November 11, 2009
Five Reasons Vampires Aren’t Jews
Their day begins at night, they show a certain aversion to the sign of the cross and they dress in black. Of course, I am talking about Jews.
But add some invidious stereotypes — bloodsucking and a predatory nature, and you get vampires. So, are vampires Jewish?
There are Jewish vampires. In his classic, “Jewish Magic and Superstition” (Forgotten Books, 2008), Joshua Trachtenberg writes that medieval Jewish literature has tales of “Estrie” — a bloodsucking demon who can assume different forms. But Trachtenberg points out that the Estrie and similar fiends are of non-Jewish origin, imported into certain strands of Jewish folklore to express deep-seated fears of dangers lurking in the world.
Despite such glancing references, there is something essentially un-Jewish about vampires. Although no definitive conclusions can be reached, I have identified five reasons why vampires are not, indeed cannot be, Jewish.
1. Proselytizing: There are many and varied legends about how vampires are created, but the most common is that they’re made by each other — by fellow vampires. Countless movies recount the hero’s fear not that he will die, but that he will be reborn as one of these creatures of the night. For reasons not entirely clear (loneliness? herd instinct?) vampires seem intent on enlisting others. In other words, vampires proselytize, though I wouldn’t call them missionaries; they opt for a more direct approach: fangs over persuasion.
Jews, on the other hand, have for most of their history been content to accept those who convert, but not seek them. Historically, being Jewish was a considerable burden. Jews felt that someone had to push hard in order to ensure he or she would really accept the travails of Jewish life. When men, in particular, converted to Judaism, it often did involve a small amount of blood, but not from the neck.
2. Blood: Vampires live on blood. They relish it. But in the vampire lexicon, not all blood is equal. In the bestselling “Twilight” series of books and movies, there are vampires who call themselves “vegetarians” — not because they sink their incisors into soy and seitan, but because they abstain from human blood. Animal blood is still essential.
Despite the mad and murderous blood libel, Jews abhor eating blood. The Bible is explicit in its prohibition against eating blood, and generations of salted meat are our culinary legacy. Jews overcook and oversalt. It is what we do. My mother, God bless her, thought meat underdone if it could not double as a club for batting practice. Moistness was the enemy.
3. Nightlife: Vampires are on uneasy terms with the day. They can only live at night and in darkness. Shadows and secrecy are the vampires’ friend. Nocturnal creatures are denizens of another world, never fully glimpsed or understood.
Jews love light. “Let there be light” is God’s initial declaration in the creation of the world. We light candles on Shabbat, for Havdalah, on Chanukah; we follow Hillel who taught us, on Chanukah, to increase the light each night, rather than Shammai, who counseled to begin with eight candles and diminish to one. One of the blessings preceding the Shema is Yotzer Hameorot, God who makes the shining orbs. God even creates a light for the Earth before creating the sun. Jews rise for the Shacharit prayer, greeting the shining new day. A Jewish vampire would never be awake to make the minyan.
4. Immortality: Vampires don’t die. Or at least, not before the end of the movie. Then someone drives a stake into the heart, and they expire amid swelling music. But the fundamental premise is clear; the vampire is designed to be immortal and only the most drastic Van Helsing-ish intervention can contravene the design.
Judaism believes in death. Yes, it believes in immortal life, but death comes first. The entirety of Jewish ritual is crafted to emphasize that all creatures — all of them — ultimately, unequivocally die. We shovel earth on the grave to remind ourselves of the finality of death. The very first human story in the Bible, that of Adam and Eve, talks about their expulsion from the garden — so that they cannot eat from the tree of life and be immortal. Jews cannot be vampires because Jews have to die. It is part of the scheme. Even if at the end of time we are all resurrected (Daniel 12), well, there are no resurrections without deaths.
And while we are at it, vampires misuse coffins. Jews are traditionally buried in plain pine boxes because the boxes, along with those in them, return to the earth from which they came. A coffin is not a pied-à-terre or a Posturepedic.
5. Imaginary Creatures: Finally, vampires, I hasten to remind you, are not real. They have a long and startling history springing from the depths of the human imagination, drawing from our fears and from real-world creatures (bats, mostly), but they live in books and movies and powerful projections of our minds. But what they share with the abominable snowman, the Loch Ness monster and political bipartisanship is an essential unreality.
Jews not only are real, they know real monsters. There are things in Jewish history, as Abba Eban wrote, too terrible to be imagined, but nothing so terrible that it didn’t happen. We have known the kind of monsters that turn day into night and have a thirst for blood that puts Nosferatu to shame. They are not deterred by a cross; some have marched beneath it. These days, the world’s demons have a different but equally terrifying aspect. Once you have encountered true monsters, the imaginary ones seem not quite so vivid or frightening.
Vampires are not Jews. Maybe we can allow one powerful, popular trend to be about someone else for a change?
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.