One night, in the early 1800s, a young girl visited her mother’s grave in the small, predominantly Jewish town of Ludmir, in present day Ukraine. What follows next is a mix of lore and legend. According to some, she tripped and hit her head. Her critics claimed the girl fell into a swoon and was possessed by a malignant spirit. By the girl’s own telling, she received a “higher soul.” Whatever the truth, the next morning the girl awoke and began a different kind of life, one that led to her refusal to marry and, instead, devote herself to study and prayer. Although her real name is uncertain, the girl came to be called “The Maiden of Ludmir,” the only woman known to have acted as a Hasidic rebbe, a charismatic Jewish leader, in recorded history.

As many of the details about this woman’s life are hearsay or conjecture, it falls to the work of scholars such as Nathaniel Deutsch, a professor of history at UC Santa Cruz, to establish the facts and bring context for their meaning.

“She was a marginal figure in a lot of ways, existing in a patriarchal society,” said Deutsch, author of the first scholarly book about the Maiden of Ludmir. “But I believe telling stories about people and ideas that are on the margins is nonetheless important.”

Deutsch, also the director of UCSC’s Institute for Humanities Research and co-director of the Center for Jewish Studies, has dedicated his career to giving the spotlight to those who have dwelt at society’s edges. In addition to The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World (a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award), Deutsch has also published The Gnostic Imagination, on Gnosticism and Jewish mysticism, Inventing America’s “Worst” Family, about a poor family from Indiana that became targets of the eugenics movement, and Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism, among others.

There is a tendency, Deutsch said, for us to focus the bulk of our attention on what lies at the center of things. Often “the margins” are studied for the sake of comparison, to learn something about the mainstream. “But there’s no reason to have this privileging of the center, whether it’s a group that is in the majority or an idea that is prevalent,” he said.

An-sky’s ethnographic dream

It was through research for The Maiden of Ludmir, that Deutsch came across a reference that would alight his imagination anew, consuming his research life for the better part of a decade: What stories do you know about the Maiden of Ludmir?

That query was one among thousands, part of a lengthy questionnaire prepared for an ethnographic study of Jewish communities within the Russian Pale of Settlement, an area of Western Russia which once held 40 percent of the global Jewish population. The document was but one component of an ambitious research expedition—cut short by the outbreak of World War I—designed by the playwright and socialist revolutionary known as An-sky.

Born Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, the aspiring ethnographer saw the decline of the traditional Jewish way of life in his own lifetime, Deutsch said. Pressure to assimilate into Russian society, poverty, immigration to other lands, and violent pogroms at home were eroding the connection to tradition.

But An-sky’s project, “The Jewish Ethnographic Program,” sought more than documentation, said Deutsch. It was part of a quest to document what An-sky considered to be a kind of Oral Torah, one created by the common people rather than the rabbinic elite. The collected answers—drawn from folk tales, traditions, parables and aphorisms, songs and melodies, habits and beliefs—would “create a new kind of Jewish culture that would use traditional themes, traditions and artifacts in new cultural forms, such as plays or museums, that would be rooted in earlier traditions.”

Yet, the questions were so extensive, 2,087 in number, so almost comically exhaustive (Is there a custom to place a cat, pieces of cake, or something else, in the crib before one lays the child in it? Does one whisper something in the cat’s ear at that time? or What do people say when a child farts? and Do the dead leave their graves at night?) that had the forms gone out, An-sky’s task would have been near-Sisyphean in nature.

“There is something quite utopian in An-sky, which I found appealing,” said Deutsch, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006 that supported this research.

The questionnaire paints an all-encompassing portrait of Jewish life—including groups who have been classically overlooked. When asked if he had a favorite question, Deutsch recalled one relating to midwives:

Is there a custom that when the midwife dies, all of the children whom she brought into the world accompany her funeral procession with candles in their hands?

“One of the things I really like about the question is that one of the categories of people, of Jews, that the questionnaire looks at—in many ways for the first time—is not only women, but also classes of women that really haven’t been well documented otherwise,” Deutsch said. “And one of those classes is midwives and the role midwives play in their communities. There is a whole section devoted to them. They’re important to every culture that relies on them, but it’s easy to take them for granted if you’re a member of a group that’s excluded from the birth process, which men typically were.”

Almost all the Jewish settlements within the former Russian Pale were annihilated during the Holocaust. As Nazis advanced into Soviet territory, they rounded up Jewish communities, marched them into the woods and shot them en masse. Many of the customs, stories, lullabies and folkways that An-sky was unable to collect, died with them.

New answers to old questions

Though Deutsch’s translation of the questionnaire took only a few months, publishing the book that holds the translation, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, took eight long years. In addition to an introduction and commentary, the questions themselves are richly annotated to give context and meaning. In 2013 the Association for Jewish Studies awarded the book the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award for its “rigorous research, theoretical sophistication, innovative methodology, and excellent writing.”

“The knowledge Deutsch brought to this book is exceptional,” said Brian Horowitz, a professor of Jewish history at Tulane University who reviewed the book. “It would have overwhelmed many—you have to know the Slavic and Jewish languages, the Hebraic traditions, the Torah, and the folkways.”

Deutsch’s immersion into the world of An-sky was so complete, Horowitz said, that he effectively transformed himself into a contemporary. “He’s no water carrier. He has the knowledge of a rabbinic sage of the time.”

While writing the book Deutsch sought to repair the “rupture” he felt was symbolized by An-sky’s unanswered questionnaire, and the loss of the Russian Pale way of life. To do so, Deutsch approached two former residents of Ludmir, whom he had gotten to know while writing The Maiden.

“It was, I soon realized, a naive hope,” he wrote in Dark Continent. “The problem was not that the Program’s questions failed to inspire rich commentary … but that they inspired too much.” It would take years, he said, to get to the final question. He did collect an essentially complete set of answers from a Hasidic friend living in Brooklyn, where Deutsch and his family once lived. Though no one person, he said, could possibly answer all of the questions.

He now seeks to continue An-sky’s work, by creating a crowd-sourced, online repository of contemporary Jewish practice. Along with computer science doctoral student Jacob Garbe, who received a Master of Fine Arts in UCSC’s Digital Arts and New Media in 2013, Deutsch is close to completing a website that houses an English-Yiddish edition of The Jewish Ethnographic Program. Visitors to the website can create accounts and respond to the questions in the “Program.”

There are almost an unlimited number of ways to use technology to make historical documents interactive. But what makes this project meaningful, said Garbe, is the narrative behind the questionnaire. “It’s a compelling example of how you can make history a more permeable, breathable thing,” he said. “Since it was never put out to the communities it was crafted for, it’s interesting to bring it to people’s awareness and say: Now you can answer these questions. You can add your part of the story to this historical document.”

It’s a project, Deutsch said, that exemplifies why the humanities are important.

A screenshot from The Digital Minhag Archive, a web-based survey and database of contemporary Jewish practice built around An-sky’s “Jewish Ethnographic Program.” The website takes its name, “minhag,” from the Hebrew word for “custom,” and will launch in 2015–16.