Matisyahu, a Dybbuk and a Haunted Box
The Possession is “based on a true story,” which means somebody on eBay wrote a really long-winded story, and the LA Times then picked up the story, and then Hollywood changed it and turned it into a movie.
The movie –fairly different from the internet tale– portrays a family in which the youngest daughter gets haunted by a dibbuk (i.e. spirit of Jewish folklore–usually evil) after she takes possession of a box that is home to the haunting spirit that eventually enters her, to reside inside her.
Things almost start to get interesting after an agonizingly long cut-to-the-case of what’s-the-deal-with-the-Hebrew-letters-on-the-box-that-I-could-have-read-for-the-actors-if-the-director-would-keep-the-camera-steady-on-the-words-for-more-than-5-seconds-without-the-letters-all-being-upside-down-or-at-an-awkward-angle.
The father of the family makes his way to Borough Park. There, in the depths of a Chasidic community, the audience meets a fairly hip, slightly misfit-ish, kinda authentic Chasidic Jew played by the fairly hip, slightly misfit-ish, kinda authentic ex-Chasidic rapper Matisyahu. Tzadok (played by Matisyahu) eventually volunteers to be the exorcist for the dibbuk in the little girl.
Matisyahu’s role in the film is very small. Again, so is the amount of thoughtful content in the film.
The film had an opportunity to explore the mythology of the dibbuk–whether at an academic level, or at a folk level–but I feel the film failed at both.
At one point (way too late in the film), the father goes to a professor at the academy (presumably a local community-like college). The professor, because he is very smart, knows the answer to the father’s question (he would not dare say, “this looks like X; you should consult Y;” that’s what a real professor would do). The professor says that the “Hebrew” says “DIH-bik.” Y’know, I might have been in the audience, but I saw like a dozen words on the box. If this guy’s a scholar, why’s he ignoring the rest of the words? And, if he reads Hebrew in a scholarly fashion, why is he pronouncing this word like it’s one of them old-country Yiddish words? (In modern and scientific pronunciation of Hebrew, the word would be pronounced a little more like “dih-BOOK.”) Also, the words on the outside of the box looked to me like Aramaic. (So, what’s the language here? Hebrew, Yiddish, or Aramaic?)
Anyway, there goes any hope for academic credits.
As far as a folky representation of the Jews goes, it vacillates between bad or just plain barren.
There’s that sequence in Borough Park, and there’s even a scene in a synagogue. Our protagonist–alongside sidekick Tzadok–enters a synagogue at just about the end of the Amidah (which–as far as I can tell–means that our heroes interrupted the minhah prayer service; I don’t know why this doesn’t concern the Chasidic people who in real life would have almost certainly demanded he not interrupt as they’d be done in 2 minutes anyway). The conversation between the father and the great Rebbe Shapiro looks like one of those Western scenes when the Indian Chief speaks with a Pioneer of the New Frontier while neither listens to the other. Just the Indians are dressed like Chasids, and the cowboy is an American of unidentifiable ethnic origin.
The bizarre encounter itself is believable, but when Tzadok says he’ll be the exorcist and starts to speak about pikku’ach nefesh (overriding one obligation in order to save a person’s life), the dialogue just feels forced and out of context. (And I’m shortening my rant about Tzadok’s pronunciation and translation of the dibbuk‘s name to one word: unlikely.)
The Possession was a real miss for Hollywood. At a time when a loud and busy pop culture leads the occasional celebrity towards Kabbalah and other elements of Jewish mysticism, this industry once spearheaded by Jews just had the perfect opportunity to explore some of the metaphors and human needs that lie behind the myth of a dibbuk.
Perhaps the dibbuk first entered Jewish conversation when Jews didn’t understand how to give proper psychological, neurological or psychiatric treatment to those suffering from delusions. Perhaps the legend of the dibbuk speaks to the seeker who is stuck in an overly emotional world within the mind, unable to bring that emotional intensity back to the external world. Perhaps the dibbuk entered the Jewish conversation when Jews felt a historic voice of tradition shouting over contemporary voices trying to renew tradition. (Note that the dibbuk was barely a phenomenon in Judaism before the Renaissance, and still not much before the beginnings of the Enlightenment.)
My personal Judaism might tell the occasional story about a dibbuk. But if the portrayal of the dibbuk in The Possession has no interest in discussing what it means when a myth silences the believer or the delusional, then I have no interest in holding onto the myth.
Someone else can keep it.
Jonah Rank serves as Rabbi of Congregation Sons of Israel in Amsterdam, NY, and is Co-Founder and Creative Co-Director of Oholiav: A Community for viewing Arts & Entertainment through a Jewish Lens.