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How to Say ‘Halloween’ in Yiddish

Rokhl’s Golden City: Yiddish vampires, Jewish Magic, Frankenstein, and ‘all those other impotent gods’

Rokhl Kafrissen
October 31, 2017
Inset images: Stills from 'The Dybbuk,' 1937 and 'The Fearless Vampire Killers,' 1967.
Inset images: Stills from ‘The Dybbuk,’ 1937 and ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers,’ 1967.
Inset images: Stills from 'The Dybbuk,' 1937 and 'The Fearless Vampire Killers,' 1967.
Inset images: Stills from ‘The Dybbuk,’ 1937 and ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers,’ 1967.

I love Halloween and I don’t care who knows it. Traditionally, Jews visit the graves of their ancestors between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to ask for heavenly intercession. But keyver oves just don’t have the kind of autumnal spookiness I crave. Stutchkov’s Oytser has All Saints Day as al di blinde (i.e. all those other impotent deities and semi-deities), a nice bit of Yiddish shade I can definitely get behind. My friend (and rebbe in all things Yiddish) Michael Wex says that in the Yiddish-speaking community he grew up in, the only Yiddish word for Halloween was Halloween, and the erev was irrelevant.

I was that weird kid who haunted the public library, always scouring the place for any books on witchcraft, magic and/or ESP. You could probably say I had an unhealthy interest in the uncanny. So it’s surprising to old me that young me never came across Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic and Superstition, a fascinating look at medieval Jewish life in its supernatural dimensions. Even if I had, though, I don’t think I would’ve gotten very far. Trachtenberg’s style is a particular kind of stuffy, early 20th-century scholarly, with lots of untranslated German and Hebrew sprinkled throughout. I mean, I was precocious, but not that precocious.

I finally picked up Jewish Magic and Superstition a couple years ago, looking for folkloric detail for the play I was writing, a ghost romance bridging prewar Poland and postwar Brownsville. In Jewish Magic and Superstition, I found what I needed, and so much more. Trachtenberg’s book focuses on folk magic and folk religion, what scholars like Steven Lowenstein call the Little Tradition. The Little Tradition is made up of the parts of Jewish life transmitted domestically, locally, and orally—the flipside of the text-based sphere of the Great Tradition.

Jewish Magic and Superstition covers Jewish magic as it existed in the Medieval period, the kind of stuff that fascinated me as a kid. But as an adult, I’m just as interested in the image of the Jew as it intersected with medieval Christian notions of magic and Satanic worship. Much of what we think of as the medieval “wizard” comes from the Christian image of the nefarious Jew. (Think Gargamel, the arch-nemesis of the Smurfs, but with a hat.) And the blood libel? As Trachtenberg writes, “It is evident … that the suspicion of magic was behind the accusation of child murder.” Ritual murder, the consumption of blood, it’s all part of the imagery traditionally used for witches and others who consorted with Satan (another charge made against medieval Jews).

Jews don’t consume blood, of course, aderabe (on the contrary), blood is strictly treyf according to Jewish law, hence the mishegas around draining kosher meat. But what if there were Jewish vampires? Until now the most famous Jewish vampire has been Yoine Shagal, played by Alfie Bass, a too brief blip in Roman Polanski’s 1968 vam-com The Fearless Vampire Killers.

This year, however, marks the appearance of the first fully Jewish vampire story (as far as I know), Israeli TV’s Juda. Right now Juda is only available in Israel, though its tale of an Israeli ne’er-do-well “turned” while gambling in Romania, is supposedly coming to foreign markets soon. Of course, I’m interested in Jewish vampires, but what I’m really excited about is Yiddish-theater legend Mike Burstyn’s role on the show as a mysterious rabbi. At least 50 percent of my relationship with my Israeli ex was built on a firm foundation of shared obsession with everything Burstyn/Burstein, including, yes, all three Kuni Lemel films and the Burstein family’s 1950s Yiddish Israeli comedy records. (You haven’t heard Yiddish until you’ve heard Nasser and Kosygin give each other khizuk in Yiddish.)

I don’t know if Mike Burstyn’s vampire rabbi will speak any Yiddish, but I remain hopeful—a yid lebt mit bitokhn (a Jew lives with hope). And if Mike wants to play the Yiddish-speaking Angel of Death/Godfather in my gangster ghost story, he should definitely get in touch with me.

My play, A brokhe, was inspired in part by the work of M.R. James (1862-1936). James was a British antiquarian, Cambridge don and re-inventor of the modern ghost story during his Christmas breaks. His stories take place in a fictional universe that looks a lot like his own, with dusty libraries, rare manuscripts and the occasional seaside holiday. But in the Jamesian world, it’s all haunted by the kind of intricate linguistic and folkloric detail that could only come from the mind of an antiquarian. James’s Tractate Middoth is the only ghost story I know of that hinges on a volume of Talmud. Mark Gatiss adapted it for TV a few years ago and it’s perfect viewing for a spooky evening at home. (Ignore the egregious seyfer error on-screen if you can.)

The Secret Jewish History of Frankenstein. I’ve been wondering about this one. Is it a thing? Honestly, I think all the golem-Frankenstein connections are too facile by half. I’m OK with Frankenstein being goyish. (Aside from Young Frankenstein, obviously). Frankenbagel, however, now that’s Yiddish. Or rather, it’s the product of the most Yiddishlekh writer of English language YA, Daniel Pinkwater. You can hear Pinkwater himself read Frankenbagel here. Go to minute four if you find ventriloquist dummies a little too much, even for Halloween…

Investigate: I went on my first ghost hunt a few weeks ago and it was a total blast. Not only did we hunt for spooks, we got to do it in the most haunted historical home in Northern Manhattan, the beautiful Morris-Jumel mansion.

Watch: The Dybbuk has had more incarnations than a restless spirit cursed to wander the earth in borrowed bodies. The 1938 movie version is still the best and you should watch it immediately if you’ve never seen it. Michal Waszynski, the director of The Dybbuk, was born a Jew named Mosze Waks. Waks changed his name, and his religion, and began a decades-long career in international cinema; The Dybbuk was just the beginning. He’s now the subject of a new documentary which will hopefully be reaching the United States soon.

ALSO: On my desk right now is the most exciting new Yiddish CD of 2017. I don’t want to say anything about it until my Thanksgiving column, except that it features the kind of Yiddish political anthems that will immediately imprint themselves on your brain. In the meantime, Yiddish protest songs are hot again, in this revolutionary anniversary year. Brush up on your revolutionary songs with one of my favorite Yiddish teachers, Paula Teitelbaum, Nov. 5 at the Workmen’s Circle. … Dan Blacksberg’s new project Radiant Others is the first klezmer project to feature the trombone as lead instrument. For anyone else I’d raise a skeptical eyebrow, but for Dan it’s all heart-eyes emojis. Don’t miss Radiant Others at Jalopy on Nov. 9 as part of the New York Klezmer Series. … Yiddish New York returns this year, with a lively week of world-class Yiddish music, language, theater, and art classes and happenings. Register now and you can even attend a lecture by ani ha-koten (yours truly). 14th Street Y, Dec. 23-28.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.