Life & Culture

The Jewish dramatist exploring the world of demons

Rachel Bellman's latest work delves into the very Jewish mythology of dybbuks, mazzikin and personalised good and bad angels


Before The Exorcist there was The Dybbuk, a 1930s film still regarded as one of the best Yiddish movies ever made about a young woman inhabited by the soul of another.

Before Gremlins, there were the mazzikin —  tiny little malevolent creatures who would haunt the lonely and the naughty, according to the Talmud. And even before Eve, there was the mythical Lilith; the woman who refused to obey Adam, so she was thrust out of Eden and was said to haunt others as a malevolent angel who would even steal babies.

Demon exorcism as popularised in Hollywood usually features a priest with a cross and some holy water. But there are also Jewish demons and Jewish exorcism, both of which are examined in a fascinating new play called These Demons.

Jewish belief in magic and demonology isn’t something secular or religious Jews really talk about; even if some of us grew up within families which believed in saying keinehora to ward off the evil eye.

The play’s writer, Rachel Bellman, a secular Jew,  is better known for her work in musical theatre. In 2019 she won the New Music Theatre Award for The Dickens Girls. She was researching  another project when she came across a mention of Jewish demons. She became entranced and started work on a play that weaves mythical demons alongside themes of antisemitism, family relationships, coming of age, and life as a modern-day Jew.

“I was working on a haunted house story and stumbled across a story about a demon, which made me realise that not only were Jewish demons a thing, but they are referenced in lots of different texts,” says Bellman, 31, who was helped by her own rabbi from Alyth, Hannah Kingston, and Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet, who is an expert on Jewish demons.

“The more I researched, the less I felt I knew. Mainstream Judaism is very palatable and positive but I quite like these tiny weirdnesses that come from history, and we don’t talk about them much.”

The play is horror with a comedy edge. A three-hander, it focuses on 17-year-old Leah whose aunt Mirah has dedicated her life to researching Jewish mysticism including demons.

Mirah has just been attacked and is in hospital and Leah runs away from home, determined to find the perpetrator and exact revenge. She goes to stay in Mirah’s isolated rural cottage.

She is followed there by her 22-year-old sister Danielle. As the sisters argue, the lines of reality become blurred. There are strange noises in the house. The walls appear to move. Was the attacker a local racist, or something else entirely? As the play progresses, we meet Mirah in flashback, describing to her niece the demons she’s been investigating.

“All of these things start to happen while they are in the house, and we are left wondering whether it was a person who attacked Mirah or something closer,” says Bellman. “It is an edge-of-your-seat thriller which I hope people will really enjoy.”

Bellman is far from the first Jewish writer to enter the world of demons. The dybuuk, probably the most famous of the Jewish  demons is the wandering spirit of a dead person who enters the body of another, usually a woman.  Playwright S. Ansky, who had travelled across the Pale of the Settlement collecting folk tales, created the 1914 play The Dybbuk — about a young woman called Leah who was possessed on the night of her wedding by the malicious spirit of her dead beloved who had dabbled in the Kabbalah. The play was a huge hit of Yiddish theatre.

The dybbuk  is believed to create a change in the person they inhabit — they speak in strange voices and a strange “bulge” appears — and they can only be removed via exorcism.

There was genuine belief in the dybbuk, a term which first appeared in the shtetls of the 16th century. One was said to have entered Eidel, the favourite daughter of Hasidic leader Rabbi Sholom Rokach of Belz, who had been allowed to study the Talmud.

Ansky’s play was turned into a hit 1937 film in Yiddish and Polish, popularising the idea of possession and exorcism.

“There is an account of a girl in the 16th century who was said to be possessed,” says Bellman. “It describes how she is surrounded by a crowd of people and rabbis who are performing an exorcism ritual.

“They used candles and recited psalms.”

But while the dybbuk is the most famous of Jewish demons, it is far from the only one.

“The first demons I hooked into are the oldest ones called the mazzikin [which roughly translates as ‘those who harm’],” says Bellman.

“They are scattered throughout the Talmud and described as “more numerous than we are”.

There are instructions in different places on how to see them — one is that if you scatter ashes around your bed, when you wake up in the morning you will see the footprints of a rooster.

“It is clear they can be interpreted in different ways — could they be about mental health or bad energy, or something else?”

A third type of demon examined by Bellman in her research doesn’t have a name.

“It is a theory referenced from Kabbalah that we can create angels through our good deeds and demons through our bad ones— so we can create these personal demons which punish us as we go through life.

“It is a bit like the idea of karma — if you do something bad, bad things will come to you. So that was a fun one to play with.”

The final one is Lilith— who is characterised in the play by the sound of wings. “Lilith was said to be the first woman, created from dirt like Adam but because she didn’t want to obey him, she ran away. Over time stories were told about her — she became a demon, a winged creature who kills infants.

“In the play we’ve really looked at the idea of what happens to a woman if she doesn’t obey the system — doesn’t obey a man; people transform her through stories into something else.

“We also explore this idea of otherness and how we might view people who seem a bit different to us and how otherness can turn into fear and how we deal with  and respond to that.”

These Demons runs at Theatre 503 in Battersea from September 26 to October 14.

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