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The original Dybbuk
Menachem Kaiser
22 November 2023
published in Issue Four

There’s a story I heard recently about Ansky. A rich Los Angeles man decides he’s going to build himself a world-class Yiddish drama library. This takes place in 1935 or 1936. The rich L.A. man wants the collection to be complete, to be perfect: from the lowliest shund to the most out-there avant-garde. However, he has no experience, no expertise, and no time, so he hires a bright, capable, enthusiastic young scholar to be his librarian. The scholar is a cripple — his left leg is useless, just dead flesh. His whole life the scholar has been acutely ashamed of his lameness. Everyone in the scholar’s life, his doctors, his family, his friends, has urged and urged the scholar to consider amputation, but he always refuses, he is too proud. This shame is a big part of the reason why he became a scholar in the first place, why he prefers to spend his time alone, in libraries and archives, communicating with the dead, distant, inanimate.

The rich L.A. man gives the scholar simple but expansive instructions: obtain the manuscripts. No matter what, whatever it takes, money’s no object. Rare and valuable manuscripts too? Rare and valuable manuscripts especially! What an assignment! The young crippled scholar is overjoyed. He promises the rich L.A. man that, within the year, he will have assembled the finest and most complete Yiddish drama library in the world.

Good! says his patron (the scholar, susceptible to romanticism, considers the rich man his patron), and leaves the scholar to it.

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This is almost certainly a typo/error — I would bet anything that the scholar and/or narrator meant ‘1918.’ If in fact a Dybbuk manuscript went missing in 1916, it did so very unfamously. In 1918, however, Ansky, crossing the Lithuanian border, was detained by the authorities: they seized his luggage, which contained the then-final draft of the play. Influential members of the Vilna Jewish community intervened to have Ansky released and his possessions returned; everything was accounted for — even the little cash Ansky had in his valise — except the manuscript, which was never recovered.
     As you might imagine, there are countless legends surrounding the missing manuscript. Ansky, not the despairing sort, promptly rewrote the play — he translated back into Yiddish Bialik’s Hebrew translation. This is the version that was printed, performed, immortalized. It seems that Ansky was unhappy with the final product. For the rest of his life (less than two years) Ansky reportedly lamented that the translation of the translation was significantly worse than the original.
     To wrap up this increasingly intrusive note: our narrator’s anecdote’s protagonist, i.e., the scholar, cautiously suspects that, twenty years after it had gone missing (on the other side of the world, no less), he may have found the famous missing manuscript of 1918.