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Jewish Journal

Hollywood dybbuk invades suburbia

by Tom Tugend

September 4, 2012 | 8:09 am

Tzadok (Matisyahu, left), Em (Natasha Calis, center), Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, back) and Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick, right) in THE POSSESSION. Photo credit: Diyah Pera

If you thought your daughter’s odd behavior was just another pre-teen phase, there may be an alternate explanation: The Dybbuk is back and has returned to the screen in “The Possession.”

Rooted in 16th century Jewish mysticism and folklore, a dybbuk is the dislocated spirit of an odious sinner, who died before repenting and now seeks refuge from avenging angels, usually within a female’s soul and body.

In keeping with the times, the film’s malevolent spirit has migrated from the East European shtetl of S. Ansky’s iconic play, “The Dybbuk,” to contemporary American suburbia and the home of Clyde Brenek.

Brenek is a high school basketball coach, conflicted about the divorce from his wife Stephanie and father of two girls, Hannah, 15, and 11-year old Em.

Clyde takes the two girls to a yard sale, where Em is oddly attracted to a box, smaller than a case of beer and inscribed with Hebrew letters, and she persuades her father to buy it.

Em takes the purchase to her room and, overcome with curiosity, pries it open and finds inside a bird’s skeleton, a lock of hair, strange carvings, and an ancient looking ring.

Predictably, terrible things begin to happen. Em stabs her dad’s hand with a fork, giant moths invade her bed and room, and when the father disposes of the box in a distant dumpster, she sallies forth in her nightgown across dark deserted street to retrieve it.

The increasingly desperate father seeks medical advice and an MRI scan reveals strange apparitions within the girl’s body. A psychiatrist is ineffective, but finally a professor recalls the dybbuk story and advises Clyde to travel to Brooklyn and appeal to an old Hassidic rabbi.

Clyde’s pleadings are rejected by the rabbi, but his son, played by alternate rock and reggae star Matisyahu, takes pity and agrees to try exorcism.

In a stormy session, Em is freed of the dybbuk, who then infests the father, until finally forced to beat a protoplasmic retreat back into the box. Though seemingly defeated, the dybbuk extracts revenge in a shocker of a final scene.

There is no gainsaying that the movie is really scary, even to the mature skeptical mind, and this reviewer had to take a long swim in the UCLA pool to shake off the after-effects. The film is rated PG-13, which, one assumes, means that our TV-raised adolescents can take the special effects in stride.

That said, it is fairly safe to wager that “The Possession” will not win any Oscars, though young Canadian actress Natasha Calis, as the possessed girl, is convincingly frightening.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the sorely tried father turns in a solid performance, while Kyra Sedgwick is stuck in the role of his shrill, angry ex-wife. Matisyahu, as the exorcist, makes an impressive screen debut.

Horror meister Sam Raimi is co-producer, with Danish director Ole Bornedal helming the film and Juliet Snowden and Stiles White credited as writers. The Lionsgate/Ghosthouse production is based on a 2004 Los Angeles Times article by Leslie Gornstein, titled “A jinx in the box?” which gives the film a conceivable claim to veracity.

The Times article tracked a mysterious box allegedly brought to this country by an aged Holocaust survivor, which went through the hands of various calamity-prone owners, until auctioned off an eBay. The high bidder was Jason Haxton, a medical museum curator, who investigated the story over many years and turned it into a book, “The Dibbuk Box.”

(The word “dybbuk’ comes from the Hebrew word for attaching oneself or clinging, and in English transliteration may be spelled with either a “y” or an “i”)

Just before the opening of “The Possessed,” the Geffen Playhouse concluded the stage run of “The Exorcist,” with a different approach than the famed 1974 movie, but also based on William Peter Blatty’s novel.

The timing is coincidental, but attests to the continuing fascination with the spiritual possession theme, especially in movies which reenact the viewer’s dreamlike fears while he is safe in his seat, said Edna Nahshon, professor of Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who specializes on the Jewish theater.

The same theme is found in various forms in almost every culture and religion and, as in Jewish tradition, is almost invariably male and usually possesses a female soul and body. This scenario gives the possessed woman a “voice” to say what is normally repressed, including sexual desire, Nahshon said.

However, in the film, the gender identities are less clear, with the dybbuk considered female, according to director Bornedal.

Nahshon judged the movie as “effective,” but noted that “it doesn’t quite work with a non-Jewish girl as the victim of so specifically Jewish a spirit.” More importantly, she added, the movie deviates from tradition since the dybbuk never identifies herself nor the grave sin that brought her to her present state.

In our time, the dybbuk theme is still alive in the Hassidic world, Nahshon said, and is historically connected to kabbalistic teaching on the transmigration of souls.

As the current movie illustrates, the old folk tale can be easily adapted to today’s technological advances, which may actually spur a kind of latter-day revival.

“We live in a time when science and such innovations as computer-generated movies seem like magic. But we know it’s not the real thing, so we thirst for genuine magic,” observed Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who recently (6/29) wrote The Journal cover story on “Dybbuks, Demons and Exorcism in Judaism.”

Still, there are some limits to technology, as in one recent exorcism, which was conducted via Skype. It didn’t work, Nahshon reported.

The question remains whether there might be some truth to the story as represented in the movie, the Los Angeles Times article, and Haxton’s book, “The Dibbuk Box.”

English Professor Howard Schwartz of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who has written extensively on Jewish mysticism and folktales, including an afterword to Haxton’s book, remains uncertain.

The book’s story is rooted in the actual world, with people sending emails and buying and selling on eBay, Schwartz wrote, but in the end he leaves it to the reader to decide whether the story is real or a hoax.

However, both Haxton and Schwartz shed some light on the mysterious box, which had apparently been used as a wine cabinet and was inscribed with words from the Shema prayer.

The current owner of the box is director Bornedal, who has buried it in his backyard. “I’m not superstitious,” he affirmed in a phone interview, and has proven it by wearing for a few weeks the ring found inside the box.

But even he acknowledged some twinges of concern while a plane passenger, flying at 30,000 feet and aware that the ring was flying along in his suitcase.

Bornedal speculated that the dybbuk’s possession of the girl Em was largely an allegory on her inner fears at a time when her parents were going through a bitter divorce. While shooting the movie, he concentrated on the job at hand rather than worry about the dybbuk’s alleged powers.

He maintained this attitude, even when all the neon light fixtures exploded one day on the set in Vancouver, Canada, and when a fire destroyed all the props used in the movie, shortly after the film wrapped.

That the dybbuk theme is alive was proven in the 2009 movie “A Serious Man” by Joel and Ethan Coen. It opened with a visit by a presumed dybbuk in an East European shtetl, while its central character is a man beset by all kinds of slights and setbacks neither he, nor the wise rabbis he consults, can explain.

As for the grandfather of the cinematic genre, the 1937 Polish Yiddish film “Der Dibbuk,” it has been restored by the National Center for Jewish Film (www.jewishfilm.org) and continues to enjoy considerable popularity.

In recent years, the restored “Dibbuk” has screened worldwide in venues ranging from the Austrian Film Archive to an outdoor screening at the Hollywood Bowl, said Lisa Rivo, the film center’s associate director.

Included in the center’s holdings are 44 feature-length Yiddish films, about half the estimated silent and sound Yiddish movies made in Europe and America, with many of them now lost.

Among the restored Yiddish films are “A Vilna Legend” (Dem Rebens Koyekh) and “The Vow” (Tkies Kaf). Both touch on the dybbuk theme, but with the star-crossed lovers happily reunited in the end.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Tom is a contributing editor for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and the West Coast correspondent for the Jerusalem Post in Israel, Jewish Chronicle in Britain, and...

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