In the Grip of a Dybbuk

At last night’s second meeting of the Jewish American Literature book discussion series, Demons, Golems, and Dybbuks: Monsters of Jewish Imagination, over 30 eager readers gathered a the Waldo Branch to discuss S. Ansky’s seminal play, The Dybbuk.

Local scholar and Managing Editor of BkMk Press, Ben Furnish, started the evening with a short presentation on S. Ansky’s life, The Dybbuk’s importance in the Yiddish theatre canon and various world productions of The Dybbuk.

The Dybbuk is one of the most famous pieces of Jewish drama and the Moscow Art Theatre spent three years rehearsing it before mounting their production. Constantin Stanislavski, one of the theatre’s most creative pioneer directors and creator of “The Method,” gave The Dybbuk its psychological realism.

The play opens with a group of yeshiva students in a synagogue studying. One student, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, falls in love with Leah. When her wealthy father announces Leah’s arranged marriage to the so of another wealthy family, the student drops dead, presumably from anguish at losing his love. On the eve of her wedding, the bride visits the grave of the dead student and his spirit enters her body, refusing to leave. Unbeknownst to the two young lovers, their fathers made a pact many years before to arrange a marriage between their children. The bride’s father reneges on the agreement and in a rabbinical court admits his transgressions. Meanwhile, the dybbuk refuses to leave the bride’s body until the rabbis stage an ex-communication of the stubborn spirit. The dybbuk is banished but the bride, unable to live parted from her soul mate, joins her lover in the spirit world. The two are finally united as they have been destined to be.

Participants raised intriguing points about the play. One reader stated that as a work of literature, The Dybbuk would be more fun to read than see performed. He pointed out the literary qualities of the characters speeches as well as the length of speeches and the constant explication of Jewish fables and religious customs.

One playful reader felt the bride, Leah, took one look at her intended and made up a dybbuk in order to stave off the wedding. This theory is in keeping with one Mr. Furnish mentioned earlier in the evening that dybbuks tended to inhabit the bodies of women. Women who were possessed of the restless spirit were exempt from arranged marriages or relieved of wifely duties.

Further discussion revolved around the leadership of a tightly knit Jewish community, the characteristics of the dybbuk, and the all encompassing power possessed by some rabbis. One reader also made comparison between this play and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

In closing, a reader pointed out that this dybbuk is unlilke other dybbuks in Jewish literature. This dybbuk is in love with his host, she said. Which doesn’t make what he does right, but all the readers at the table could understand the ghost’s point of view and all thought the play ended the way it should. A lively discussion all around.