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«Photo-archive of An-sky expeditions» Exhibition 3. «Jewish Nursery Room».Museification of religion for upbringing nation. 2005.


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Once An-sky was visiting his “good acquaintance, a Zionist and an ardent nationalist.” A small daughter of the host, upon being introduced to the guest, “sung Chizhik1 in a very sweet manner, recited the “Tale about fisherman and little fish” and very sensitively recounted the fairy-tale “Sister Alyonushka and brother Ivanushka” … with such a pure Russian accent as if she were not a daughter of a Petersburg Zionist, but at least that of a peasant from Kaluga province”. No doubt, the generation of Jewish intelligentsia for whom Russian language and literature embodied the ideals of enlightenment was very proud of such achievements on the part of their children. An-sky writes: “I was sincere in praising the child, but then asked somehow accidentally: “Doesn’t she know anything at all in Yiddish?” The father got somewhat confused and hurriedly answered: “No, not yet.”2
People coming from shtetls and towns within the pale of settlement, left rigid conventions of the Jewish tradition in the past, whereas the future of the Jewry was the subject of intensive intellectual search and discussions. It was impossible to engage a child into these “adult” activities, and consequently children of Jewish intelligentsia were left in charge of the Russian nurses who transmitted them “their language, their psyche, their worldview.” “Yes, the worldview!” emphasizes An-sky, looking for a word that would be persuasive for the people of his milieu – “the worldview… expressed in folk tales and songs.”3 This situation threatened to sever the new, recently born tradition of the Jewish intelligentsia, which, from An-sky’s point of view, was a catastrophe – neither a personal one, or that of a group, but, rather, national. “Right here, in front of my eyes, among the most ardent and sincere debates about nationalism, in the national Jewish atmosphere (even the cuisine is kosher), a systematic introduction of a Jewish child into an alien culture, an absolutely real forceful assimilation is taking place”4. In order to communicate the coming generations their pathos of the cultural construction, Jewish intelligentsia had to reproduce, or model their own life course for their children: from the shtetl – to the big city, from the old world – to the new one. It was certainly impossible to make children repeat their parents’ life, sending them to shtetls, to be brought up in the dying, yet still contagiously religious place. Yet it was feasible to bring shtetl to the children by creating its models in large cities: a “Jewish nursery.”. These models would be small, cleansed of religion and sterile.
Ethnographic expeditions served An-sky a means of solving two major tasks: in the sphere of art – to discover artistic images and inspiration “amidst people,” and in the sphere of scholarship – to collect materials for the “Jewish nursery” that was at the same time to become “an academy where folklore will be studied,” the network of Jewish museums. Both tasks were united by one common political aim: to bring up the people through raising of various ties between intelligentsia and the mass, in other words, to create the nation.
Shtetl children were delivered by a Jewish midwife and brought up by a Jewish mother. Their Jewish grandmother was reciting fairy tales to them and a bearded rebe was teaching them literacy. They were growing among other Jewish children, and, most importantly, inside the Jewish religion that in the course of millenniums was, in An-sky’s own expression, “an iron shirt” for the people, that constricted its movements, yet did not allow it to disintegrate5. The whole of this world of “Jewish olden times”6 had to go through the scholarly processing and sterilization to become the inner pivot of the liberated nation. Jewish upbringing, in An-sky’s scheme, had to start from the cradle. First of all, intelligentsia required another nurses, who would tell Jewish, and not Russian tales to the children. “Let the demand appear,” An-sky wrote, “and good nurses and wonderful nursery-governess will be found among the Jewish poor.” Religion is still allowed to the child’s cradle: “They arrange a special diet for a Russian nurse, who observes fasts, don’t they? Why not offer an elderly Jewish nurse a possibility to prepare kosher food for herself?”7. While capturing female anthropological types, An-sky was probably looking for such an “elderly nurse” among them, a kind of Jewish Arina Rodionovna8 who would become the preceptor of the future Jewish Pushkin and who would be able not only to introduce him to the language and folklore, but also to transmit to him, in full accordance with the fashionable racial theories of the beginning of XX c, her national “psyche.”
The task of adaptation to new conditions of the next stage of traditional upbringing, studying in heder, was more difficult. “When one starts speaking about the orthodox Jewish upbringing of the people,” wrote An-sky, “what emerges at the foreground is the old heder with its “ignorant” melamed, its archaic methods of education and anti-hygienic surrounding.”9 Heder, in the language of the Bible, is a room, an inner chamber. In Ashkenazic tradition the word heder was applied to the school, situated in any room with a table, a melamed (teacher) sitting behind it, and several students. Each student had a book in front of him – not a textbook, written specifically for children, but one of the sacred books, used by adults in everyday life: sidur (a prayer book), humesh (the Pentateuch with commentaries, and, possibly, with Yiddish translation), collections of excerpts from Talmud.
Sidur was used as an ABC book, and its common editions often included a page with large-type letters and syllables. The “Holy language,” in which these books were written, was studied through reading original texts after melamed, who himself would not always understand them fully. Negligent pupils were physically punished by the melamed. It often happened that children, not having acquired the literacy, learned many pages of the incomprehensible text by heart. Heders could be expensive, or very cheap, or free. The latter had a special name of talmud-torah. It was the commune which supported them, thus helping poor parents fulfil the commandment “And ye shall teach them [the words of Torah] your children” (Deut. 11: 19). Almost all boys (and sometimes, even girls) studied in heder, starting with the age of 3-5, and till they would become 13.
Attempts to reform the system of heder education (e.g. introduce the grammar course of the “holy language,” adapted texts, secular subjects, an educational qualification standard for melamed and hygienic norms for the rooms where children spent the largest part of the day) never stopped in the course of the XIX c., but did not prove to be successful. Due to its utter simplicity – the role of melamed could be performed by anybody, as soon as he himself and the parents would agree – this traditional institute easily escaped any form of control.
In contrast to private heder, communal talmud-torah was open to new tendencies. The photographs show spacious classrooms with desks and blackboards, intelligent teachers, children playing in the open air during the breaks. Whereas the majority of Jewish educators tried to combine traditional religious education with the contemporary secular one, An-sky was not very much interested in the projects of reforming the “old heder,” and even tried to defend it.10 Children of Jewish intelligentsia studied in Russian gymnasiums; they did not need any heder, even if reformed, but the very rational (national) grain that An-sky tried to extract from the traditional system of upbringing. An-sky, most probably the only one among his contemporaries, succeeded to discover a virtue in the major deficiency of the old teaching system – a virtue that had the key importance for his national project. Rather than doing exercises specifically composed for them, heder children were engaged in activities immediately connected with the most crucial part of adult life. This traditional religious life included not only public prayers and quotidian studies of Torah, but also a variety of rituals allowing or even requiring children’s participation11. It was exactly the same that the children of Jewish intelligentsia lacked in their education. The only thing left was to change the religious content of this communal life to the national one, leaving the principle itself intact.
Obviously, Jewish museums were intended to serve this very purpose: transformation of religion into the national idea. According to An-sky’s scheme, preserved as a rough copy, each town should establish museums of the first level – ethnographic collections that would represent Jewish “religion, beliefs, superstitions” and everyday life. Such museums were to turn into centres for studying of religious rituals in the new, secular school. “One can be a non-believer,” wrote An-sky, “but one has to know the ritual.” The next level is occupied by regional Art museums. Their task is to represent the development of Jewish art as the history of struggle of folk artists against religious “prohibitions and persecutions.” Finally, on the third and the highest level there is the unique “National historical museum” which should be created in Palestine. This is “the museum of historical relics, historical monuments,” that tells about “all trials, all sufferings” of the Jewish people, but also about its “historical celebrations” and “great people.”12
This way the “iron shirt” of religion, dismantled and reassembled again through the system of Jewish museums, would turn into the national idea. It had to become the inner pivot of the new Jewish life, precisely the firm inner foundation for external flexibility and sensitivity (An-sky associated any external discipline, whether that of the party or of the state, with the rigidity of the old tradition).13 Museums did not belong to any party, did not experience any ideological stress. They were supposed to become a common property of the whole nation, the joint product of the spontaneous folk life and its scholarly investigation, the meeting point of intelligentsia and the common people.
Not many of An-sky’s contemporaries believed in the “educational value” of such museums, in the ability of folklore “to exert influence upon the young”14. Yet for An-sky himself the gist of his program did not boil down to the immediate “influence of folklore,” but to the joint and, importantly, spontaneous action of the whole nation; hence he was intently looking for examples of such interaction everywhere. In his apologetic article on the nonschool education in France, created, as he emphasized, “exclusively through private initiative,” An-sky wrote: “The major aim of people’s universities is the rapprochement of intelligentsia with people for the purpose of higher development.”15 A very different, yet somehow similar rapprochement of adults and children, intelligentsia and the people, jointly “doing” the revolution became the main theme of his novel “In the new channel.” Yet the revolution, even if it takes place on “the Jewish street,” is an international undertaking. A Jewish museum is a different matter.
In An-sky’s scheme the transformed, museified religion was to unite the nation the same way as its original, “savage” version did. Probably, he realized this unification around museums as something similar to the French cultural movement that he liked so much: “evening and Sunday courses for adults and adolescents, lectures, popular readings,” capable of injecting a “certain intellectual stream into monotonous provincial life,” of creating “a connection between intelligentsia and the people, between the school and the population.”16 Or, may be, he just believed in the magical uniting force of religion and ascribed this potential to the matter, saturated with religious spirit and presently concentrated in museums. In any case, it was precisely museified religion that had to become a pledge of the future national unity, a cameo of a sort – an amulet protecting the people from disintegration.

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An-sky himself encountered children a lot during his expeditions. He was among the first who started to purposefully collect children’s folklore. Yet the special attention that was paid to children during expeditions was not enough for them. They disturbed An-sky and his fellow workers, following them everywhere they would go. Pictures of “Jewish olden times” meant for future museums depict curious children, impudently trying to get into the frame. They obviously could not comprehend the all-nation importance of the adults’ activity – the activity where their participation was, alas, not yet foreseen. That is why they themselves, without waiting for invitation, found their place in the new games of unknown adults…
An-sky conceived his own life in terms of the idea of the nation: “I have neither a wife, nor children, not a house, not even an apartment, no possessions, not even inveterate habits… The only thing that tightly and strongly connects me with these parameters, is the nation”17. He tried to impart a sense of national history to his life, resembling that of the majority of Jewish intelligentsia of that time (shtetl childhood, departure from religion, entrance to the wide all-human arena). He partially succeeded in this. Grand ideologies, both secular and religious, appeared as substitutions of traditional everyday life, and the lost world of the shtetl turned out to be the beginning that inaugurated the national contemporaneity of our history. Only An-sky’s dream about free and elevated unification of the nation around museums, as well as many other projects that looked so brilliant at the beginning of the XX c., did not stand in the collision with everyday life.
Presently we again live thorough the breach with our past, trying to build our new “Jewish nursery.” And whichever way this movement may be directed – whether back towards the religion, or forward, towards creating the nation – we will inevitably come across Semion Akimovich An-sky, a literary double of Shloime-Zeinwil Rappoport, who once left a remote shtetl for the world of great events of national history. His collections and ideas, born “between two worlds” bear the imprint of his personality – still too much alive to be let into our nursery room without a preliminary scholarly interpretation.

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