Film is a time machine—a window into a different world. This is why I want to talk here about the film that opens windows into a whole lot of worlds— The Dybbuk (1937). It tells a tragic love-cum-exorcism story, complete with beautiful lovers, wise tzaddiks, kabbalistic magic, and mysterious rituals. With its haunting score and folkloristic choreography, The Dybbuk is a window into the Yiddish cinema, with its own genres, styles, and stars.
Another window opens to its literary source, a famous play by S. An-ski, based on his ethnographic expedition to the Pale of Settlement. Already then, in 1911–14, he noted a sense of culture being lost— and impetus to preserve it. This is our chance to talk about Jewish secularization and revolutionary movement (An-ski's trajectory)—with study and activism gradually supplanting the living, breathing tradition.
And then there are the iconic productions of the play—most notably by Habima, a Moscow theater of Hebrew language enthusiasts that would ultimately run away from Stalin's Russia and become a national Israeli institution, with tethers to Zionist ideology and history.
Another window is to the historical moment of the filmmaking. The Dybbuk was made on the brink of destruction of eastern European Jewry, in Yiddish, which was then still a language spoken by millions. (An-ski wrote in Russian; Habima staged in Hebrew). The Dybbuk gives us a chance to consider transnational Jewish culture—shot in Poland by international talent, the film was circulated anywhere Yiddish was spoken. What happened to the crew and the actors after the war? We can talk about death, survival, emigration, and triumphs and failures that come with it.
I can go on and on about this film and the ways to talk about it: gender relations, Hasidism, shtetl life, ritual, and practice. . . . One thing is inescapable: watching the film after the Holocaust, its meaning grows sinister—the entire culture captured on film is a Dybbuk haunting us.