It’s officially spooky season. Pumpkins abound and people begin to revisit the classic goblins and ghouls of their favorite Halloween thrillers, obsessing over vampires and werewolves from traditional lore. One of my favorite things about fall is the sense of mystery it invites, and the chance it affords me to once again ramble on about the stories I feel not enough people are told: the chilling tales of Jewish mythology.
You may know what a golem is, may even be familiar with the parasitic dybbuk, but those stories barely scratch the surface. The depths of Jewish mythology could fill a book, one I admittedly hope to write someday.
My obsession with Jewish mythology began on August 2, 2017. I was a rising senior in high school, spending a week of my summer participating in the Great Jewish Books program of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA. S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk was splayed open on my dorm room’s desk and I was enthralled. Perhaps it was because the character whose soul possesses another in the play has the same Hebrew name as my older brother and a part of me jokingly enjoyed that metaphorical revenge, perhaps it was because the twisted love story interwoven in the scenes snagged at my emotions, or perhaps it was simply because I never knew Jewish demons existed before.
A dybbuk is generally considered to be a soul whose sins are too great to migrate to the afterworld. They inhabit the bodies of living people, who have opened the door to possession by committing a secret sin themselves. Once inside their new host body, dybbuks cleave themselves to that person’s soul, speak through that person’s mouth, and cause general hysteria. In S. Ansky’s 1914 play, this dislocated soul takes the form of a young Yeshiva student who inhabits the body of his earthly lover, a young woman engaged to another man.
Since being introduced to this canon of folklore three years ago, I’ve begun my quest to read all the Jewish mythology I can find. These tales never cease to captivate my imagination, from the unfinished corner of creation that attracts all things evil, to King Solomon’s pet vampire named Ornasis, to the alternate universe city of Luz where the lyrics of “Hotel California” ring eternally true. The city is programmed to receive those escaping the woes of the world, protecting them from war, famine, and even mortality, but when its citizens do try to leave, the Angel of Death himself surely waits with outstretched arms just beyond the city limits.
These stories capture a moment in time, yet span generations. The Dybbuk was adapted as a Yiddish film in 1937, filmed in a Polish shtetl on the eve of World War II. Rich with scenes of locals celebrating holidays and weddings with traditional music and dances, it offers a rare and chilling glimpse into quotidian European Jewry before it was irrevocably and devastatingly changed forever by the cruelties of genocide and hatred. As I watched scenes from the film the day after first reading the play, it seemed to me that a lot more people than just the young lover would soon become wandering souls. This snapshot of a culture lost only added to the eeriness of the whole story, and it echoes the larger current status of Jewish mythology — a treasure trove of depth and color that too many people remain unaware of.
These stories connect generations and preserve the spirits of those from the past, both figuratively as they are retold in each new age and literally in the tales as souls of those who have passed cling to the material world. These narratives are alive and are being reimagined even today, just as surely as yet another modern-day adaptation of a Grimm tale will hit theatres in the next few years.
An entertaining example of this is the legend of the dybbuk box, an old wine cabinet said to be haunted by a dybbuk. Just to be clear, the idea of dybbuks being contained in boxes is unheard of in the original lore. The box is said to have belonged to Havela, a Polish Holocaust survivor who fled to Spain before immigrating to the United States. She had sealed the dybbuk in the wine cabinet after encountering it when conducting a séance with some friends. The box was bought at an estate sale in 2001, then auctioned on eBay from owner to owner, yielding a string of unexplainable nightmares and health problems, before it was finally donated to paranormal investigator Zak Bagans, who proudly displays it in his museum. This contemporary addition to the mythology even inspired a 2012 movie, The Possession, which flopped fantastically at the box office.
Whether or not you believe the spirit of a now-very-old Jew is trapped in that cabinet, the fact that these stories are still evolving more than a century after Ansky’s original publication evinces the power and connectivity of these hidden Jewish fairytales. Whether it is envisioning a deathless city in your mind’s eye or catching a glimpse of the past in the present, I hope we all may find a bit of mystery and magic to captivate our thoughts this fall.