Granny, there lived a young man. He had a great soul and his thoughts were deep. A long life was destined for him and suddenly in one small terrible moment life was torn out of him, and strange people came and buried him in a strange land. Tell me, Granny, where did his unlived life go? What became of it? We light a candle, Granny, and we put it out, but we can light it again and let it burn down to its end.
A lesson echoed in Pi (1998), “The Dybbuk” reveals the dangerous but intoxicating path to the Absolute. Drawing upon a history of far greater wealth than the droll summation “from Moses to Sandy Koufax” (The Big Lebowski, 1998) the Dybbuk is a dark yet exuberant confrontation with the terror of the worlds between good and evil. Director Sidney Lumet creates a passionate place for this tension, in which Liss’s brilliant adaptation of this Jewish folk tale thrives. “The Dybbuk” was performed during the second season of National Telefilm Associates’ Play of the Week, which had opened the week prior with a rendition of Shakespeare’s Henry IV (IMDB, nd).
The wandering, grief-stricken soul, the dybbuk, is Channon, a young Hasidic rabbi described by the concerned and sometimes bewildered Rabbi Meyer as “marvelous, a precious vessel of knowledge, a mind of steel, […] a real mystic,” having memorized word-for-word five hundred pages of the Talmud during his studies at the Yeshiva. Consumed with two-pronged devotion, for his newfound and deep study of the Kabbalah as well as for his beloved Leah, the penniless Channon seeks an answer in the former to his restlessness towards the latter; Leah is a rich man’s daughter and her rightful place is with a rich man’s son. Channon’s ominous edification is interrupted only by the presence of Leah, during which occasion we are reminded why the Song of Songs is the most tender, and steamy, portion of the Tanakh.
Upon hearing that Leah’s father has settled upon a marriage contract with a rich man in another town, Channon immediately dies (prompting Rabbi Meyer to give an accusatory sigh, “he’s dead! The Kabbalah”). Channon’s soul, “heavy with the mystic learning of the Kabbalah” cannot venture onwards and so the dybbuk enters Leah’s body, in perhaps the only recorded case of possession through interpretive dance. As Channon, Michael Tolan’s tempestuous performance might have overwhelmed the actress portraying Leah if it were not for her character’s strong dialogue, which illustrates her equalling Channon in reverence toward God and passion for her beloved. The stunning Carol Lawrence shines particularly bright during Leah’s graceful yet frantic strides into madness, even negotiating the potentially awkward moments where Leah and Channon’s dybbuk speak in unison.
Tradition is refreshingly and necessarily worn on the sleeve of this film, not only in content but in the motivation for creating the film; aside from being Lumet’s first exposure to the Yiddish theatre, a 1927 production of the Dybbuk exhibited the talents of Lumet’s thespian father. In Lumet’s introduction to the show he evokes the memory of those 19th-century Jewish communities in Russia and Poland that “never walked anywhere if they could dance there, […] never said anything if they could sing it”. This quotation sets the upsettingly beautiful tone for the sobbing soundtrack prominent throughout the performance.
The set is obviously just that, mimicry of the world, but in all probability this is a deliberate consideration of the National Film Associates’ desire to share great plays. The self-evident need for a television notwithstanding, watching the Dybbuk as a play gives the experience a personal feel, echoing Vaclav Havel’s thoughts on the co-creative nature of theatre:
[T]he deepest roots of theater’s special ability to create that “festive” sense of community also lie in something else, something I can’t properly describe and which grows out of the ancient essence of theatre as ritual (255).
Like Havel’s audience members standing outside of themselves and celebrating what is human, what each sees of themselves reflected in the play, the Dybbuk’s viewers are like the Hasidic community arriving at synagogue in the morning after the dead have used the space for midnight prayer, “leav[ing] their sadness for us to gather up in the morning,” as Leah’s grandmother Frade remarks.
Among the Dybbuk’s gifts are strong performances by Sylvia Davis as the affectionate Frade and Milton Seltzer as the Messenger, a parable-telling prophet-figure. The stand out is Ludwig Donath as Rabbi Azrael, who impatiently laments Leah’s father pleading for help: “I have doubt within myself. I feel weak and small as a child. I myself am in need of help”. Despite his self-confessed weakness, Rabbi Azrael is ultimately the only elder able to exorcise the dybbuk from the bride-to-be, also rising to the occasion as the mediator of an impromptu trial with a spirit complainant. The riveting courtroom of the living and the dead is suffused with a haunting element that has been woefully shoved aside in modern religion: magic.
Unlike Aronofsky’s Pi, where mathematician Max Cohen is able to peacefully observe the world of particulars after his ordeal with the ideal, the tension in the Dybbuk does not dissipate with the closing of the performance. Until its very end this production of the Dybbuk reflects the tumultuous landscape of the soul, allowing the audience member to meditate for as long as possible on the oaths they have made and must keep in order to steady the chaos. Unfortunately the Dybbuk appears to be unavailable through the Halifax Public Libraries and Novanet system, although it is available at Video Difference.
The Big Lebowski. By Ethan Cohen and Joel Cohen. Dir. Joel Cohen and Ethan Cohen. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Gramercy Pictures; 1998. DVD.
Havel, Vaclav. Letters to Olga. Faber and Faber: London, 1991.
IMDB. Play of the Week: Henry IV. Retrieved January 14, 2012 from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0675380/
Pi. By Darren Aronofsky. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Artisan Entertainment, 1998. DVD.