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When I First Met Sh. Ansky

December 1, 1990

by Khayim Zhitlovsky
Translated from the Yiddish by Max Rosenfeld
Originally published in the December, 1990 issue of Jewish Currents; Translated from an essay first published in 1940
IT WAS ON THE MORNING of my bar mitzva, in the spring of 1878, that I first met Shloyme Zanvl Rapaport, who later became famous as Sh. Ansky (1863-1920), author of The Dybbuk (1920). We were both playing in the street and I invited him to come hear my “speech” and then come to the party afterward. From that day on, we became “attached” to each other and remained close friends and brothers until his death. I don’t remember exactly how that friendship started, but I do recall that we used to play together in his big yard on the bank of a stream called Vitba.
Ansky was an only son. His father lived somewhere in the interior of southern Russia, where he worked as a courier for a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur. At home were only Shloyme’s mother and sister who, for those days, was a highly educated young woman. I recall that she read a lot of Russian novels. Both women were deeply moral. They earned a meager living from a small tavern where they served impoverished young Russians who had already sunk to the bottom of society.
Shloyme Zanvl himself grew up like a “young Cossack,” freed of all responsibilities — from kheyder, from the Jewish religion, from any kind of adult supervision. I too was comparatively free. After my bar mitzva I no longer attended kheyder, but with the help of a tutor I was preparing for my “entrance exam” to the gymnazie (high school).
On my free days I would run to Shloyme Zanvl’s house to play in their big yard. With the logs and bricks piled up there we used to build either hiding places for bandits or palaces for emperors. Sometimes we event built a beys-ha-mikdosh, the holy Temple in Jerusalem. It depended on what game we were playing. On Saturday afternoons we used to walk along the bank of the Vitba, from which we could see the peasant cottages. Here, far removed from Jewish eyes, we could calmly smoke our papirosn, our cigarettes, to which Ansky was addicted. It may be that this absolute freedom was what first attracted me to him.
Later we had our own ongoing gymnazie in the same yard, where I played the teacher and he the student. This, however, was a serious game, because the student soon caught up with the teacher in all subjects except Latin and Greek. On second thought, perhaps this is what attracted me to him.
I also remember very clearly how we used to climb up a hill that stood in the center of town and there, under the sole surviving tree, we would sit for hours and tell each other about things we had read — he, from the Yiddish story-books, and I, from Russian “progressive” novels. A common love for literature, an undefined urge to create, to build something, in fun or in earnest, kept moving us closer and closer together, until our very souls coalesced and became one. And it goes without saying that I imparted to him the “heretical” materialist-atheist ideas of my teachers.
Still later, when I fell under the influence of the radical students at the gymnazie, and when the fragile roots of my Jewish “patriotism” were burned out of me in the fire of the social-revolutionary world view, I set the same fire aflame in Ansky’s heart, where it burned even longer than in mine. Very soon Shloyme Zanvl had built up his own circle of young people who began to nourish themselves with the same spiritual sustenance of that world view — and they were educated young people who had come out of the “folk” but who still maintained close ties with it.
At any event, the propagation of the socialist ideal and of the atheist-materialist world view became the main concern of both our lives. But precisely in that concern lay Ansky’s important influence on me. The bedrock of all the “sacred” writings was the 1863 novel What Is To Be Done? (Chto Dyelat?) by Nikolai Chemishevsky (1828-1889). Free communes were our social ideal. This ideal was based on faith in human beings, in every human being, whose conduct and actions are governed by a striving for one’s own “personal benefit” (lichnaya vigoda). This kind of pure materialist-egoistic morality (we learned from Chemyshevsky) leads, however, to socialism, because the spiritual development (razvitye) must bring about a situation in which every individual would see in socialism his own “personal benefit.”
In and of itself this is a clearly rational, clearly theoretical position. There can be no talk here of any sort of religious passion for the socialist ideal. What is there to be ecstatic about — the “personal benefit”? Shloyme Zanvl, however, always had a deep, seriously religious nature. His acceptance of the socialist ideal soon took on a deeply serious religious character, almost with its own Shulkhn Arukh (Code of Laws), with all the do’s and don’t’s — what’s permitted and what’s forbidden.
Under his influence — or mainly under his influence — we came to believe that both of us should — must — belong to the “new people” (novye ludu), to the new type of person who must have no personal life, who must leave the old world and its idols, who must have nothing at all to do with it.
In our youthful hearts, therefore, socialism took the place of a religion, of a sanctity. Of course we would have laughed at anyone who, at that time, had called our position a “religious” one. Weren’t we (in accordance with the example of Dmitri Pisarev, 1840-1868) realists who poked fun at every religion, every system of morality, every sort of romanticism, every sanctity?
In actual fact, however, socialism became for us a religious ani-maamin (credo), an idea soaked through with a passionate emotion, a credo that must determine the course of one’s own life, an Orekh Khayim (Way of Life, a book of ethics) in the literal sense of the word. If that also determined my life, it is in very large measure thanks to the young Ansky.

THE INFLUENCE OF ONE OF US upon the other was so manifold and so intertwined that it really is difficult to make even a superficial judgment of what in me was his, what in him was mine, and what was a characteristic of both of us. But I feel that I can “touch” within myself another influence of Ansky’s — a direct interest in the masses of the people, in the uneducated, in the drunkards, in the “fallen ones” and in the concrete living conditions that deform the human soul.
In my own “psyche,” I think the intellect plays the leading role. With Ansky, on the other hand, the leading role was played by an instinctive moral beauty, an ethical intuition which flowed out of a highly developed sense of morality. I grew up, after all, among talmidey khakhomim [scholars steeped in Jewish learning]. Any one of our poorest relatives who used to visit our home possessed a rich cultural “capital,” either in Talmudic learning or in Hasidic thought In those “rarified worlds” the difference between “rich” and “poor” was obliterated, the social-ethical conscience was not overly turbulent. And in the work for a socialist future, also, “the masses” did not exist for me as a category distinct from “the intellectuals.” All men and women — rich or poor — are human beings, intelligent human beings, who are capable of “intellectual development,” and everyone can be shown where to seek his “personal benefit,” which in the
final analysis is the maximum of the noblest delights in life.
For Ansky this was not so at all. He saw clearly the psychological chasm that exists between the poor and the rich, between the hungry and the sated. He had absorbed in his bones enough of the gravity of poverty, of privation and drunkenness, of the disfigurement of the human essence; of the cruel, coldblooded violation that the weak — the “step-children” (as he called his first play) — are forced to submit to at the hands of the strong. He hated the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie and was devoted heart and soul to “the masses,” to the people. And in those days that meant the Russian people — especially the Russian peasantry. He strove to connect himself with those masses, to live the same life they did, and to fight alongside them for a better future.
In that sense, Ansky’s influence on me was tremendous, although not absolutely pervasive.

Khayim Zhitlovsky (1865-1943) was a Jewish socialist, writer, and champion of the Yiddish language who was vice-president of the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference of 1908. Max Rosenfeld was a secular Jewish educator, leader, writer, and prolific translator who was active in the Sholem Aleichem Club in Philadelphia and for many years conducted the Jewish Currents column, “Our Secular Jewish Heritage.”