Rabbi Jake Singer had heard about the Rebbe Molkovitch, from a few of the old Russian residents at Mazel House, the assisted care facility where he worked. No, Rebbe Molkovitch doesn’t have a fancy lineage, they told him as they shifted their canes between their swollen legs. Nor does he have a huge following. He’s a quiet sort of fellow from Odessa, content to tend to his congregation in whatever way he can.
Rabbi Jake listened to the residents’ tales like a child, awed by their easy acceptance of a magical dimension that he couldn’t quite fathom.
Word was that this rebbe didn’t hesitate to dip into the secret teachings of the Midrash and deliver the goods of the Kabbalah. If you believed what the old timers said, this tzadik healer was particularly adept at defusing the “Einhora”—the Evil Eye.
Nor was the tzadik reluctant to use sympathetic magic, if that’s what it took to save a marriage, find a cure for an illness, help steer a youngster away from bad influences, or even to reverse a business setback.
“Go and see him yourself, Rabbi,” Rabbi Jake was told. “You might be pleasantly surprised. If you have any questions that you want answered, bring him something that relates to the topic because he likes to hold it in his hand, which he uses like a magnifying glass so he can interpret the hidden vibrations.”
Rebbe Molkovitch waltzed out of his office and immediately caused a stir in the parlor. Everyone’s face brightened up instantly, as he nodded and waved and uttered a few words of encouragement in Russian to some congregants and spoke in English to the others.
He was in his late sixties, a stocky man with a curly brown beard and side-locks streaked with gray, a barrel chest, and big hands that wriggled in the air like oversized carp.
He had a booming voice and a way of shuffling his feet that conveyed a coordinated spirit of vitality and purpose. He was casually dressed in a brown cardigan, with an open-collared red flannel shirt, and a dark blue kippah on his head.
Rebbe Molkovitch immediately zeroed in on one of the few non-Russians present. She was a fortyish-looking Jewish-American woman who had obviously been referred to the tzadik through the grapevine of her upscale Jewish neighborhood in Laurel Heights.
“Mrs. Brenthoff, and how is your son?” the rebbe asked in his rustic English.
Before she could reply, he swooped her up to her feet and held her at an arm’s length. “His, what you call it, concentration sindrom?”
“His ADHD, Rebbe—‘attention deficit disorder,’ ” the woman corrected him. “I don’t know,” she sniffled. “I go to the doctors, they give him medicine, it’s still no good … ” she shook her head.
“Nu shto,” the rebbe cast his face sideways as if disappointed to hear the news. Then he looked her in the eye, swayed his head from side to side as he checked her out, and gripped her arms tighter.
He was seeing something, Rabbi Jake thought, and wondered what it was. A moment later, the rebbe reached his diagnosis about the boy’s ADHD. The room grew quiet.
“Mrs. Brenthoff,” he announced solemnly. “It’s not your son. Eta vii. It’s you.”
“Yes, Rebbe,” she nodded gratefully, then was taken aback. “What did you say? It’s me?”
“Da,” the rebbe agreed. “When you take mikveh last?”
“Mikveh?” She didn’t understand what he meant.
Rabbi Jake came to her rescue and translated. “That’s the ritual bath for women … ”
Rebbe Molkovitch glanced at Rabbi Jake. “Thank you, Rabbi,” he said to him. “The bath. Yes?” he faced the woman again. “When?”
“Why … I don’t know,” she replied. “It’s been a while.”
The rebbe released her. “That is the reason, Mrs. Brenthoff. That is the reason for your boy to be upset always. Do your mikveh and he’ll be OK.”
All mankind was childish. It took a grown-up like Rebbe Molkovitch to put them on the straight path.
The Hasids davened as they waited to be received by their wonder-rebbe. Voices spoke softly in Russian, until Rebbe Molkovitch came bounding out of his study into the waiting room. There was an immediate grin on his face when he saw Rabbi Jake. They had grown very close to each other, more like father and son than student and teacher.
Rebbe Molkovitch raised his hand to the congregation.
“Children of Abraham!” he bellowed. “Please be patient! I have a special guest here this morning. This is Rabbi Yakob Singer from the Jewish Home for the Old People.”
The Hasids murmured their greetings as Rebbe Molkovitch gave Jake a powerful bear hug. “It’s good to see you, Yakob,” he whispered into his ear.
“It’s good to see you, too, Rebbe,” Rabbi Jake said as he kissed Rebbe Molkovitch’s cheek.
Rebbe Molkovitch looked Jake in the eye. “Did you bring your homework?”
Rabbi Jake patted the pocket of his jacket. “It’s all in here.”
“Good,” Rebbe Molkovitch replied. He addressed his congregation. “My heart is out here listening to your woes. But for now I’ll be inside with Rabbi Yakob. Come on, Yakob, let’s go into my study.”
As Rebbe Molkovitch listened to Rabbi Jake’s account, an old grandfather clock ticked away in a corner of his musty study.
The rebbe sat in his green La-Z-Boy chair, the plastic headrest patched with tape like a recycled bicycle tire, with embroidered lace doilies on the armrests.
Rabbi Jake sat opposite him in the seat of honor, a plush Renaissance-style red velvet armchair with sturdy legs and carved feet that looked like griffin’s claws. A seven-branched menorah candelabrum rested on top of a polished walnut cabinet that was set against the wall. Framed portraits of various Hasidic sages and tzadiks covered the wallpaper that was patterned with scenes from the English countryside.
“I was really shocked,” Rabbi Jake said as he wound up his narrative. “This afternoon, I went to the house of the son of this strange woman resident—the one who seems to be causing all the manifestations—and what do I find? To put it bluntly, it’s a house occupied by neo-Nazis.”
Rabbi Jake briefly removed his kippah to show Rebbe Molkovitch the few bald patches where Anna Applebaum had shaved his head.
“That’s not such a good haircut,” Rebbe Molkovitch commented.
“When I went to visit her in her room yesterday, she did this to me,” Rabbi Jake explained. “And she had a visitor with her, a young man who was a phantom dressed like a Nazi.”
The Odessa rebbe opened his eyes wide and poured Rabbi Jake a cup of Russian black tea from the samovar on the side-table. He passed it to him along with a tray containing slices of lemon and sugar cubes.
“You make my heart tremble, Rabbi,” he said attentively. He pointed at one of the portraits of the tzadiks, miracle workers, on the wall, an old man with a long white beard and flowing white hair that spilled from his fur-trimmed shtreimel.
In the picture, the tzadik’s left hand was inserted in the folds of his black kaftan like a rabbinical Napoleon on the march.
“You know who that is?” the rebbe asked Rabbi Jake softly as he answered his own question.
“That’s the Rebbe Avraham Mordechai Alter of Ger. A great and pious man. A maggid of the highest order. The ‘Emperor of the Hasids,’ he was called. When the war broke out in 1939, the Nazis made it their top priority to hunt him down. First, he hid in Warsaw, going from house to house. But he always remained invisible to them. They couldn’t see him with their naked eyes. G_D blinded them.”
Rebbe Molkovitch sipped his tea. “Finally, the Rebbe of Ger, Master of the Name—Blessed be his Memory—decided to slip through the Nazi net and he traveled to London. Churchill invited him to advise the British government on how to bring down the Germans. Do you know what he told them?”
Rabbi Jake shook his head. “No.”
“He told Churchill, ‘There are two ways to do this. One involves natural means. The other involves supernatural means. Which one do you want to hear?’ Churchill answered, ‘Nu, Rebbe, I want to hear both of them. We’re depending on your counsel.’ ”
Rabbi Jake stirred his tea with a spoon, smiled, and waited for the inevitable joke.
Rebbe Molkovitch wagged his finger at him. “The Rebbe of Ger said to Churchill, ‘The natural way would be for a million angels with burning swords to fall upon Germany and completely destroy it.’ ”
Rabbi Jake raised an eyebrow. “And the supernatural way?”
“ ‘The supernatural way would be if a million English paratroopers landed on Germany and laid waste to it.’ ”
The rebbe pulled at his beard. “Since Churchill was a man of reason and did not believe in the supernatural, of course he chose the natural means. ‘A million angels falling upon Germany with burning swords, that’s what I want …’ And you know what? History proved him to be right.”
Rebbe Molkovitch leaned towards Rabbi Jake and laid his hand on his knee.
“To get to the bottom of your problem, Rabbi, you, too, have a choice to make. The natural means or the supernatural means. What is your choice?”
Rabbi Jake thought for a moment then replied. “The natural way.”
“Are you sure? Once you open yourself to that possibility, Rabbi, what once seemed natural to you will no longer apply to the world that you see around you.”
Rabbi Jake laid his teacup down on the saucer. “I think I’m ready, Rebbe. If you will do me the kindness of showing me how to proceed.”
“Fine,” Rebbe Molkovitch said, smiling broadly. “Now then, I like to work the old-fashioned way, as the Russians at Mazel House may have told you … ”
He sniffed. “Did you by any chance bring with you some personal item that belongs to this woman? If so, I would like to hold it in my hand for a moment and contemplate it.”
“Yes, of course,” Rabbi Jake said as he reached into his pocket and brought out the mezuzah from Anna’s doorway. “Actually, I brought you two things that I picked up from her room.”
“Good, good,” the rebbe nodded. “The more the merrier.”
“This mezuzah flew off her doorpost and struck me in the head yesterday,” Rabbi Jake explained as he handed him the ritual object.
“Most interesting. Unusual.” Rebbe Molkovitch took the mezuzah from Rabbi Jake’s hand, felt it in the palm of his hand, then pried the cylinder open.
He frowned. “No wonder it did that. There’s no sacred parchment inside. The name of G_D is missing. Pfoo!” Rebbe Molkovitch spat on the floor and tossed the mezuzah into the wastebasket. “It’s the Evil Eye turned into brass. I’ll deal with it properly later on. What else you got?”
Rabbi Jake handed an eye mask to the rebbe. “She uses this for when she sleeps.”
“Excellent,” the rebbe patted him on the knee. “Watch out, Rabbi, you may yet have the makings of a tzadik!”
Rebbe Molkovitch held Anna Applebaum’s eye mask by its elastic band and dangled it in the air. “Why don’t we have a peek inside? Let’s see what she’s been dreaming about.”
As the tzadik settled back in his chair, he slipped the mask over his eyes. “Give me a moment,” he said. “Hmm … ” he murmured as he swayed his head back and forth.
Then he stretched his hand out to Rabbi Jake and the young rabbi grasped it tightly.
“Don’t worry,” the tzadik whispered to him as he leaned back in his La-Z Boy recliner. “Just stay with me through this, and I’ll bring you back in one piece.”
Around the corner from Iranische Strasse in the district of Wedding in northwest Berlin, four kilometers from the center of the capital, stood an elegant four-story building with a spire.
Its gardens were meticulously maintained, with ivy that climbed its 19th-century walls. The brass plaque proclaimed the estate to be the property of the “Krankenhaus Der Juedische Gemeinde,” the Jewish Community Hospital.
It was evening and the weekly selection of privileged Jews who until now had been protected by the highest-ranking Nazis was about to begin. They had been spared the ravages of the infamous Kristallnacht when all Jewish businesses in Berlin were destroyed. This building had survived Adolf Eichmann’s Final Solution, and later on it even survived the fall of the Third Reich itself. But that was yet to come.
Mystery of mysteries, for years during the Nazi regime, it remained a sanctuary for the eight hundred or so fortunate but miserable Jews who populated its four hundred rooms and its dank basements.
Here lived the Jewish rich and elite, their company sprinkled with once-famous Jewish movie stars and celebrities as well as the privileged spouses of non-Jews. It was run by the ruthless yet cunning and efficient Dr. Walter Lustig, the most powerful Jewish figure in wartime Berlin. He had the final say in the selection process of the human sacrifices that fed the Nazi death machine.
There were frequent sexual liaisons between the medical staff of doctors and nurses and their patients. On occasion, so as to take a break from the monotony of their isolated existence, the Jewish nurses would go into town to catch a movie or have their hair done. They were not only healthy but lucky.
Tonight, outside the hospital’s main gates, the engines of the trucks rumbled and thundered as the unlucky Jews were herded aboard, bound for the concentration camps of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, Belzec, and Buchenwald.
Huddled in their white smocks emblazoned with the Jewish Yellow Star, Dr. Lustig and his staff would confer with the SS officers, pointing out which Jews were to be sent away.
To the Jews who climbed on board the trucks, Dr. Lustig was a murderous collaborator. To the ones who remained behind, he was a prickly natured saint who would occasionally drown his guilt and sorrow in the amorous arms of the prettiest Jewish nurses.
This evening, the scene was being observed from the third-floor window of one of the hospital rooms. A beautiful young blonde woman, dressed in an elegant fur coat, smoked a cigarette in a long ivory holder as she watched the play on the stage in the courtyard below.
Her name was Elsa Bruner and she was one of the finest Jüdejagers or Jew Catchers who worked with the Gestapo ferreting out fellow Jews who lived in hiding in war-torn Berlin.
Standing beside her, with his arm wrapped around her shoulder and occasionally nibbling on her ear, was her lover, a cruel- faced man, in a black SS officer’s uniform.
He would whisper something into Elsa’s ear and she caressed his cheek and laughed at one of his obscene jokes even as the children in the line below glanced up at them and watched their silhouettes go through their paces like extras in a Wagner opera.
More than 60 years later, which is not even a blink in the eye of G_D, as Rebbe Molkovitch sat his study with its bookshelves lined with Kabbalistic books and texts, the tzadik gasped and tore Anna Applebaum’s eye mask from his face in horror.
“Such evil I am seeing, Yakob!” the East European rebbe lamented.
Rabbi Jake had never seen the jovial Rebbe Molkovitch in such a state of distress before.
“Perhaps you should stop this,” he suggested with a worried look. “Who knows where the woman’s dybbuk comes from, or what its true identity is?”
“No, we must learn everything about her that we can,” Rebbe Molkovitch insisted as he slipped the eye mask back on and recited one of his Kabbalistic spells backwards so as to double its power. “Ochnotinos, chnotinos, notinos, otinos, tinos, inos, nos, os … ”
Gone was the Jewish hospital with its lines of deportees. Instead they were somewhere in the middle of Berlin in front of a brooding Gothic palace that overlooked a cobblestone square.
Torches flared in the night air as masked valets attended to the high-ranking Nazi guests who kept arriving for the costume ball in their slow parade of Mercedes-Benz and Maybach saloon cars.
What was most shocking was the garb they wore. They were dressed in the costumes of shtetl Jews, the men in high wide-brimmed black hats and long black overcoats, with false beards and side-locks; their women companions in long dresses and aprons wearing oversized wigs on their heads. Their only concessions to irony were the black masks that disguised their faces.
A valet opened the sedan door of a Daimler, and out stepped a young blonde woman whose blue eyes lit up through the slits of her black velvet mask. A man dressed like a fish peddler followed her. He looked authentic in every detail, except for the foppery of the gold thunderbolt insignia of an SS badge on the collar of his peddler’s tunic.
She clung to his arm as they entered the palace and walked up a long flight of marble stairs until they reached the main salon. There were torches burning in sconces all the way up.
One of the masked valets opened the large gilt door for them. Elsa Bruner caught her breath when she saw what miracle of interior design had been brought to bear for the occasion.
The ballroom was decorated with rare Jewish antiquities and treasures. An impressive pair of Torah scrolls faced the orchestra where they saw real Jews dressed in real striped pajama uniforms from the camps where they were incarcerated. They played frantic klezmer music for their enthusiastic audience.
There was a collective “Aah!” that echoed around the vast chamber as the guests surveyed the plundered valuables. They broke out into applause that was followed with more “oohs” and “aahs” when masked waiters brought out portions of suckling pig on trays made of solid gold, followed by pageboys carrying crystal flutes of champagne.
“I can’t take any more of this, Yakob!” The exhausted Rebbe Molkovitch ripped Anna Applebaum’s eye mask off his face.
Rabbi Jake laid his hand on the rebbe’s arm. “You look like you just saw something terrible.”
There were tears in the rebbe’s eyes. “I saw the treasures of our people that were collected from the shtetls and ghettos all over Eastern Europe,” he said as he wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his cardigan.
“What do you mean?” asked Rabbi Jake.
Rebbe Molkovitch continued crestfallen. “I saw the Ark of the Covenant from the Great Synagogue of Lublin that dates back to the 16th century in Poland. It was on display in a dark palace in Berlin.”
“Such sacrilege!” Rabbi Jake felt sickened at heart.
The rebbe’s eyes looked vacant. “I saw the Museum of the Lost Jewish Race where the Nazis were planning to exhibit the extinction of the children of Yisrael. She was there, too, among the defilers,” he murmured. “That woman you spoke about who lives at the Mazel House.”
“Chas V Shalom, G_D Forbid!” Rabbi Jake exclaimed.
Rebbe Molkovitch gave him a stern look. “This woman Renée Fischer who can’t speak because of her stroke. Are you sure you heard her say the word ‘greifer’?
“I’m positive,” Rabbi Jake nodded vigorously.
Rebbe Molkovitch stroked his beard and pondered the riddle. “It’s possible that she recognizes Anna Applebaum from the past,” he concluded. “She may be in danger then.”
“Why would she be in danger?”
“What would a greifer, someone who informed on her own people, fear the most?” Rebbe Molkovitch asked.
The realization hit Rabbi Jake like lightning. “Another greifer?”
“Exactly,” Rebbe Molkovitch replied. “Anna Applebaum has lived at the Jewish Home for years and no one knows her secret. What would another Jew’s life mean to her? Especially someone who can expose her for what she is. A Jüdejager, a Jew Catcher.”
Rabbi Jake squared his jaw. “The sooner we perform the exorcism the better.”
Rebbe Molkovitch sighed at the naiveté of his young apprentice. “Exorcism isn’t like cutting your fingernails. How can you be sure what you’re removing? The guilt that Anna Applebaum lives with or the dybbuk inside her?”
“We mustn’t take any chances,” Rabbi Jake insisted.
Rebbe Molkovitch challenged him. “Super Rabbi, have you ever performed an exorcism before?”
It was Rabbi Jake’s turn to be stunned as he thought about the events of the previous day when he marched into Anna Applebaum’s room to confront her. That couldn’t possibly count as an exorcism. “You know, I haven’t,” he replied in a soft voice.
Rebbe Molkovitch gave him a strange look, then asked. “But you’ve read the texts?”
Rabbi Jake raised his eyebrow. “The Zohar. The Midrash. The exorcism tales of the early Safed rabbis. The works of the medieval Spanish Kabbalists. The accounts of the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Holy Name, Blessed be His Memory. … Those I have read.”
Rebbe Molkovitch leaned forward and discreetly inquired. “How about Blatty? Have you read his novel The Exorcist? Or seen the film? I saw it once dubbed in Lithuanian.”
“Are you joking, Rebbe?” Rabbi Jake couldn’t believe what the mekubal had just said.
Rebbe Molkovitch winced. That American novelist William Blatty had captured the experience exactly right. However, this wasn’t something that you could easily confide to a beginner. That secret would have to wait until Yakob had reached a higher level in his studies.
In fact, if you took it a step further, only a few people, if any, were able to recognize the truth. That life was exactly like the movies.
“What I’m trying to tell you is it’s real,” Rebbe Molkovitch responded. “It’s not a movie. It’s not just words on a page …”
Then he blurted. “Tell me, Yakob, what does the term ‘dybbuk’ mean to you?”
“It comes from the Hebrew word ‘dabaq,’ sometimes written as ‘ledavek,’ which means ‘to cling,’ ” Rabbi Jake replied. “ It’s an evil spirit that has entered the body of a living person in order to escape the punishment of G_D’s angels for all the sins it committed in its past life.”
Rebbe Molkovitch nodded solemnly, then added. “Such a spirit, you ask it to leave and it just leaves?”
“Of course not. There’s a special ritual involved.”
“There are so many things we don’t understand,” Rebbe Molkovitch stroked his beard. “Sometimes what appears to us to be unnatural is completely natural in its own world … ”
The old tzadik went on. “For instance, have you ever heard about the haunted springs in Jericho?”
He decided to test Rabbi Jake and conveyed the story to him in a series of images.
Rabbi Jake saw a clear spring bubbling in the desert that reflected the moonlight. “Once a year supposedly it has a menstrual cycle.” Rabbi Jake watched the vision in his head as he saw a red color infuse the water. “You can see blood in the water, but only at night. They say it’s possessed by female water demons. But they do no harm to anyone so they’re left alone.”
Nervously, Rabbi Jake broke the silence. “What are you getting at, Rebbe?”
Enough with magic, Rebbe Molkovitch thought. “For Jews, exorcism is a healing process,” he explained. “We’re not like the Catholics who believe that mankind is locked in an eternal struggle between God and Satan. Our demons are different from theirs. Ours are more like …”
Rabbi Jake replied giddily. “Like missionaries?”
Rebbe Molkovitch chuckled. “That’s right. They’re messengers of the Word of G_D. A terrifying Word, it’s true. But according to the Talmud, the true purpose of evil is to awaken us from the sleep in which we live and to set us on the path toward righteousness.”
“But how does this involve Anna Applebaum and what’s happening at Mazel House?” Rabbi Jake was confused.
Rebbe Molkovitch pulled at his beard again. “Human guilt, now that’s another matter. It’s not like pulling a tooth and the ache is gone. To ask forgiveness from those whom you have wronged is not always easy. Sometimes it’s not even possible. Only the Almighty can truly forgive. But if the sinner is afraid to face Him … ”
Rabbi Jake stiffened in his armchair. “Then what?”
Rebbe Molkovitch said softly. “Then they can turn their guilt into a ritual slaughter.”
‘The Clinging’ is an excerpt from a work-in-progress trilogy about Jewish exorcism, titled ‘Kabbalah Noir.’
Alexander Besher is the author of The Rim Trilogy. ‘The Clinging’ is an excerpt from a work-in-progress trilogy about Jewish exorcism, titled Kabbalah Noir.