Fantastic Jewish beasts and where to find them
This Halloween, it may not just be ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties that go bump in the night, as the old Celtic prayer has it. Watch your step or you just might run into a golem, a Yedoni or even the Demon Queen Lilith herself.
Greek legend gave us Medusa, the monster with the snake hairdo who can turn you into stone. The sea-faring Scandinavians gave us the Kraken, the gigantic squid that destroys ships and sends sailors to their doom. The Irish gave us the Banshee, the harbinger of death, which – although we were not Irish – my mother called me from a wee little age because of my ability, like that apparition, to emit ear-piercing screams upon no notice whatsoever.
In this international panoply of the fantastic, Jewish monsters might seem like an oxymoron (“oxymoron” would be a good name for a monster, if it weren’t already taken: “the dreaded Oxymoron!”), but Jewish folklore is filled with them. Often, their origin comes from hints found in the Hebrew Bible by ancient rabbis.
For example, from the two versions of the creation story at the start of the book of Genesis, some rabbis deduced that the first man, Adam, had two wives: the second, Eve, is the well-known mother of Cain and Abel. But there was that unnamed first wife, whose fate was also unknown. In their retellings, she became Lilith, a demon who was banished from Adam (yes, the world’s first marriage ended in a messy divorce) because of her, um, assertive style of love-making.
But the Jewish imagination was not done with Lilith. By the ninth century, Lilith had become a child killer, a witch, and a cannibal. As if this resume’ weren’t sufficiently unflattering, other legends of Lilith as a demon seductress were thrown into the mix as well. To this day, it is the practice for an orthodox Jewish bridegroom not to spend the night alone before his wedding. The custom originates in the fear that Lilith will appear and have her revenge on him, although most contemporary Jewish grooms are likely unfamiliar with this provenance.
If you happen to be followed down a dark alley on Halloween or any other night, you don’t want it to be by a golem, a man of clay brought to life by the magic of the Kabbalah. The golem is perhaps the most widely recognized monster of Jewish myth, a favorite of artists and writers both Jewish and non-Jewish. The attraction of creative types to a creation myth isn’t surprising. Pinocchio is a golem of sorts; so is Frankenstein’s monster. But the Jewish golem is distinctly Jewish, profoundly Jewish, because its creator seeks not to challenge or surpass God (unlike so many mad scientists of the movies), but to emulate him in order to know him better. Creating a golem is a way for its creator to draw closer to the Creator. Only a righteous person operating in submission to the Almighty can succeed.
And sometimes, not even then. If Mary Shelley was inspired by the golem legend to write Frankenstein—as some speculate—then she returned the favor by creating a dramatic ending to her novel that Jewish storytellers soon adopted to replace the otherwise anticlimactic finale to the golem story. Now the golem ran amuck at the end of the tale and had to be destroyed. Sometimes, as in a version by the Brothers Grimm, the golem crumbled to its doom atop its creator, killing him too.
Perhaps the most peculiar example of fantastic Jewish beasts is the Yedoni. Legend has it that the wild animals that God loosed upon the ancient Egyptians at the time of the ten plagues were not lions or tigers, but the Yedoni, and that this was why the Egyptians grew fearful of the Lord. Scripture specifically warned man against contact with the Yedoni, for such contact meant almost certain death.
The origin of these creatures was unique in Jewish mythology: they grew from the ground, like vegetables. Human in shape but in no other way, the Yedoni remained attached to the earth through an umbilical cord that reached from their navels to deep in the ground, connecting them to some unimaginable, underground horror. It was said that more than one traveler who failed to reach his destination, particularly one who traveled by night, knew the Yedoni, though it was the last thing he knew.
This Halloween, if your children dress up as diminutive golems, Yedoni, or Liliths, they may have a lot of explaining to do, but who knows? They may end up being the coolest little critters on the block.