Religion professor Deutsch on his Guggenheim, S. Ansky

The Daily Gazette recently sat down (well, okay, had a phone conversation) with Swarthmore Religion professor Nathaniel Deutsch, one of the winners of this year’s prestigious Guggenheim fellowships.

Daily Gazette: How does it feel to win the Guggenheim?

Nathaniel Deutsch: It feels great… I was really surprised when I won because it’s very hard to get. So yeah, it feels great.

DG: Who is S. Ansky?

ND: Ansky is a Jewish ethnographer and writer who was born about 150 years ago. He was one of the first people to study Eastern European Jewish folk culture. His name is a pseudonym, and he’s famous for his play “The Dybbuk,” about a woman who was possessed by a spirit. The word “Dybbuk” refers to any soul that enters the body of a living person.

DG: How did you become interested in his work?

ND: Partly because of the play, and also when I was writing my book “The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World.” I had also studied Jewish communities and I became interested in him through this.

DG: What’s your book on Ansky about?

NG: In 1914, Ansky compiled a list of more than 2000 questions concerning Jewish life in a shtetl, an Eastern European Jewish town or community. It was a pretty exhaustive list; it starts with the soul entering the body and ends with the soul leaving and in between asks about education, marriage, sickness, death… he was trying to get a snapshot of Jewish life. It was written in Yiddish and has never been translated. I’m working on a critical edition, a translation and a commentary to explain why he thought those questions were important.

The other book that I’m writing will use that critical edition to talk about Jewish culture at that time.

DG: How will you use the Guggenheim?

ND: I plan on spending some of my time doing archival work at the Yivo institute in New York, it’s a collection of Eastern European materials. I’ll also be doing research in California and possibly going to Kiev, Ukraine. They have a collection of Ansky’s writings there. The Guggenheim also provides free time to do this research.

DG: Do you have any idea what you plan to do after this?

ND: After this, one of the things I plan to do is more work on contemporary work in Jewish culture, or maybe a commentary on the Biblical book of Genesis. I teach a Hebrew Bible course every semester focused on Genesis, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

DG: What other things do you do in your free time?

ND: I have a two-year-old daughter, so one of my favorite things to do is spend time with her and my life, I love spending time with her. I do martial arts, I have for a long time. I also enjoy going for long walks and meditating while on them… I’ve come up with a lot of ideas during my walks. I’m also learning the Talmud with a Hasidic chavrusa, a study partner.

DG: Do you have any fun stories to share from your time at Swarthmore?

ND: I’ve always liked it when students have made funny shirts with things that have been said in class. I can’t think of any fun stories off the top of my head, but teaching in general is almost always fun for me. For some people, teaching gets in the way of research, but for me, teaching and interacting with students work to drive my research.


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