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What’s So Jewish About Werewolves?

“Werewolves are kind of like good Jewish boys, only more so,” says a character in Wen Spencer’s young adult novel, The Black Wolves of Boston. And it’s true. When 30 Rock debuted the novelty song “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” (think “Monster Mash,” but with a nice cut of brisket), the joke seemed random, even unsustainable. But you might be surprised to learn that the idea of Jewish werewolves is a long-winded mesorah. They may not all have bar mitzvahs, but if you count off the usual tenets of a werewolf story—following a lunar calendar, dashing off when the sun goes down, making excuses for weird disappearances, accusations, hunts, being driven off by suspicious townspeople—it’s easy to guess why Jewish creators throughout the years have chosen the werewolf as a central horror figure. After all, who could know better how it feels to be both a part of a nation and a nation apart?

The wolfish-Jewish association goes as far back as the Biblical Benjamin, who a Medieval commentator, Rabbi Efraim ben Shimshon, described as not just like a “ravenous wolf,” but capable of turning into a wolf itself. Notably, the rabbi’s fear was not that Benjamin would kill others, but that he would change among strangers and be killed by them.

This theme follows through most Yiddish lore. Germany fairy tales warned children not to go into the woods, lest they be snatched; Yiddish folk tales warned readers not to go into the wood lest they be accused of snatching children and baking them into matzo.

H. Leivick, a Yiddish folklorist of the last century, picks up this thread. Leivick, fugitive from Mother Russia, was no stranger to tackling creature features; his play, The Golem, turns a scary story about a clay man into a Miltonian epic with messianic ruminations and introspective soliloquies where every man, even the clay one, verges on tragedy.

Leivick’s poem “The Wolf,” from around 1920, stalks in the same vein, when a rabbi, last survivor of anti-Semitic violence, finds himself transformed into the titular beast. Taken to the woods, the rabbi-wolf haunts a new generation of Jews who have moved in to rebuild the town and eventually attacks them in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, where he is beaten to death by the congregation. It is interesting to gauge Leivick’s reaction to the pogroms of his homeland; the wolf, rather than turning his rage upon those who wronged him, instead terrorizes his kin. Leivick, it seems, is using the wolf to warn that blood for blood is pointless, for it makes the Jewish victim no different from his non-Jewish oppressors. It is not a revenge fantasy, but rather a revenge nightmare.

The Jewish werewolf once more emerges from the shadows in The Wolfman (1941) and An American Werewolf in London (1981), two films in conversation about the possibility of Jewish existence in Europe during and after the dehumanizing effect of the Holocaust. If Leivick’s desire was to remain the Other, these films express the terror of becoming the Other in a hostile world. You fit in, until you can’t. You’re one of us, until you’re not.

Consider screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who like many of his generation and, like the subject of his trend-setting The Wolfman, was forced to flee from home across the wastes of Europe, marked for pursuit, marked for Otherness, by a star.

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf,” the poem in the film goes—it can happen anywhere, through no fault of your own. Kafka saw himself as a cockroach; Siodmak saw himself as a wolf.

Along lurks An American Werewolf in London, intent on flipping The Wolfman on its head but, in the end, only fulfilling the pre-war prophecy, as two spry American Jews (implied but never explicitly outed) return to Europe and swiftly find themselves attacked and facing certain doom. The Holocaust clings like a sickly pall, polluting pop culture, because the Holocaust was the monster under the bed, and if you hid enough, you might silence it forever.

Movies like An American Werewolf in London invented a way around the societal gag order, and they did it by embracing the truth of the Holocaust as a horror show without a happy ending. When pig-faced Nazis storm werewolf-bitten David Kessler’s house in the film, it’s post-Holocaust shlock as shock therapy. When David is goaded by his old friend into suicide, it’s a punchline of Jewish guilt. When wolf-David is gunned down on a busy street in London, it’s a reversion to the open dehumanization of The Wolfman, inescapably Othered.

Flashforward and suddenly you have Jewish werewolves overrunning genre television—between Oz on Buffy (they may never have said it, but he’s played by Seth Green, okay?) and George of Being Human UK and Josh of its North American remake, werewolves are young and cool and holding down nine-to-five jobs, assimilated into the greater world. Or are they?

One of the biggest sources of unease in a werewolf story is the inability to pick one out of a crowd. They look like you, they sound like you, they could be any of you. Josh and George are nice Jewish boys growing up to be nice Jewish doctors and upstanding members of society before they are cursed, cast out of society and forced to live mouth-to-mouth, way station to way station, unable to settle down or find peace. Though they look just as normal as the next person, the vampires are able to sniff them out. An existence that had seemed integrated is once more Othered, and these characters are forced to wrestle with their identity as wolf or human.

“This is me, all the time,” Josh eventually confesses—not one or the other, but both: a werewolf. This is ironically confirmed by the show’s extension of vampire mythology to include Stars of David as religious symbols that harm the undead. Only his foes react to Josh’s necklace with fear; it is harmless to those he counts as friend.

From Bible verses to novelty songs, Jewish werewolves have always been lurking on the fringes, waiting to be brought into the light. Like the moon itself, I expect there will always be more to see.

Esther Saks thinks Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize. Her writing is featured in Heroes: A Raconteur House Anthology.

Image via Wikimedia

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