Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

A Wicked Yard-Sale Bargain

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

A Wicked Yard-Sale Bargain

Article excerpt

Supernatural possession, as we learned in "The Exorcist," can involve levitation, spinning heads, foul language, green bile. But why should Christians have all the fun?

"The Possession," a horror film that opens Friday, trades on an even older tradition: the "dybbuk" (a Yiddish word, from the Hebrew word for "cling"), a malicious spirit of the dead that, in Jewish folklore, possesses the living.

"Human beings all have the same fears, dreams, hopes and wishes," says Peninnah Schram, professor of speech and drama at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. "That's why so many of our stories, folklore, legends and parables are really universal."

Dybbuk tales have been, in their way, a Jewish pop culture tradition, much as stories of vampires and werewolves have figured in mainstream entertainment. "The Dybbuk," a 1914 play by Sholom Ansky, is considered one of the cornerstones of Yiddish theater; it has been adapted to film, opera and ballet. More recently, dybbuks figured in the films "A Serious Man" and "The Unborn."

"None of this is borne out in authentic Jewish scripture, or Jewish law," says Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood. "It's folk stories."

But "The Possession," uniquely, is based not so much on Jewish legend as urban legend: a supposed "dybbuk box," a "haunted" wine cabinet bought at an estate sale in 2001, and advertised on eBay with a story about a dybbuk's curse that causes misfortune to anyone rash enough to own it.

The story evidently captured the imagination of producer Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead," "The Grudge") and director Ole Bornedal. They've concocted a yarn about a young girl (Natasha Calis) who becomes obsessed with opening such a box, bought at a yard sale, and her divorced parents (Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who eventually turn to an exorcist (Jewish reggae star Matisyahu) as their daughter's behavior becomes increasingly strange.

"In general, the notion of dybbuks entering inanimate objects, I've never seen," says Rabbi David Kalb, director of Jewish education for the 92nd Street Y.

"There is a tradition of spirits entering animals. But I've never heard of inanimate objects. …

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