First: yet more apologies for update slowdown – redrafting the play I have in development is taking most available headspace, but I will endeavour to make time late at night to keep this plate spinning. Hits have leaped recently, and I feel a wretch and a half for slacking. So, without further ado…
Hanna Rovina as Leah'le in The Dybbuk
Just incredible; transfixing – and there’s no shortage of other images out there if you want to look for yourself – ‘The Dybbuk’ is almost certainly the best known Yiddish play because it reaches across cultures to capture the imagination (a fitting metaphor, as we’ll see). ‘The premiere, at the Elyseum theatre in Warsaw, did not take place until December 9, 1920 [it had been written in 1914], at the end of the traditional thirty-day mourning period that followed [author] S. Anski‘s death…’ (Three Great Jewish Plays, ed. Joseph C. Landis)
Anski had written: “From the Old Testament to the present, the central idea of all Jewish creativity is: physical force is not the force that wins… The physically stronger is defeated because he is spiritually weaker.” As his anti-hero, Khonnon, of the play notes: “The Holy Scrolls stand huddled together, calm silent. And in them are concealed all the secrets , all the veiled allusions, all the mysterious combinations from the six days of creation unto the end of the generations of men.”
This relatively short, meticulously-ordered play begins in an old synagogue ‘with blackened walls’, where scholars and students gossip, debate and deal with those calling for their help. An elderly woman whose daughter ‘has been lying speechless, struggling with death’ is interceded for by a minyan (ten men praying) before a local noble arrives to celebrate the betrothal of his daughter. Khonnon, who has been terrorising his less kabbalistic brethren with dangerous insights (“There is no need to wage war against sin. Elevate it!“) falls into something between an emotional breakdown and a religious ecstasy when he hears – “So they were useless! All the fasts, all the ablutions, all that harrowing of flesh, all those spells…” – and swoons through visions to death.
“I saw his grave in a dream. And I saw him too, and he told me about himself…” (Leye)
We skip ahead to the wedding in question, where the bride, Leye – according to custom – paces the graveyard to invite her dead relative along. But that’s not all she finds: “There lived a young man who had a lofty soul and a deep mind. A long life lay before him. And suddenly, in an instant, his life was cut off, and strangers came to bury him in strange earth. What happened to the rest of his life? To his words that were silenced, to his prayers that were cut off?” And so she invites Khonnon, too.
At the altar, in a demonic set-piece that breeds shivers even now, Leye tears the veil from her face and ‘cries out in a strange, masculine voice’: “You buried me! But I have come back to my destined bride, and I will not leave her.”
The rest of the play is almost a rabbinical procedural, as holy men seek to free the bride. The dialogue between Reb Azrielke and Khonnon (a Dybbuk, as I imagine you’d gathered, is a possessing spirit) has great power not through the wailing over-contrast of melodrama, but a kind of measured gravitas – Azrielke is sympathetic to the lost soul, especially as it becomes clear the two had been secretly in love. But Khonnon – speaking through Leye – is not to be reasoned out. “Wandering soul, I feel great pity for you, and I will try to release you from the destroying angels. But you must leave the body of this girl” is answered with “There is no more exalted height than my present refuge and there is no darker abyss than that which awaits me. I will not leave!”
He is forced to leave. The rabbi shows mercy regardless, and revokes the exiled spirit’s excommunication. He rushes out to hurry the bridal company along, demanding they carry out the ceremony at once. Leye, left safe and sleeping in a magic circle, wakes alone – except for the voice of Khonnon, emenating from the darkness around. There follows an indescribably tender duologue. Leye: “Your hair was soft and it glistened as with tears, and your eyes were sad and gentle… But you went away and my light was put out and my soul withered… Then you returned and in my heart bloomed a life of death and a joy of sorrow. Why have you forsaken me again?” Khonnon: “I broke all barriers. I surmounted death, I defied the laws of the laws of the ages and generations…”
“Return to me my bridegroom, my husband. I will carry you, in death, in my heart; and in the dreams of night we will together rock to sleep our unborn babes…” (Leye)
She steps out of the circle as this world’s bridal party finally arrive and folds to the floor, already gone. “Too late,” says Reb Azrielke, with sadness leavened by sympathy, as both souls depart.