I don’t believe in UFOs. But … I don’t not believe in them, either.
Belief is actually beside the point. (Same holds for God, but that’s a topic for another day.) Personally, I’ve never observed anything unidentified in the sky. But having had an interest in the subject for many years, it seems to me that there are way too many pieces of anecdotal evidence to say that there isn’t something going on up there. Or down there.
The extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) has gained such popularity, in part, because it offers a fig leaf of scientific probity. Radiation traces are measured, satellite data is collected, witnesses are interviewed, and so on. Unfortunately for those seeking respectability for the subject, out of place and unidentified objects are stubbornly, categorically anomalous. They defy the replicability demanded by the scientific method. That may be a point of scorn for skeptics, but for some of us, therein lies their charm. It’s not just the quantity and persistence of UFO sightings, but all manner of anomalous phenomena that inspired me to finally identify as a Fortean Jew, a denomination of one.
Charles Fort was a New Yorker, an unclassifiable writer, a weirdo riding the subway between his home in the Bronx and the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. He kept shoeboxes full of newspaper clippings of unusual happenings. In 1919, he published his most famous work, The Book of the Damned, full of strange things, like people who disappeared into thin air and rains of frogs and stones. These items were “damned” because science had no room for anomaly. And, one day when I was in high school, out of the blue, the father of one of my best friends gave me a copy of The Book of the Damned. I guess he realized that, just like one of Charles Fort’s clippings, I, too, was an out of place object (OPO).
My sense for the Fortean certainly served me well in my journey to Yiddish. The quintessential Yiddish experience is being told, in Yiddish, that Yiddish is a dead language. Like a zombie, or perhaps a vampire, Yiddish has spent the past 200 years toggling between dead and undead. As a natural born Fortean, the impossibility of Yiddish never deterred me.
Things are (very) slightly different now than when I started out, but Yiddish still shares much in common with Fort’s pursuit of the damned. It’s still incredibly hard to interest the Jewish mainstream in something that supposedly doesn’t (or shouldn’t) exist. And for a very long time, Yiddish struggled to find a place in modern academia. It’s no surprise that some of the most serious work on both UFOs and Yiddish in the modern era has been done by folklorists, scholars whose interest lies in the stories being told, rather than their truth value. And once you realize how much of Yiddish culture has been buried under the official Jewish narrative, you start to wonder what else “they” have been keeping from you. Like I said, I don’t believe in aliens, but I’m sympathetic to anyone who claims she saw something that isn’t supposed to exist. Indeed, the Fortean dimensions of modern Yiddish culture are far too numerous to cover in such a small space.
Being involved in marginal pursuits can at times have detrimental effects. And it can drive you crazy looking for explanations to things that might not have one. The ETH can start to look perfectly rational next to some of the other options. John Keel was one of the most famous Forteans of the postwar era. His investigation of a cryptid called Mothman and its supposed connection to the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Ohio was turned into a mainstream movie of the same name in 2002. Keel didn’t just investigate cryptids (strange animals like Bigfoot) or UFOs. He came to believe that rather than being separate phenomena, they were all connected. He eventually formed something of a unified theory of the weird, believing that there were “ultraterrestrials” who existed on a “superspectrum” and it was from there that all these anomalous phenomena emanated. More ominously, those ultraterrestrials were involved in human affairs, though not in a benevolent way. Fort also came to believe that we here on Earth were subject to the interference of some unseen, controlling force.
Conspiracy is another fundamental part of Forteana, and probably my least favorite. There are all kind of unpleasant (and at times racist and reactionary) aspects of the esoteric, but it is conspiracy that viscerally repulses me. As a Jew, my dislike of conspiracy theories, and conspiracy thinking, is well founded. At times it can feel like every conspiracy theory is, at bottom, about Jews. (See the exhausting discourse about whether John Carpenter’s excellent sci-fi satire They Live is actually about Jews.)
It’s a relief to know not everything is about Jews. One of the books I found extremely instructive on this was Norman Cohn’s landmark 1973 investigation of the mass witch hunt, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom. Cohn overturned hundreds of years of scholarship on the subject of the persecution of witches, including a thorough debunking of the idea that the persecution of witches was based on actual existing, indigenous European witch cults. Instead, Cohn traces a particular fantasy of a “clandestine, systematically anti-human society” all the way from the second-century Roman Empire, where accusations of cannibalism and incest were used to persecute Christians, to medieval Europe, where he shows that these demonic fantasies were used to target dissidents, such as Waldensian Christians (and not Cathar heretics).
Ritual murder, cannibalistic feasts and “perverted” orgies were the defining features of the “stereotype of the conspiratorial organization or secret society engaged in a ruthless drive for political power” and can be found in accusations against various groups, stretching back to the first century BCE. It seems strange, but Jews were hardly part of Cohn’s narrative and he dryly notes that those looking for the definitive history of accusations against Jews being satanic blood drinkers (blood libel) need only refer to Joshua Trachtenberg’s 1943 The Devil and the Jews.
Of course, much has happened to Jews (and everyone else) in the years since 1943. It hardly needs saying, but once again, violently anti-Jewish conspiracy theories are ascendant. A historical perspective is crucial for understanding the roots of newly retooled conspiracies, for example, Paul Hanebrink’s 2018 A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. Judeo-Bolshevism holds that Jews as a whole were to blame for the Bolshevik revolution, their goal supposedly not just to institute a dictatorship of the proletariat, but to destroy Christianity and Western civilization. Reviewing Hanebrink’s book, Samuel Moyne argued that if you’ve heard the phrase “cultural Marxism,” what you’re actually witnessing is the rebirth of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth, this time with the role of Jews obscured slightly.
Perhaps the most essential new book on old conspiracies is Elissa Bemporad’s superb Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets. Bemporad argues that the pogroms of the post-revolution, civil war period have long been an underresearched, poorly understood period. But in fact, there is a continuity between these pogroms and the Holocaust. The symbolic linkage between them, and the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, is the blood libel. Bemporad writes: “Historians have erroneously focused on the gradual marginalization of the ritual murder charge … while overlooking the extraordinary vitality of this false myth in modern—as well as contemporary—history.” Accusations of ritual murder in the Soviet Union persisted into the 1960s. Bemporad uses such accusations as a way to examine the interactions between neighbors, local authorities and party authorities. The party was ostensibly committed to stamping out anti-Semitism, and yet, that commitment had a complex, and sometimes paradoxical effect on the actual lives of Jews in the Soviet Union, who further suffered by the association of Jews and communists.
Bemporad traces the afterlife of the blood libel to the 1953 Doctors Plot (the supposed Jewish scheme to assassinate the Red Army leadership) as well as other, much lesser known postwar accusations. In one example, the blood libel was a means to eliminate perceived Jewish domination of the medical field. It’s this last section that is perhaps most shocking, and most instructive, in that it shows the banal ways such murderous myths maintain their utility, and vitality.
ALSO: Taube Jewish Heritage Tours presents “Polish-Jewish History as Women’s History” on Aug. 19, featuring professor Natalia Aleksiun and Golden City favorite professor Glenn Dynner … On Aug. 23 there will be a panel discussion on “The Survival & Revival of Yiddish in the 21st Century” followed by a new documentary about the Leah Todres Yiddish Song Festival in South Africa. The event is a fundraiser for the Cape Jewish Seniors Association. Tickets here … Do you like psychedelic Yiddish folk rock? Of course you do. No one does it better than Forshpil and their new album Tsvey (Two) is a whole bop. Get it now … You have until Aug. 31 to submit your entry for the Bubbe Awards for new Jewish and Yiddish music … From Argentina, Rafael Goldwaser, and Judith Buchalter have a delightful new video series, reading Sholem Aleichem’s Menakhem-Mendl stories … If you weren’t able to attend the Beyle 100 program in honor of beloved poet-artist Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, you can watch the replay on the YIVO YouTube page.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.