College Corner: Nathaniel Deutsch

Prof. Nathaniel Deutsch returned this semester to Swat after having been away on leave for a year and a half. During his time on leave he was supported by a competitive Guggenheim Fellowship. He spent his time researching the Jewish ethnographer An-sky. The project will eventually be published as a book called “The People’s Torah: Life, Death, and Ethnography in Jewish Pale of Settlement.”

The Pale of Settlement was a region near central Europe in Russia that Jews were allowed to live in on a permanent basis. An-sky traveled to the region in 1912-1914 and gave the Jews living there a “questionnaire he compiled consisting of 2,087 questions about life and death.” The questions were incredibly wide ranging and touched on all aspects of life, from when the soul enters the body to when the soul leaves the body. Topics covered included midwives, children’s games, education, marriage, and death.

Prof. Deutsch has been to the Pale of Settlement region before and spent most of his time on leave at the Yivo Institute in New York City, which has the most important archives of the experiences of Eastern European Jews in the United States. He has also traveled to archives in the former Soviet Union as well as in Kiev for his research.

When reflecting on his research, Prof. Deutsch said, “For me it reveals the richness of this way of life and the way in which religion was not a separate sphere for Jews in this milieu, but something that was integrated completely, even seamlessly into other aspects of life. The second thing is the way in which death and life are not demarcated in a hard and fast way, but it would be more accurate to say that death is part of life.” An-sky also brought to life the important roles that women had in these Jewish communities, especially as midwives.

Prof. Deutsch’s book will contain the first translation of the questionnaire into English along with commentary. He has completed a draft of the English translation and two explanatory chapters, but the book is still probably several years away from completion. In the meantime he will teach a Hebrew Bible seminar along with a class on Zionism with history professor Bob Weinberg.


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