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July 20, 2017 by

Cannibal Mermaids, Dybbuks, Golems, and Lilith Herself: Feminist Retellings of Jewish Folktales

I saw the Polish film “The Lure” in the West Village a few months ago. The story riffs on The Little Mermaid in a very unexpected way. Ariel is no longer a fork-wielding dilettante, but instead has morphed into two sharp-fanged, angel-voiced, flesh-eating mermaids, who sing, dance, and devour their way through Communist Poland’s underground nightclub scene.

I often find myself thinking about types of feminist reclamation, both the kind that equips traditionally submissive women with sharp fangs and the kind that turns sharp-fanged monsters into powerful protagonists. These reclamations are not always completely triumphant. After all, the fundamental nature of a “reclamation” is that something must be re-made: essentially, changed. Still, having feminist retellings is far better than leaving the stories in their original forms, where the woman’s voice is often left out entirely. 

Aside from Lilith, one of the central Jewish folkloric figures reclaimed by feminists is, surprisingly, the dybbuk. Traditionally, this creature was a formless ghost who possessed women and was often blamed for  their “hysteria.” It rose to prominence throughout the Jewish Diaspora, popularized among the Eastern European Jews in folk rituals and literature. S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk,” or “Between Two Worlds,” which had its Yiddish-language premier in Warsaw in 1920, tells of a woman possessed by her dead suitor’s spirit; the play has been lauded as a nostalgic portrayal of disappearing shtetl life.  Its voiceless heroine, Leah, dies at the end, consumed by the spirit within her. It’s the story of a female whose body is possessed by a masculine spirit, and about the often violent subjugation of the female voice. But it’s more a blunt depiction of the problem than a triumphant feminist redemption.

“The Dybbuk” has been adapted many times over. It was the basis for Paddy Chayevsky’s play “The Tenth Man,” which was a major success on Broadway in the late 1950s. It also inspired a 1974 ballet by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein, and continues to influence contemporary media, even appearing in 2012’s grim Exorcist revamp, “The Possession.”

But spirit possession has long been a gendered phenomenon, argues Agnieszka Legutko in her essay “Feminist Dybbuks: Spirit Possession as a Motif in Post-Second-Wave Jewish Women’s Fiction,” published in the Jewish feminist journal Bridges in 2010. According to this article, the spirit doing the possessing was usually male (90% of such spirits were male, one study found), while the women were the ones possessed.

Feminist artists have worked alongside mainstream media in retelling the dybbuk’s story, emphasizing that part of its function may have been to embody the emotion, frustration, ambition, or whatever else—homosexuality, mental illness, desire—that convention has long marked as inappropriate or incongruent with femininity. These intense forces were so traditionally taboo in women that they had to be demonized, literally––exorcised from the body and portrayed as monstrous beings. Accordingly, some different renditions of Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” have emerged.

In 2016, a Palo Alto adaption of Ansky’s play replaced the dybbuk’s words with the sounds of a clarinet, turning its heroine, Leah, into the star. When she is possessed, the spirit’s words are erased and its voice becomes a wordless sound. This version of the show allows the audience to focus on Leah only when she is Leah, not when she is being spoken for.

Ellen Galford’s the The Dyke and the Dybbuk, reviewed by Lilith in 1995, focuses on a dybbuk assigned to haunt a Jewish lesbian film critic named Rainbow Rosenbloom. Its protagonist, the demon Konos, is as rebellious as the woman she is assigned to haunt, and eventually she gives Rainbow a crush on an Orthodox woman with six children.

There’s also Judith Katz’s 1992 novel Running Fiercely Towards a High Thin Sound, which tells the story of Nadine, a young, troubled lesbian whose mother accuses her of being a dybbuk. Despite her desire to speak out for the Jewish lesbian community, the protagonist remains silent, afraid to reveal her true nature.

Ultimately, both works are subversive because of the way they skew traditional ideas about gender and sexuality. They also propose futures where the lesbian and the dybbuk can be accepted as they are. The act of creating this world, where Jewish tradition can include and support ostracized spirits, is a work of midrash, of retelling old stories to fill a gap. Tradition can be rewritten through storytelling that unwinds boundaries and creates space for new narratives.

A similar process has occurred with the golem. Traditionally, the golem is a figure made of clay or dust, brought to life when a piece of paper containing the name of God is placed in its mouth. Early narratives concerning the golem date back hundreds of years; the earliest is most likely the traditional story of Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm, who allegedly created a golem in 1630. 

The golem is often created to be a counterweight to a threat or danger, but it also sometimes performs menial household tasks, and some historians even associate the golem with women in early Jewish society. In Talmudic literature, the word “golem” means “unformed substance,” and unmarried women are referred to as golems in various Jewish traditions, thanks to their “unformed” natures.

Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers and Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It both tell stories of women who come into contact with golems. Ozick creates a protagonist who designs a female golem to fill the void left by her lack of a daughter. This nuanced rereading of the traditional golem story lauds woman’s unique ability to create life, rather than demonizing female sexuality. Piercy’s novel also features a female protagonist who falls in love with a golem, raising questions about what it means to be human, and what kind of love can be considered legitimate.

In the music world, there’s the female-led punk-klezmer band “Golem,” which Lilith wrote about in 2014, which sings about Jewish folklore with a distinctly feminist twist.

In 2011, Jessica Riva Cooper—then an artist-in-residence at the Hassadah-Brandeis Institute—set up an exhibit inspired by feminist reclamations of traditional Jewish folk narratives. She focused on the golem and the dybbuk, creating multimedia arts installations showing the dybbuk as a protective talisman for women, a makeshift voice for those who had none of their own, rather than a creature from nightmares. Today, Cooper still creates clay-based installations that focus on telling traditional folktales through a feminist lens.

There are many other characters whose stories have followed this tradition, initially created by men and then later rewritten by feminists. Witches, a designation infamously used to condemn women, have also found new footing in countless modern stories and works of art. My own great-aunt has told me stories about the magic that her grandmother used to practice as a young Jewish mother in Brooklyn. She would make wax and paraffin sculptures to cure diseases like depression and anxiety, using recipes she’d learned back in Russia. And in today’s world, modern interest in witchcraft is often a subversive attempt to reclaim what was so often made dangerous and taboo. Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and her new book, The Rules of Magic, are examples of the vast body of work that has redefined the witch archetype, preserving the witch’s dignity while refusing to downplay her powers.

And then there’s Lilith. A Bay Area organization called the “Jewitch Camp” has been fusing neo-paganism and Judaism, holding holiday rituals that invoke spirits like Lilith and ancient Caananite rain gods. These practices have deep roots in Jewish women’s folk culture, stemming from traditions that arose when women excluded from direct religious participation created a fragmented language of rituals, songs, and prayer.

Still, each of these retellings comes with a sense of bittersweetness. Each feminist reclamation, after all, is forced to compensate for a painful origin story. Because female or feminist protagonists were often portrayed either as evil or helpless beings, the act of rewriting their their stories has an element of violence to it.

Although movies like “The Lure” and feminist rewritings of traditional folk stories are a start, they are not exactly solutions. The film, for example, mostly made headlines for the bizarre nature of its plotline, not for its feminist undertones, and S. Ansky’s Leah will never be able to become a truly feminist character, because she does die at the end of the play, swallowed by grief for the lover that overtook her body.

We come closer with stories like Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It—stories that create new narratives and look to the future while honoring historical roots. In order to truly move forward, we have to look backward, but we also have to use what we know to start fresh and write our own heroines. We need a canon of thought and literature led women who never have to be reclaimed because they were never claimed in the first place.

Eden Gordon is a student at Barnard College and a current Lilith intern.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.