Friday, June 29, 2012

The Monsters in Our Closet

I WAS CRUISING MY NEWSFEED on Facebook, when I came across the trailer for a new movie called “The Possession.” It stars Jeffery Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgewick as the parents of a young girl who buys a “dybuk box” at a garage sale and is subsequently possessed by the demonic spirits trapped inside. The movie also stars Jewish reggae sensation Matisyahu, as the Jewish sage in charge of helping the family while filling in the audience in all things dybuk (Yiddush for demon).

Growing up I heard Jewish ghost stories about dybuks, or demons, but I was still stunned when I saw the words “Based on a True Story.”

From what I could gather from Wikipedia (I know, weak source), the “Dybuk Box” came to fame after it was sold on Ebay with an accompanying story of its mysterious and dark powers. Apparently, each owner has had some calamitous incidents befall them. This, of course, begs the question, why do people keep buying it? With a little more research, I found out that the movie is a fictional retelling of LA Times reporter Leslie Gornstein's LA Times story "Jinx in a Box," about an antique wooden box purchased on eBay that contained an evil spirit and was brought to America by a Holocaust survivor after World War II.


Why do I mention all of this? This trailer and the movie bring up some of the self reflective questions I have when I see these kinds of Jewish representations in pop culture. How do I feel about this? Is it cool that there will be Hebrew and Hasids, and I will feel like an insider watching this? Do I really need average horror movie fans to feel like Jews are capable of dark mysterious arts that can trap monsters to be released on unsuspecting Gentile garage sale shoppers? Do I really need another pop culture representation of Hasidism as the authentic expression of American Jewry? Why do I overthink this stuff?


This same set of questions came into play in the last few weeks, as HBO launched the latest season of True Blood, the network’s hit vampire show. A friend suggested I check out the new season for Jewish content. In this season we get a glimpse into the organizational world of the vampires. It turns out they are a pretty frum (religious) bunch, and even have their own Bible that predates the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. They explain that God (a vampire), created Lilith in God’s image (also a vampire), and Adam and Eve were created as food. “Uh Oh”, I started to think to myself, I know Lilith ghost stories, now I am shvitzing, are the vampires supposed to be some kind of protoJews? I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up, when not five minutes later, there is the head vampire speaking in Aramaic. In the end, I decided that perhaps I was being a bit oversensitive. Besides, it couldn’t be more than me and few other Jewish viewers that even recognized the Aramaic?

It turns out quite a few people did, as the discussions of how cool it was to hear Aramaic on TrueBlood hit the social media airwaves. Well, there was one person who did not find it cool in the least.

In Tablet Magazine online, Marjorie Ingall wrote an article entitled “HBO’s TrueBlood Libel.” In her article she makes the case that the use of Hebrew and associations with bloodsucking vampires demonstrates the persistence of blood libels against the Jews. I will forgive her confusing Hebrew with Aramaic, but is she right? Or is she overthinking this?

I would be interested in your opinions; this is my first foray into the PopJewish blog so I would love to learn about our readers. When you see demonic characters or stories in pop culture and they are "Jew---ish," how does it make you feel? Is it cool to find out vampires or dybuks are Jewish, like when you heard that Drake had two bar mitzvahs? Or is it a sinking feeling like when you heard about Bernie Madoff? Is it a point of pride for you? Or perhaps a perilous incitement identifying Jews as monsters?

Let me know what you think…


Rabbi David Levy is the Director of Teen Learning for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Follow him on Twitter at @rabbidavelevy.