Ansky’s play ‘The Dybbuk’ is a tragedy about two young people in love with each other, who drown in a sea of superstition. The backdrop is an East European Shtetl in the eighteen fifties, whose inhabitants wander blindly through life in a state of poverty, their miserable lives dominated by religious ritual from morning till night.
Leah, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, meets Khonon, a poor, dreamy Yeshiva student, whom she comes across when he is invited by her father to eat at the family dinner table. The attraction is mutual and the seed of their love is planted, but they are from different worlds and never really have the chance to get to know each other. Khonon drifts back to his studies, nursing a vision of his beloved and living for the day when he will be able to unite with her in blissful matrimony, while Leah’s destiny is determined by her father, who makes plans for her to marry a wealthy man who will provide for her. Love doesn’t come into it.
The story is a tragedy in both the personal and dramatic senses of the word. Khonon’s dreams take him away from the world of Orthodoxy and he begins to dabble in the ‘dark arts’, the mystical world of Kabbalah. It is a world frequented by angels, demons and other strange creatures vying with one another for possession of people’s souls, a world in which religious texts must be decoded for their significance by means of arcane arts. He gets to hear of Leah’s pending arranged marriage, collapses and dies. But is he really dead?
The scene shifts from a gloomy synagogue interior to revelries in the market square being planned by the wealthy father as a prelude to the wedding ceremony. Rich and poor alike are plied with food and drink. Leah, isolated in her grief, is drawn into dancing with the wretches for whom the celebration is one of the highlights of their lives. Then, as all await the arrival of the groom, a shocking event occurs. The bride announces, in an incongruously masculine voice, that she refuses to marry her intended.
The problem is instantly diagnosed – a dybbuk has taken possession of her body. An elaborate ritual is put in place to exorcise the dybbuk, orchestrated by a rabbi known for his powers in this field. This dybbuk, however, proves intractable, declaring itself to be none other than the soul of the humble student Khonon, determined to be United forever with his beloved Leah. A terrible struggle ensues, culminating in the destruction of the dybbuk. The way is now cleared for the wedding ceremony to proceed. But in a tragic denouement, Leah too dies in the arms of her beloved Khonon. Neither father nor daughter has prevailed.
Ansky’s play opens and closes in total darkness, to the sound of a melancholy chorus, the lyric of which I find impossible to paraphrase and the meaning of which eludes my rational mind. Here it is:
“Why, oh why did the soul plunge
From the utmost heights
To the lowest depths?
The seed of redemption
Is contained within the fall.”
How much of the story belongs to yesterday’s world, and how much to today’s? As a secular Jew long since departed from the halls of prayer, I could recognize a few of the customs and traditions which colored my childhood. Some of my friends and relatives have thrown themselves body and soul into communal lives governed by rituals founded on superstitious beliefs. Maybe dybbuks have finally been relegated to the status of legend but the appeal to supernatural forces remains as strong as ever for many of my fellow Jews, who would no doubt consign me to whatever form of exile best suits their imagination.
Although the play is quintessentially Jewish in character, its theme – the power of the community to reinforce ancient beliefs and determine the choice of a life partner – is universal. It takes exceptional strength to break free from the spirit which pervades such a mindset.