At the turn of the twentieth century, Russia’s Pale of Settlement was home to 40% of the world’s Jews—and so foreign to the rest of the country that Russian Jewish intellectuals called it “our own kind of dark continent.” How to capture this rich, mysterious land, its people and traditions? For peripatetic playwright and journalist S. An-sky, the answer was the 2,087-question Jewish Ethnographic Program, a survey now translated into English for the first time in The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement. While world war and revolution prevented the survey from ever being distributed, in Nathaniel Deutsch’s hands the unanswered questions (a selection of which can be found below) and the story behind their assembly disclose a riveting account of a lost world.
Beginning with a query about a person’s soul before it enters the body, and ending with the question “What kind of life will there be after the resurrection of the dead?,” An-sky’s survey covers all aspects of Jewish life, from birth to childhood to education to marriage to aging and death.
In an introductory section, Deutsch sites The Jewish Ethnographic Program in its intellectual, historical, and cultural contexts, and in the context of An-sky’s life and work. He describes his own history with the translation project, including ultimately quixotic attempts to elicit responses to the questions from subjects ranging from elderly people who had once lived in shtetls, to rabbinical students, to observant Jews. As he was translating the questions, Deutsch also lost himself in the project of their annotation:
Initially I planned on providing explanatory notes to only those questions that seemed especially obscure. After all, one of the things that I had always found most compelling about The Jewish Ethnographic Program was the very fact that it was a book of questions without answers and, therefore, a kind of stripped-down, elemental version of a classical Jewish text. And yet as I went through The Program looking for questions that needed clarification or commentary, I soon found myself creating more and more notes. Before I knew it, I had completed notes to one hundred questions, and then two hundred, and then three hundred, and so on.
By this point, practically every countertop in the house—and not a few floors—were covered with books: memoirs about growing up in the Pale of Settlement, yizker bikher (memorial books) for Eastern European Jewish communities, scholarly works on Russian Jewish history and culture, and traditional sforim, or books on Halakhah and minhag. In one sense I was reverse-engineering the creative process that had led to the composition of The Jewish Ethnographic Program in the first place, with of course the critically important difference being that I was a single individual living in twenty-first-century America, whereas The Program had been created by a team of people born and raised in the Pale of Settlement. In another sense, and despite my best—at least conscious—efforts not to do so, I was also attempting to answer all of the questions myself.
The result was something akin to inhabiting two worlds at once. When I was not taking my kids to school, teaching a class, or doing one of the other activities that made up a typical day, I was occupied by the intricacies of the Jewish betrothal ceremony, or by popular beliefs about dibbuks and reincarnation, or funeral customs—all circa 1914. In short, the more I devoted myself to annotating all of the questions of The Jewish Ethnographic Program, the more I found myself inhabiting a kind of imaginal Pale of Settlement. At times the experience of living with, and in some sense in, The Jewish Ethnographic Program was profoundly illuminating and even exhilarating. At other times, however, especially after a long day, annotating the questions seemed like an endless task. And, in truth, it was. No matter how much research I did, my notes would always be incomplete, only reflecting a tiny sliver of the possible responses to the questions. Whereas a century ago a resident of a particular shtetl could answer at least some of the questions of The Program in regard to her or his community, that was not the case for me. As a scholar of life in the Pale of Settlement rather than an inhabitant, there was nothing to limit the “answers” I might provide.
Like the questionnaire itself, Deutsch’s personal story is a testament to the enduring power of An-sky’s imagination, and to the magnetic force of the vanished world of the Pale of Settlement.
The following selection of questions reflects the scope and the wonder of The Jewish Ethnographic Program.
- 79. Do people order the woman in labor to scream at, curse, or scold the husband?
- 180. What terms of endearment exists for children (Zeydele [“little Grandfather”], Biueni, etc.)?
- 421. Does the teacher punish the good student if the bad student entrusted to him for review can’t repeat the biblical chapter on Thursday?
- 681. Did people in the yeshivas show more respect for general education than for Jewish education?
- 893. What qualities cause people to gossip about a girl?
- 998. List what is considered in your community to be a blemish in the family (a convert, an illegitimate child, etc.)?
- 1003. What signs of beauty exist in your community for females, and what for males? Describe them in detail. 1228. With what tunes do people lead the couple from the wedding ceremony (“Oy, My Daughter is a Wife,” etc.)?
- 1281. Is it a custom to eat hard cheese if she is a virgin? What does this signify?
- 1366. How do Jews look upon love and beauty?
- 1529. Does it often happen that a husband abandons his wife and leaves her an agune [i.e. agunah, “anchored or chained woman,” an abandoned woman prevented from remarrying because her husband’s consent is required by religious law for a divorce]?
- 1530. Have such cases occurred more often since the beginning of the emigration to America?
- 1646. In what condition of illness do people give the sick person a new name?
- 1831. Is your cemetery built on top of the old cemetery from the past?
- 1989. Does the soul weep when it is leaving the body?
At the website of Tablet Magazine you can view a collection of drawings based on The Jewish Ethnographic Program, and listen to a conversation with Nathaniel Deutsch.