Dybbuks, Golems Can Comfort in Ghastly Times


In the middle of the current coronavirus crisis, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has scheduled a Zoom speech of compelling contemporary relevance — on centuries-old Jewish legends.

Gabriella Safran, a professor of Jewish studies at Stanford University and the author of 2010’s “Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-sky” (Harvard University Press), will speak about “Dybbuks, Golems, S. An-ski, and Jewish Legends in Times of Fear” on June 3 at 4 p.m.

The Jewish folkloric legend of the dybbuk, which was prevalent in 16th-17th century Eastern Europe, is a disembodied human spirit that, because of former sins, wanders restlessly until it finds a haven in the body of a living person. A golem, from the Hebrew word “golem,” which means something incomplete or unfinished, is a clay creature that has been magically brought to life and is associated with 16th-century Prague. An-sky, born Shloyme Rapoport, was a Russian and Yiddish writer who died a century ago; his most famous work was the play, “Der dibek: Tsvishn tsvey veltn” (The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds.”)

Why these topics now?

The dybbuk — the mythical figure and the play — “instills acceptance of the unknowable, inculcates deep skepticism of conventional descriptions of experience and reality, and abandons easy moral judgments,” Jonathan Brent, YIVO executive director and visiting professor of history and literature at Bard College, says in an email. “Through this comes a deep moral resilience, the resilience of a people that has endured every extreme of fate and fortune.”

In other words, exactly the type of moral support people are searching for right now.

“The Dybbuk,” Brent says in an email interview, deals with “the question at the end of The Book of Job: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations for the earth. … Have you penetrated to the inaccessible abysses of the sea, have your critical searchings taken you to the deepest depths?’ These are the questions out of which true resilience comes, the ability to withstand the unknown, something that faces all of us today.”