As you might have heard, Wednesday night we transformed Ramat Shalom into a “Haunted Synagogue” for our 7th-12th grade students. While Halloween is by no means a Jewish holiday, Judaism has its own collection of ghosts, witches and things that go bump in the night. What better time of year to teach our teens about this creepy side of Judaism than the week before Halloween?
On Wednesday, the Oneg Room became The Dybbuk Museum. For centuries, there have been Jewish stories describing haunting spirits and demons. In the 17th century, these spirits and demons, particularly those that sought to possess the body of someone who is alive, became know as “dybbukim” (singular: “dybbuk”), or those that cling to another being. In response to these possessing spirits, exorcism became a rite practiced within Judaism. You can see an example of a 16th century exorcism here.
In 1914, S. Ansky completed his play, The Dybbuk, which was based upon Jewish folk beliefs pertaining to possession and exorcism. The play remains an important piece of Jewish/Yiddish theater. The Dybbuk has influenced many other artistic works. It was adapted into a film in 1937. In 1951, the opera The Dybbuk, also based on the play, premiered. In 1974, Leonard Bernstein composed music for Jerome Robbin’s ballet, Dybbuk. The Dybbuk: An Opera In Yiddish premiered in Tel Aviv in 1999.
While by no means an adaptation of Ansky’s play, the 2012 horror movie, The Possession, uses the concept of the dybbuk to frighten modern audiences. While the film relies more upon Hollywood scare tactics than Jewish tradition, it does indeed capture draw upon Jewish sources. As you can see by looking at the Jewish exorcism cited above, it was believed that a dybbuk could be removed from a person by drawing it into a vessel. This concept has certainly fostered the birth of dybbuk boxes – haunted vessels that hold possessed souls. Oddly enough you can buy supposed dybbuk boxes on eBay!? The Possession claims to tell the “true” story of a family that purchased one of these dybbuk boxes at a yard sale.
On Wednesday evening, our 7th-12th graders got a chance to learn about the real history dybbuks in a dark, candlelit Oneg Room. After this, they watched clips from The Possession and had a chance to see and touch what they thought were actual dybbuk boxes (unbeknownst to them they were 100% fake). In a wonderfully staged series of events, one of our parents, Tracy Rubens, grabbed one of the boxes and opened it to prove that nothing bad would happen to anyone. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Tracy, (who is a wonderful actor and member of our theater group, HaBimah), became possessed and began acting the part rather well. Fortunately, I had planned for this. As our 7th-12th graders stared in horror, dismay, confusion, I called upon our resident exorcist (another member of our theater group and a great actor), Bruce Abrahams, to perform the 16th century, Jewish exorcism cited above. And, thankfully, it worked. Once Tracy returned to her normal self, she passed around candy…..but many of our teenagers wanted to know, was that all real?
So no, Halloween is not Jewish. But a lot of spooky stuff that makes Halloween so much fun/creepy, is very Jewish. With this in mind, if you are planning to go Trick-or-Treating this evening, please note that Judaism teaches us in Pirkei Avot 5:6 that demons were created as the sun set on Friday night. Some say these demons are still being created at this time…beware…I hear that lighting Shabbat candles and having a nice Shabbat dinner before Trick-or-Treating helps to keep them away. (Try making Challah filled with candy!!!)
Shabbat Shalom and Chappy Challah-ween