Der Dibuk: An Early Judaic Take on Exorcism

Now it is time to watch one of the first exorcism movies, and one of the few Polish/Yiddish movies: Der Dibuk (1937).

This is one of the few Yiddish language movies to come out of Poland, and it is based on a famous Polish play.

Opening prolouge talking about the dybbuk, about how all spirits, even the fallen ones, are drawn to the Divine Being. Dybbuks are wandering souls who enter human beings it had once loved. That part doesn’t show up in the other dybbuk movies we have seen. In those other movies, there doesn’t seem to be any love lost between the dybbuk and the person it possesses.

Something about how when a person does its soul can remain on Earth — but hard to read because of how light the subtitle was over a light background.

So there is a lot of talking without subtitles. So far we know that a Wonder Rabbi, a great mystic, as been speaking, and then a stranger comes in.

The stranger with the long beard is creepy — very dark, moves very slowly, and says people do not know the difference between when to be joyous and when to be sad. Another says what he said is as if Satan had said it.

Singing about how the dead do not praise the Lord but they will. Seems to be a lot of foreshadowing. Kinda hard to tell, since the translation is sporadic.

The stranger, walking down a long corridor, just fades into existence — he must be the dybbuk.

The two young men who were talking to the stranger have made a vow that the children of their pregnant wives will be wed. The stranger comes in an says the lives of the unborn should not be pledged. Another calls that idea nonsense, that it is something they do. But the young men look concerned. The stranger says with his message given his time there is ended.

The young men part, vowing to let each other know what their wives have had.

Sender, one man’s wife had a daughter, but his wife did not survive the birth.

And now the other man, Nisson, appears to have died while crossing a river, and his wife survives and gives birth to a son. Nisson dies crying out for Sender to remember the vow.

Sender seems neglectful towards his daughter, Leah, more interested in his money.

Again with the fading into existence thing. The stranger seems to be following the young lad, who I guess is Nisson’s son.

The stranger speaks to the young lad. He gives a warning, to arrive before the Sabbath. The stranger is smaller, and he fades away after giving the warning.

The stranger keeps showing up, seeming to help the young lad. He reminds me of the stories of elves.

Looks like Sender has forgotten his pledge to Nisson, as his daughter makes googgly eyes at another man.

Chris says it is Nisson’s kid. Hard to tell. But they are talking about the Kabala and the mystic arts. This boy seems to want to study it, in order to get his goals, and he smiles slyly at Leah.

Okay, that is Nisson’s kid. He and Leah bond over their parents’ deaths.

But they do not know this is Nisson (aka Nison)’s son.

The holy grave of a bridegroom and bride who were martyrs to the faith who were killed by bandits. Festive to give joy to the dead. Stranger shows up, being ominous, referring to the kids as bridge and bridegroom.

I wish we had the full subtitles — feel like I am losing context.

Looks like they are going to marry Leah to marry someone named Menache, who would not be Nison’s son.

Channon is Nison’s son, and instead of studying Gemara, he is studying Kabala.

Sender wants Leah to marry a wealthy man, and Channon wants to become wealthy, and apparently he wants holy powers to help him do so, thus he studies Kabala so he can gain Leah’s hand.

Someone sees Channon in the ritual baths and says he is summoning the aid of Satan. He tells the stranger, who says Satan cannot be taken lightly and says to let Channon be because each must go their own way.

Channon does not like the idea of her getting a bridegroom, and when Leah hears that her father has gone off to do this she faints.

Channon is like the intense young youth in love who will do anything to get what he loves. Leah doesn’t seem to have any characteristics and is under the control of the men in her life.

But she does seem to like Channon, asks for him after she awakens, and cries when she learns he has gone. That bond she felt when they first met is apparent.

The bridegroom the father found seems weak, says he is afraid of of strangers’ gazes. He may be effeminate, and seems happy to not have to get married.

Channon learns the match was not made and is happy. He thinks his prayers have been answered, that his spells have worked. Now he just needs to get the gold. But his friend says he is falling in with Satan, because Satan created sin, but Channon argues that God made Satan, so there is holiness in every sin. When sin is cleansed in fire them it becomes very holy.

Oops, looks like the match has been made after all, and Leah is not happy. But Sender just realized that Channon is Nison’s son, and he remembers his vow, but he says it is too late.

Now Channon learns about the match. He returns to Kabala and uses numerology to determine that he must beseech Satan. So he calls on Satan to give him add, to allow him and Leah to be together, because numerologically it must be so.

He calls on Satan to take his mind, body, soul and knowledge but give him Leah.

Chris says it is like the inversion of the traditional exorcism narrative because Channon is calling on Satan to give him Leah. He is trying to impose his patriarchal desires on Leah, but he is doing it through the nefarious means. He has the wrong faith, the faith in Satan, and it kills him.

The stranger arrives at Sender’s house. Is the stranger a demon or Satan?

Everyone at Sender’s is celebrating until the window blows open, blows out the candles, and the stranger enters. they are all afraid of the stranger. Stranger tells them Channon has passed away to the Great Beyond.

Towns people talking about how Channon communed with evil spirits and should be buried outside of the cemetery.

The men are hesitant to say Kadish for Channon over his grave.

Leah faints as they say Kadish over his grave.

Possible argument: demonic possession/power is only supposed to be the realm of men — it represents a male space, something they can control or not. Here Channon evokes it to reinforce the tradition of marriage. But when women tap into that power it is a bad thing.

Leah seems weak, looks back at the grave as she leaves it, although she is told not to, because she wants to remember it. That could be her downfall, to be in love, to be emotional, to be feminine.

Sender says he raised Leah as virtuous and pious.

Leah seems withdrawn, quiet. Asks if she can only call upon her own relations at the cemetery. She says she saw Channon in her dreams and begged him to come to her wedding. Leah seems depressed, mourning.

Empty pails are a bad omen…

Leah is at the cemetery to ask her mother to come to her wedding. Leah moves as if a ghost, or asleep, through the cemetery.

But she goes to Channon’s grave instead, calling him her bridegroom. The stranger is there, talking about evil spirits visiting a bride before she is married. Leah doesn’t believe in evil spirits, just the souls of the dead. Stranger says the dead return as beasts who are looking to purify their souls by ending the bodies of those they loved. Those are the dybbuk.

Leah talks to Channon’s grave and seemingly beseeches Channon to enter her body, saying that she can carry both souls, like having unborn children.

She sings a song about the souls of unborn children?

The stranger approaches her as she cries over Channon’s grave, and then she faints.

So Leah, being in so much love for Channon, having felt this bond and now in mourning, has essentially asked to be possessed by his dybbuk.

Okay, not the bride is being shown a Dance of Death with a person who’s head looks like a skull. How is that festive for a marriage?!

Naturally, she recoils in horror from it, but then she sees Channon’s face it and she embraces Death to dance with the person.

The bridegroom seems to be so afraid of strangers that he is acting like a child. He feels like he is being dragged to the gallows.

Seems to be comments that Sender is a stingy rich man.

Leah looks thoroughly unhappy during these festivities, but I am not certain that it is uncharacteristic of a bride given how these festivities are done.

Channon fades into existence at the cemetery, but he is still ghostly — and he fades out. Looks like he’s coming to the wedding.

Leah refuses to go through the wedding, saying the bridegroom is not her real one. She collapses at the holy grave of the bride and bridegroom, and then rises, eyes wide. She says you buried me but I will come back to be with his bride and will never leave her. Stranger says a dybbuk has entered her, and a storm starts up.

Sender brings Leah to the tribunal of rabbis.

The stranger shows up, speaking of rabbi parables, about a rich man who was a miser. The Rabbi had the rich man look through a window and asked what do you see. He is talking to Sender, and each time Sender looks out the window he sees something else. Its not a window but a mirror and how the rich man can see no one else but himself. So perhaps the whole issue in this movie is that Sender was being selfish and that has cost him his daughter’s happiness and soul.

Leah was wailing but the stranger laid his hand on her shoulder and she calmed down.

Something about the sins of the father being visited on the daughter.

The Rabbi seems upset that he did not see this coming.

The Rabbi doesn’t seem to know what to do.

“A worm can enter a fruit only after it has begun to rot” says the Rabbi to sender when he asks what has caused this. Sender says his daugther is pious — so this may indicate the idea that a woman can only be possessed after she has begun to sin in some way.

The Rabbi wonders is Sender wronged Channon, and Sender says he is only human.

Sender brings Leah in to see the Rabbi, but she is frightened — says she wants to go in but cannot. She sees Stranger and says I will not go in.

Sender confesses it is his sin for breaking his sacred pact with Nison. Rabbi says this was a pretty big sin.

Says Sender has to answer to Nison before the Rabbinical Court. Sender has to go the graveyard and ask the dead to send Nison to the Rabbinical Court. Interesting how much beseeching of the dead there is, such recognition of the dead being all around us.

At the Rabbinical Court they ask Nison’s ghost to come in, but to respect the boundaries of the space, and the door opens on its own.

And calling them the sacred dead. the Rabbi speaks to the spirit apologetically, confessing how Sender broke his sacred pact. The Rabbi passes a verdict that Sender did not have to uphold this pact because it was not in scripture to make pacts about children who may or may not be conceived.

Stranger intervenes, saying that Nison did not accept the verdict.

Rabbi calls for Leah to come in, saying the wedding will commence, because he breaks the pact between Sender and Nison.

The Rabbi says he is old and weak, that he just wants solitude and is tired of people petitioning him for things. Not necessarily a crisis of faith, but he does need some talking to to get him to feel good about himself and what he does. He needs to be reminded of his great lineage to get the courage and strength back to say he will exorcise the dybbuk.

Now Leah’s caretaker or whoever she is is wondering why God didn’t protect Leah, why God let this evil thing happen to her. She says she sinned, and that she will do anything to bring Leah back to herself.

Rabbi mentions the ram horn in the exorcism of Leah — we saw this in the Unborn as well. Leah is defiant, saying there is nothing they can do to her — of course she i speaking with the dybbuk’s voice now. Which we know to be a man’s voice. She is saying they cannot drive it away. The Rabbi says it has compassion for it but will make it leave the maiden’s body.

Sender seems to be the only one upset and scared.

Rabbi calls upon God’s power to help him cast the dybbuk from her body.

Interesting that Leah only got possessed when she decided not to get married, not to do the traditional thing, rejecting her father’s authority.

Rabbi not alone, working with congregation, a tribunal, to command the dybbuk to leave or it will excommunicate it. But the spirit is not afraid of excommunication because it likes being in her body.

So the exorcism becomes an excommunication ritual.

Leah is all in black while all the holy congregation wear their white shrouds.

They blow the rams horns and the dybbuk says it can no longer struggle, asks for the Kadish.

Sender says the Kadish and Leah crumbles to the stairs. The Rabbi beseeches God to look at the suffering dybbuk and take pity on it.

Apparently the exorcism ends and they want to bring in the bridegroom to complete the wedding.

Leah awakens, hears a sad voice, and speaks to it. She feels it is Channon, and says her heart has been drawn to him. She feels forsaken by him again.

The voice says it left her body to return her soul. But she says take my soul, my bridegroom, my husband. Again she seems to be asking for the possession to occur, because it is better than the alternative.

And she dies. She would rather die to be with Channon than live without him.

And the stranger says “blessed be a righteous judge” after blowing out a lantern.

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