The Dybbuk (1925) by S. Ansky

up noon—window man & curtains—els telephone—out to York to meet him—up to Sonny’s—AM. Mus., Met. Mus. bus to library—gallery & reading room—els lv. read & Automat—down to N’hood playhouse—Dybbuck—bus & subway—els lv. Penn. Sta see Miss L home—W Side pk—return to 169
—H. P. Lovecraft’s diary entry for 17 December 1925, Collected Essays 5.174

By early 1925, H. P. Lovecraft had effectively separated from his wife. She had gone out to the midwest to work, returning to New York every few weeks to see him. He took a room at 169 Clinton Street, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was quickly filling up with immigrants. Unable to find work, away from his wife and his family, and suffering the indignity of a break-in to his apartment in May where even his clothes were stolen, his bias against immigrants had begun to reach a fever pitch in his letters.

In mid-December of 1925, his friend Edward Lloyd Sechrist was in town. There was a new play being performed at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and in between visits with friends such as Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. and visits to museums and libraries, theatre was one of the things Lovecraft still liked about New York. They would have gone through the cold streets in their winter suits; bought their tickets, found their way through the theater and waited for the house lights to dim…and in the darkness before the curtain rose a voice called out…

Why, oh why,
Did the soul descend
From the highest height
To the deepest end?
The greatest fall
Contains the upward flight.
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 4

Then the curtain rose.

Dybbuk_1

The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

“S. Ansky” was the pen-name of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, a Jewish author, playwright, and folklorist from the Russian Empire. The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds based on Jewish tradition, was written from 1913-1916 in Russian, then translated to Yiddish; it was first performed in Yiddish in Poland in 1920. It was translated into English by Henry G. Alsberg and Winifred Katzin, and opened at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City on 15 December 1925; it would run about 120 performances.

Daily_News_Wed__Dec_16__1925_

Contemporary newspaper reviews were mixed; the supernatural was nothing new to theatre, but the weird drama with its spectral plot and unfamiliar setting and references to Jewish culture and religion was undoubtedly a bit different than most audiences or critics were expecting. Keep in mind that Dracula would not hit the stage in New York until 1927; and Fiddler on the Roof would have to wait until 1964.

It would certainly have been novel for Lovecraft. In his native Providence, he had seldom met any Jews. It was not until Lovecraft came to New York that he encountered many Jewish immigrants from Europe, or anything of Jewish culture.

In his letters home to his aunts Lillian Clark and Annie Gamwell in Providence, Lovecraft had taken to writing long, diary-like entries regarding his experiences in the Big Apple, which included such a scene:

Here exist assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress. In this particular section, where Hebrew books are vended from pushcarts, and patriarchal rabbis totter in high hats and frock coats, there are far less offensive faces than in the general subways of the town—probably because most of the pushing commercial Jews are from another colony where the blood is less pure.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29-30 Sep 1924,
Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168

A week after Lovecraft saw “The Dybbuk,” he was composing Yuletide verses for his friends, he wrote to his aunt:

In writing Sechrist I alluded to his Polynesian & African travels, & to the hellish play—“The Dybbuk”—to which he so generously treated me last week: 

May Polynesian skies they Yuletide bless,
And primal gods impart thee happiness;
Zimbabwe’s wonders hint mysterious themes,
And ne’er a Dybbuk lurk to mar they dreams!

—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22-23 Dec 1925, LFF 1.513-514

The play impressed Lovecraft enough that when he composed his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Recluse, he felt obliged to mention it in the brief section on Jewish influence on weird fiction:

A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version), CE 2.100

Several years later, Lovecraft would have occasion to revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” into its final form; in discussing The Dybbuk he added “and more recently produced as an opera.” The operatic version was in Italian, and ran as Il dibuk in 1934, and made its way to New York by 1935. Lovecraft’s friend Richard F. Searight had seen the opera, and this elicted from the Old Gent in Providence his deepest appreciation of the play:

Your description of the opera “The Dybbuk” is extremely fascinating to me, especially since I had the good luck to see the original play in 1925—when a translation was presented in New York. The mere play (which was very well staged & acted) was impressive enough, & I can well imagine the additional power derived from an appropriate musical score. From our account, I judge that the opera follows the order & events of the drama quite closely. Mention of a dance of beggars vaguely reminds me of something in the play—connected with a garden scene. The exorcism was very powerful, even without music. I surely hope I can encounter the opera sooner or later—though I don’t know when I shall next visit New York. The play produced a very potent impression on me, & I had a vague idea of trying to base a story on the dybbuk idea. I saved my programme—which had copious notes on the particular sect of Jews most addicted to cablistic research (I think they were called the Chassidim)—but that young rascal Long lost it when I lent it to him! Without this ready-made data, I let the story-ida languish—though I suppose I could find out about dybbuks, & about the Chassidim, in the great Jewish Encyclopaedia which is available at most large libraries. [E. Hoffmann] Price got a lot of stuff about Lilith from this source. What is more—this work might shed a picturesque light on the Golem belief.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 12 Jun 1936, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price and Richard F. Searight 415-416

“Chassadim” is a reference to Hasidic Judaism, a spiritual revivalist sect that arose in Ukraine in the 18th century, and which spread through Eastern Europe and was carried to the United States by immigrants. Culturally conservative regarding their traditional clothing, it was likely Hasidic Jews who caught Lovecraft’s eye when he arrived in New York.

The idea of Lovecraft drawing inspiration from Jewish folkore is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired in part by his experiences in New York, includes references to Lilith and aspects of medieval European occultism connected to or partially derived from Jewish sources (although in this case Lovecraft relied on the Encyclopedia Britannica rather than the Jewish Encyclopedia). The idea of the dybbuk as a possessing spirit has parallels with several of Lovecraft’s stories, notably “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and The Shadow Out of Time, and Lovecraft had written down ideas for other stories in the same vein, which like his Dybbuk-inspired tale, was never to be written.

Dybbuk_2

The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

Rabbi Azriel. Did anyone ask the dybbuk who he is and why he’s possessing your daughter?
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 36

Ansky’s play is a human drama in a world of spiritual and material forces, intertwined and influencing one anothers; human action has supernatural reprecussions, and supernatural forces can influence and afflict people. It deals with the interplay of these forces, but is focused very much on the people involved, their thoughts and emotions, the stresses they undergo in their daily lives as they strive and struggle and work to fit their role in the world.

Rabbi Azriel suffers his moments of crisis, and even the dybbuk is a sympathetic figure that begs the rabbi not to exorcise him. It is not a the antagonist Hollywood approach to the expelling of an evil spirit or demon at all…and it is notable that Lovecraft, whatever parallels his work may have in the idea of an alien intelligence possessing a body, never offers exorcism as a potential source of hope. The bittersweet ending of would-be bride-and-groom in The Dybbuk is almost the exact opposite of what Lovecraft would concoct as the final fate of Asenath Waite and Edward Derby.

Yet it is easy to see how he might well have been moved by the exorcism scene, the powerful cry of the lost soul clinging onto the one piece of its past that it can, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to anchor itself…and Lovecraft himself was barely clinging on, surrounded by his books and furniture, all that he had taken with him from Providence to the New York he increasingly found alienating and strange.

H. P. Lovecraft would experience and appreciate few works of Jewish culture in his life, yet he held The Dybbuk in high esteem—and we are left to wonder what might have happened, if a program had not been lost, and if Lovecraft had sat down on a park bench one day after careful thought and some research, to pen a new tale.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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