight drawer flat file. So a brief campaign of sorting out non-essential things ensued and in the course of salvage and discard a violin case appeared.

With great feminine delicacy my mother carried it down from the closet shelf to the dining table and there my sister and I assembled awaiting disclosure of its contents. Looking back over seven decades I recall my father’s reticence to open the clasps. When he did so a curious smile passed over his face. It vanished in a moment and as we watched, the violin just simply settled into itself in a bed of dust as a wayfarer on a cheap but comfortable mattress might after a long day’s travel. The upper part of the body intact: the scroll, the bridge, the top plate, the pegs and the tail piece, even the strings. But the under part and sides had gone down in the feathery dust of decay. Since when, G-d only knows.   What we most probably had witnessed was the final collapse: the sound peg holding the upper plate in place over the bottom, jarred just enough to shake loose and the declension emitting a little final sigh.

What differentiates a violin and a fiddle. A wit in the family said a violin has a case and the fiddle has it not. Basically, no difference except for the type of music played.

I do not know the provenance of this instrument; neither where it was made nor whose hands made it. Did my grandfather or grandmother purchase it and how much did it cost. Like the earliest history of the violin itself, its origins are obscure but attached to Jewish history.