Buffy the vampire slayer, as many slayers before her, relied heavily on wooden stakes, holy water and crucifixes. But TV today is a different story: While vampire hunters still rely on the old Christian-infused tools of the trade, content creators who traffic in sci-fi, fantasy and occult-centered narratives are discovering there’s plenty of Judaic supernatural from which to mine.
Generally, Hebrew or Jewish practice pops up to explain something exotic or unexplainable. That computer code that the “Arrow” team can’t interpret? It’s actually gematria, Jewish numerology. That sacred book on “Sleepy Hollow” with the undecipherable language? It’s a book of spells with Hebrew letters in it. That tattoo on supernatural detective John Constantine’s arm? It lives among other tattoos of spiritual/demon-invoking power, but is also Hebrew.
The reason that creepy doll on “Legends of Tomorrow” is evil? It’s got a dybbuk (a malicious, possessing spirit in Jewish mythology) in it, voiced by Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) no less. That ancient piece of wood on “Manifest” that shared unusual properties with the airplane that vanished? Noah’s ark, of course.
The team on Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” — which has investigated aliens, evil scientists and unexplained phenomena — finds a gateway to a hell dimension inscribed with the Hebrew word mavet, which means death. This solitary Hebrew word seemed out of place — there was otherwise nothing Jewish about the narrative — but it served the apparent need of being sufficiently foreign to most viewers, seeming old and spooky, and being brief.
On “Supernatural,” the long-running CW show about two brothers who fight demons, one episode required them to use a ram’s horn to stab the Egyptian god Osiris; a Google search leads them to discover that “apparently Jewish people blow through them once a year.”
It took a storyline on the CW’s “Nancy Drew” to introduce me to the concept of a dybbuk box, a wooden box meant to draw in and trap a demon. When asked about the state of the dybbuk box Nancy’s posse of ghost-investigating friends had found, Jewish character Ace answers, “As far as mystical spirit-trapping devices are concerned, it’s junk because it needs to be made out of a certain type of mahogany wood and blessed by a rabbi who died in 1761.”
Don’t worry, the team finds another dybbuk box online, made of the right wood and conveniently blessed by the rabbi in 1756. Ghost crisis averted, and the internet saves the day again.
But I have questions: Can a dybbuk box hold only a Jewish demon, or can it snag any malevolent spirit, like those “Ghostbusters” ghost traps? Which rabbi said it had to be mahogany? Because I guarantee you there’s a minority opinion rabbi or three that said it could be acacia, cedar or pine.
Having boxed the dybbuk, we have to acknowledge the permeation of the golem in popular culture. This monster/avenger is a single-minded Jewish version of Frankenstein made out of clay (but a better protector than its made-it-out-of-clay cousin, the dreidel)
Wikipedia charts the golem extensively, noting its appearances on TV and in movies, video games, and Marvel and other comics.
While I noticed a golem in same-season stories on “Sleepy Hollow” and “Grimm,” both monster-of-the-week dramas, the golem has also appeared on “The X-Files” (in an episode called “Kaddish”), on “The Simpsons” (with a male golem voiced by Richard Lewis and a female golem voiced by Fran Drescher), and obviously “Supernatural” again, in an episode titled “Everybody Hates Hitler.”
The golem is often depicted with the word emet, meaning truth, written on its forehead; erasing the letter aleph from the word leaves letters mem and tav, which spell out met, meaning dead, returning the golem to lifelessness — a dramatic, cinematic moment.
There are other points of intersection between Jewish mythology and popular culture. “Being Human,” which had a four-season run starting in 2011, featured a Jewish werewolf — named Josh, naturally — whose two roommates were a vampire and a ghost. A 2017 article in Jewcy by Esther Saks tracks all the ways that Jews and werewolves are associated, including going by a lunar calendar and “being driven off by suspicious townspeople,” and knowing “how it feels to be both a part of a nation and a nation apart.”
Israel has its own entries in the space between superstition and the supernatural.
The 2017 Israeli series “Juda” chronicles the story of a Jewish man who is bitten by a non-Jewish vampire, and, of course, what would a Jewish drama be without invoking the Holocaust as part of the origin story mythology? The 2021 French-Israeli series “Possessions” centers the action on Jewish superstition, particularly from the ancient Tunisian Jewish community in Djerba, and whether demonic possession is real.
These examples are but the tip of Mount Ararat.
As content creators take a deeper dive into character motivations and plot points in mapping out action for a TV series, they undoubtedly are realizing that there’s a wealth of superstition from all cultures to fuel their stories. Any character on a show can Google something and remark, “Huh, this is an old-timey practice from the Biblical era.”
But moving forward, as TV shows begin to embrace characters and stories of spiritual and cultural difference, I believe we’ll see more narratives featuring characters who are living their ethnicity, culture or faith as a primary identifier, not just when a specific piece of trivia can serve to move the plot forward.
It’s interesting, and perhaps related, that as stories about dybbuks and golems entered pop culture, Jewish mythology is also a renewed source of creative inspiration outside of the TV content box.
The L.A.-based theater company Theatre Dybbuk had a show called “hell prepared: a ritual exorcism inspired by kabbalistic principles, performed within a dominant cultural context.” The dramatic event was inspired by a poem written in the 17th century.
A wife-and-husband team in Chicago co-host “Throwing Sheyd,” a podcast promising “better living through Jewish demonology,” and with merch that celebrates the royal demon queens: Lilith, Naama, Machlath and Agrath.
During the pandemic, kohenet (Hebrew priestess) and artist Ketzirah Lesser has offered the opportunity to “Adopt a Golem/et,” which she creates from felt and glitter; and within each doll is a scroll with the last lines of Psalm 33 written in Hebrew.
For some, Jewish folklore is just that: cultural history and superstitions. For others, the line between faith and folklore is more blurry, the space between sacredness and storytelling more compressed. Is Noah’s Ark fact or folklore? What about the Sotah ritual, designed to prove whether a wife suspected of adultery actually was guilty, through a series of publicly shaming rituals capped by the ingesting of “bitter, curse-causing water” that would either pass through their systems without harm or take away her fertility?
Or the story of the four Talmud-era rabbis who go into an orchard where one dies instantly, one loses his faith, one his mind and only the fourth, Rabbi Akiva, gets out alive with sanity intact? Allegory or truth?
Maybe fact/folklore isn’t a binary construct.
We spend our days believing what works for us, whether it’s due to education, environment or upbringing, or what we’ve learned through our own life experiences.
Whether our TV programs feature a protective golem or a malevolent dybbuk, the impact of that story is in how we interpret their presence, on-screen, and as part of a rich Jewish cultural folkloric tradition that many of us are only beginning to discover.