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Cannibal Mermaids, Dybbuks, Golems, and Lilith Herself: Feminist Retellings of Jewish Folktales

I saw the Polish film “The Lure” in the West Village a few months ago. The story riffs on The Little Mermaid in a very unexpected way. Ariel is no longer a fork-wielding dilettante, but instead has morphed into two sharp-fanged, angel-voiced, flesh-eating mermaids, who sing, dance, and devour their way through Communist Poland’s underground nightclub scene.

I often find myself thinking about types of feminist reclamation, both the kind that equips traditionally submissive women with sharp fangs and the kind that turns sharp-fanged monsters into powerful protagonists. These reclamations are not always completely triumphant. After all, the fundamental nature of a “reclamation” is that something must be re-made: essentially, changed. Still, having feminist retellings is far better than leaving the stories in their original forms, where the woman’s voice is often left out entirely. 

Aside from Lilith, one of the central Jewish folkloric figures reclaimed by feminists is, surprisingly, the dybbuk. Traditionally, this creature was a formless ghost who possessed women and was often blamed for  their “hysteria.” It rose to prominence throughout the Jewish Diaspora, popularized among the Eastern European Jews in folk rituals and literature. S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk,” or “Between Two Worlds,” which had its Yiddish-language premier in Warsaw in 1920, tells of a woman possessed by her dead suitor’s spirit; the play has been lauded as a nostalgic portrayal of disappearing shtetl life.  Its voiceless heroine, Leah, dies at the end, consumed by the spirit within her. It’s the story of a female whose body is possessed by a masculine spirit, and about the often violent subjugation of the female voice. But it’s more a blunt depiction of the problem than a triumphant feminist redemption.