Autumn, the Dybbuk, and the Dance of Death

This article on the 11th of Cheshvan (Ilui Rachel) and the Halloween season was written for autumn 2007.

Oct. 23 was the 11th of Cheshvan, also called Ilui Rachel (the elevation of Rachel). In the land of Israel, pilgrims made their way to Rachel’s tomb to honor the anniversary of her death and pray for abundance, sustenance, and fertility. Since Rachel is identified with the Shekhinah in Jewish mysticism, 11 Cheshvan is almost like a day to mourn the Shekhinah, who experiences death through the physical creatures in which She dwells. It’s also a time to ask a sacred ancestor for her help— Mother Rachel is well known for interceding on behalf of her children. Cheshvan, the month of no holidays, when nights grow shorter and the harvest has come and gone, lends itself to thoughts about the ephemerality of life.

I always like to note that Halloween falls at this season: the Celtic-turned-Christian-turned-secular holiday that honors the spirit world. In fact, David Nelson of CLAL notes that over many years, the average date in the Hebrew calendar on which Halloween falls is 11 Cheshvan! Halloween is also called (in Mexico) Dias de los Muertos/Day of the Dead, (by Celts and modern Pagans) Samhain/Summer’s End, and (by the Catholic Church) All Hallows. In the United States and some other places around the world, Halloween is celebrated by dressing up (often as ghosts or witches), trick-or-treating, and going to costume parties. In other places, such as Mexico and France, Halloween is celebrated with visits to graves (much as traditional Jews visit graves during the late summer month of Elul). In Ireland, bonfires are lit to drive away malevolent spirits who have entered the human world. Halloween represents a time when the spirit world becomes visible and our dead return to us: the “veil between the worlds” is pulled aside.

For some Jews, it’s controversial to celebrate Halloween because of its origins. For me, as a child, it was a holiday I could share with non-Jewish friends (unlike Passover or Christmas). Now I find it fascinating for its costumes, its fun, its reputation as a day when spirits visit, and its power to make us confront our fears. I tend to spend some of the 11th of Cheshvan quietly meditating on my ancestors (personal and tribal), and then put on a costume for a New York City Halloween (and the Halloween parade here is not to be missed!)

Lest you think Jews have no ghost-impersonating rituals, I want to tell you about an extraordinary story I heard at a lecture last Shabbat. The scholar Naomi Seiden presented at the Nehirim LGBT Shabbaton (at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan) on her work studying the homoerotic aspects of traditional Chasidic life. She showed the attendees several clips from the film The Dybbuk, by S. Ansky. “The Dybbuk” is am Eastern European Jewish ghost story. (Warning to those who want to see the play or movie: spoilers ahead.) Two Chasidic men named Nisan and Sender, devotees of a rebbe, are best friends. They promise their unborn children to other in marriage, if one should be a boy and the other a girl. A boy and a girl are born, but Nisan, the father of the boy, dies, and the other father forgets his promise. Years later, the girl (named Leah’leh) falls in love with a poor yeshiva student named Hannan who, unbeknownst to her, is the son of the dead father, Nisan, and her beshert, her destined lover. However, her father, Sender, insists she marry a rich man, and her suitor Hannan dies of grief.

As is the custom, the bride visits several graves before her wedding: the grave of her mother, of Hannan, and of a young bride and groom who were murdered. These visits have a strong impact on her. During the wedding, at the moment the marriage is about to be sealed, the bride becomes possessed by Hannan’s spirit and refuses the wedding. The horrified local sages perform an exorcism, but it is unsuccessful. However, the chief rabbi finds out about the original pact between the two friends, and attempts to appease Hannan’s spirit. The rebbe leaves the bride Leah’leh in a circle of magical protection while her wedding is re-prepared. Leah’leh leaves the circle, dies, and is reunited with her beloved in death.

Seiden showed clips from the film in order to note how it is both a modern romance in which two people fall in love, and a traditional story in which the marriage agreements of parents are important. She also noted the romantic elements of the friendship between the fathers. However, I became fascinated by the way the story deals with death. In The Dybbuk, the dead are not gone: they continue to act in the world. They can love, and they can help or interfere. We see a number of Eastern European Jewish customs, such as the bride’s visit to the graveyard to invite the dead to her wedding, that emphasize this.

One custom in particular fascinated me: Apparently, Eastern European Jews performed a dance at weddings called “The Dance of Death,” in which wedding guests would frighten the bride by pretending to be ghosts and demons. This dance warded off the evil eye. Watching the bride in the film dance with a wedding “ghost,” I saw how she was confronted with death even in the midst of joyful celebration. Like the breaking of the glass, the “dance of death” reminded a young couple life’s realities—and brought their ancestors to take part in the festivities.

I invite all of us to engage with this season not only as a commercial sell-out of cobwebs and pumpkins, but as a real moment to pause, notice a falling leaf or a faded flower, and remember all those who would want us to remember them. And let’s allow ourselves to engage with our scary stories, in hopes that we will be braver as a result.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is director of Tel Shemesh, Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.

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