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Possessed by a dybbuk

Finding that elusive sense of the sacred in an old Yiddish movie whose Polish director was on his own spiritual search

It’s Lent, and the Catholics in this monastery are in a bad mood. We’re working on our second full week of the fasting season, and we have four more weeks to go.

It’s gray and ugly outside, the music in church is dour, and we’re eating more herring than usual. And no chocolate. It’s a tough life.

But this year, to me, it all seems too prosaic.

Something is missing. I’m hungry for something, and it isn’t food.

A sense of the sacred; maybe that’s what I lack. A sense of the sacred — not mystification, but mystery.

Like it or not, there is something suspicious — deeply peculiar — going on when people fast and pray for real. The air in a good old church is thick with mysteries, and no spotlight can dispel them.

This Lent, I want to get to a place that is haunted by the sacred, where God is obvious because of His subtlety.

I’m going to Poland. Poland before the War. And it’s not the Poland of teeming convents and Corpus Christi parades, which might seem somewhat familiar — at least to me. This is Jewish Poland.

Through the magic of the Internet, I am watching a Yiddish film from 1937 that is the pearl of its genre: The Dybbuk.

Lili Liliana possessed by a dybbuk
Lili Liliana possessed by a dybbuk

The picture unspools in a private world. It was filmed on location in Kazimierz Dolny, not far from Lublin. Jewish Kazimierz is lost. I feel like a trespasser for looking at it.

Why should a Catholic watch? For one thing, the Dybbuk‘s director was Catholic:

The famously courtly Michał Waszyński survived the war with Anders’ army and landed in Italy, then Spain, where he produced The Quiet American with Audie Murphy and the Charlton Heston epic El Cid. He was buried in Rome with great Catholic pomp in 1965 (one of the last good years for pomp).

But he was born in Volhynia: Mosze Waks.

And as Jewish as this film is, like Waks, it is also (if I may be so bold) Catholic, like Waszyński.

Its intuitions about God and man are skin-close to a monk. The invisible is real. The Evil One prowls the world, though God is Lord of all. The supernatural can be touched. It touches us. And, amid the enchantment, plain human life is full of acid laughter, obstinate beauty, and dirt.

Watch, if you can, and enter a world that is not as lost as we think. Let the actors use their melting inflections to pierce you across the barriers of language and time. Listen to the words of the Torah sung out by a cantor murdered in a ghetto on the last day of Pesach (Gershon Sirota, 1874-1943).

See how these people could pray. See how they loved.

I contemplate the sacred as I look at a world of many unknowns that knew the root of things better than I.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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