The World of Sholom Aleichem and The Dybbuk
Released on DVD: September 27, 2011
Archive of American Television
The blast of the shofar ends one of the most dramatic scenes in “The Dybbuk,” directed by Sidney Lumet, in which a rabbinical court excommunicates a dybbuk, while the same sound of the shofar opens the “Sholom Aleichem” story of Bontche Schweig, announcing the Job-like character’s arrival in heaven.
“The Dybbuk,” which was broadcast in 1960 on David Susskind’s syndicated TV series “The Play of the Week,” and “Bontche Schweig,” which along with Sholom Aleichem’s “Tale of Chelm” and “The High School” aired on the same show in 1959, have recently been released on DVD on eOne Home Video, just in time for the High Holidays.
Each DVD runs about two hours, and if one purchases both, one should be forewarned that it’s so hard to tear oneself away that one might as well block out four hours to watch both. In between the static lines of the old broadcasts, which lend both DVDs an authentic and antique aura, all four tales have elements of humor intertwined with sobering messages. (Perhaps the Chelm tales touch less on serious subjects than the others, but while one laughs at the Chelmites, it’s hard not to feel protective of them too.)
At the core of “The Dybbuk” is the often blurry boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. Particularly in the High Holiday period leading up to the Yizkor memorial service for loved ones who have passed away, it’s easy to identify with Leah, daughter of the wealthy Sender, who flees from her bridegroom (who might just have wandered off the Chelm set) to the cemetery to conjure her lost love, the kabbalist and recently deceased Channon.
Whether it is Channon’s dybbuk which enters Leah or whether she herself invites her beloved’s memory into herself, Leah causes such a disturbance shunning her bridegroom that she is marched to the rabbi of a neighboring village to be exorcised. William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) has Georgetown as its backdrop-particularly that ominous flight of stairs, which has become such a pilgrimage site to fans-but the Dybbuk’s setting is far less glamorous. This is the shtetl, where old wives share bubba meises galore. But the rabbinic court is serious business, and the consulted rabbi even enlists the help of his own rabbi.
Many tallitot, black candles, white shrouds and Torah scrolls later, Channon is ordered to depart. As the shofar is blown several times, Channon-possessed-Leah squirms and then seems to have a full-blown seizure. This shofar blowing has nothing to do with calling anyone to repentance; it’s an all-out battle cry summoning the angels of the heavens to lay siege to the dybbuk threatening Leah.
that herald the arrival of Bontche Schweig in heaven-in grand Shakespearean fashion, we are told early and often about the grand hero long before he actually arrives on set-are far more celebratory than those in dybbuk
. (Though, it’s worth noting, both have at least one tekiyah gedola
, as well as the other usual notes.)
Although the word on the heavenly street is that Bontche is so grand that even the forefather Avraham needs to be summoned to greet him, the recently deceased Bontche (we never know what brought about his end) turns out to be a kopek-a-dozen kind of guy, rather than the larger than life hero who had been announced. Bontche is dressed like a beggar, but the defending angel soon reveals that he has not said a word in his entire life, despite having suffered far greater troubles than even Iyov.
The prosecuting angel gets a few objections in-the divine court, it turns out, doesn’t allow similes, metaphors or rhetoric, just facts-but one pitiful look from Bontche silences him, and he offers no rebuttal to the defense angel’s opening remarks. This spectacle makes a deep impression on the court, and Bontche is offered not only eternal life, but also any prize he desires. All of the heavens are his, the court tells him, and all he must do is name what his heart desires. After living his entire life mute, Bontche finally opens his mouth, and his request is quite surprising, to say the least.
is hardly more than a prop in the Bontche Schweig story, and it’s not a huge part of “The Dybbuk,” but the two broadcasts highlight two different sides of the shofar
The shofar is all about the symbolism of transitions from beginnings to endings. The shofar marks the beginning of Bontche’s life after death (so it’s simultaneously a beginning and an end for him), and it plays an integral part in Channon’s death after death. It also marks a major change in Leah, who struggles with the paralyzing choice of joining her beloved in death or lingering without him among the living.
Both performances do well to couch the shofar in veils of both gravity and humor. The sound of the shofar has often been said to resemble the wailing of a child. Of course context is a vital factor. Someone else’s child crying beside you on a plane is hardly joyful, while one responds more tenderly to the cries of one’s relations (even if they can be annoying). In the hands of Sholom Aleichem, the shofar embodies a wide range of feelings: anticipation, promise, irony, humor, devastation and tragedy. Food for thought when we hear the blowing of the shofar this High Holiday period.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.