Shlomo-Zaynvl Rapaport (1863–1920), best known by his pen name S. An-Sky, was a leading figure in the Russian socialist movement, a supporter of Zionism, a great Jewish ethnographer, and the author of the classic Yiddish play The Dybbuk. His novel, Pioneers, about the experience of late-19th-century Russian Jews shedding religious observance to embrace modernity and the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment movement), has recently been rendered into English by Michael R. Katz. Polly Zavadivker writes in her review:
What makes [the novel’s characters] compelling . . . is not so much their zealous quest for enlightenment as the doubts that plague them as they set out to remake themselves. [The protagonist] guiltily questions himself after he casts off his familiar garb: has he acted too rashly, made superficial changes that simply mask an old worldview, speech, and thoughts still intact beneath the surface? As he observes others in [his] circle break off ties with their disapproving families, and witnesses an aggrieved mother lose her son to [join a group of “enlightened” Jews], he doubts whether their cause is so righteous as to justify such suffering. An-sky’s sympathetic portrayal of the emotional and mental anxiety bred by this process of rupture surely must have reflected his own inner conflicts as a young man.
Adding further irony to the pioneers’ quest to master the world of Russian letters is their discovery of an abiding love for their native languages. In the course of a raucous debate about Russian radical thought, they revert to Yiddish and use sing-song methods of talmudic study as they take apart the writings of [the Russian radical authors] Dmitrii Pisarev and Nikolai Chernyshevskii.