First event of the Astaire Seminar Series in Jewish Studies, “Jews: movement, migration, location”, 15 December, University of Glasgow

Venue:  Lecture Theatre A, Boyd Orr Building, University Avenue, Glasgow
Time: 5-7pm

Ada Rapoport Albert (UCL), From Russia to Poland: Interwar Habad Hasidism in Exile

Mia Spiro (University of Glasgow), The Dybbuk’s Haunted Stage: Performing Jewish Mysticism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust

Part of the Mysticism in Comparative Perspective Conference


Ada Rapoport-Albert is Professor emerita of Jewish Studies and former Head of Hebrew and Jewish UCL. She is a historian of the Jewish mystical tradition, with special interest in Hasidism, the messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi, ascetic practice in a variety of pietistic circles, and gender issues in reference to all the above topics. Her publications include Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi 1666-1816 (2011) and, in Hebrew,Studies in Hasidism, Sabbatianism, and Gender (2015).

The paper focuses on a crucial turning point in the history of the Habad-Lubavitch school of Hasidism, when its leader, the 6th Rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880-1950), fled his native Russia, where religious observance was vigorously suppressed by the Communist authorities, and established his headquarters (‘court’) in the then free Second Republic of Poland, having left behind the bulk of his traditionally large hasidic following, now effectively trapped in the Soviet Union. The strategies he adopted during this period for transplanting the distinctive Habad brand of Hasidism in an alien Jewish environment, densely populated by rival, indigenously Polish Hasidic ‘courts’, laid the foundations for every radical innovation, which was to secure Habad’s post-war survival and its transformation into a highly visible, international outreach movement.

Mia Spiro is Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow. She is the author of Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction (Northwestern UP, 2013) and has published several articles on Jewish representation in literature and film in the period leading up to WWII and the Holocaust. She is currently working on a project, entitled ‘Monsters and Migration: Golems, Vampires, and the Ghosts of War’, which examines how elements of the supernatural have been used by modern writers and artists to grapple with oppression, migration, and antisemitism in the first half of the twentieth century.

In the preface to his play script, The Dybbuk (1914), a tale of a young bride possessed by the spirit of her dead beloved, S. Ansky writes: “throughout the play there is a battle between… the individual’s striving for happiness and the survival of the nation.” Thus Ansky, an ethnographer and historian who set out to recapture the already disappearing culture of the Jewish shtetl, reinvented in the Jewish imagination in what is surely Jewish theatre’s most popular theatrical production (over 2000 performances to date). This talk will explore how the idea of the “dybbuk” — the possessing spirit — transforms on stage and screen in the years leading up to WWII and in 1948-1954 productions in Glasgow, New York and Paris, as Jewish communities grapple with the haunting and very “undead” spirit of a Jewish cultural life on the wake of the Shoah.


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