Lecture: “Exploring the Jewish Dark Continent: Life, Death, and Ethnography in the Pale of Settlement”

by Judith Sone


Nathaniel Deutsch, Professor of Literature and History, UC Santa Cruz

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Event Details

Monday, October 24, 2011
4:00 p.m.
Union South (1308 W. Dayton Street)
This lecture is made possible through the generosity of Harry and Marjorie Tobias


At the turn of the twentieth century, over forty percent of the world’s Jews lived within the Russian Empire, almost all in the Pale of Settlement.  From the Baltic to the Black Sea, the Jews of the Pale created a distinctive way of life little known beyond its borders, leading historian Simon Dubnow to label the territory a Jewish “Dark Continent.” Just before World War I, the author, revolutionary, and ethnographer known as An-sky led an ethnographic expedition into the Pale, producing an archive of what he called the Oral Torah of the common people rather than the rabbinic elite, consisting of thousands of jokes, tales, songs, incantations, and other cultural traditions.  An-sky also created a massive ethnographic questionnaire—The Jewish Ethnographic Program—consisting of 2,087 questions in Yiddish exploring Jewish life and death in the Pale. In his talk, Nathaniel Deutsch will discuss his forthcoming book, which explores An-sky’s almost messianic efforts to create a distinctively Jewish ethnography in an era of revolutionary change and contains the first-ever translation of The Jewish Ethnographic Program.

About the speaker

Nathaniel Deutsch is a professor of Literature and History, co-director of the Center for Jewish Studies, and director of the Institute for Humanities Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A specialist in Judaism, Gnosticism, and early Christianity, he received his PhD from the University of Chicago and was on the faculty at Swarthmore College, where he co-founded (with Helen Plotkin) the Beit Midrash Center for the Study of Classical Jewish Texts. Deutsch received a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of his forthcoming book People’s Torah: Life and Death in the Jewish Pale of Settlement (Havard University Press). In addition, he was awarded the Workmen’s Circle/Dr. Emmanuel Patt Visiting Professorship in Eastern European Jewish Studies at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York and invited to be a visiting professor at Stanford University.