Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Five Reasons Vampires Aren't Jews

As part of the Jewish Journal thumbing its nose (biting its thumb?) at the new Twilight movie (deservedly) Rabbi Wolpe details five important differences between Jews and vampires.
Their day begins at night, they show a certain aversion to the sign of the cross and they dress in black. Of course, I am talking about Jews.

But add some invidious stereotypes — bloodsucking and a predatory nature, and you get vampires. So, are vampires Jewish?
Of course not. He explains why, insightfully and entertainingly, before concluding, "Vampires are not Jews. Maybe we can allow one powerful, popular trend to be about someone else for a change?"

I greatly enjoyed this essay, especially as a horror and folklore aficionado who enjoys tracing monster legends back to the real-life fears that spawned them, but find one line particularly troubling:
Judaism believes in death. Yes, it believes in immortal life, but death comes first. The entirety of Jewish ritual is crafted to emphasize that all creatures — all of them — ultimately, unequivocally die.
The ENTIRETY of Jewish ritual? I get and agree with the belief in mortality, in fact I frequently accuse modern Judaism of being too death-centric, a religion stuck in mourning, but ALL ritual?

I sincerely hope not. I doubt that his claim is accurate; it's possible he spoke metaphorically there. Weddings, childbirth, b'nei mitzvot...all of these are life-based. Many of our holidays originate in death and tragedy, but the celebration is that we're still alive!

Granted, there is the mirror argument-by-definition; celebrating life must also celebrate death, even if indirectly, because death is the line that defines life. We celebrate at Hannukah and Purim because we survived; we are still alive. Weddings are celebrations precisely because our time together in this life is so brief. New children are welcomed because they add new sparks to the fire of life, providing heat and light against the cold and dark of death. From that perspective, yes, all of Jewish ritual is about death.

I always looked at it the other way around. As a child I did see Jewish ritual as death obsessed. There are laws about mourning? We are required to behave a certain way and grieve for a certain amount of time? How morbid! And the prayers in every service, reminding us of the dead? As I grew and studied, though, I realized that these laws actually encourage us to focus on the living. By strictly defining when, where, and how to mourn, it tells us the rest of our time is dedicated to life.

Someone important to you dies? Take the next 30 days, go feel really miserable. Trust me; you'll need it. After that, spend a few more months feeling slightly miserable, and the rest of the year feeling just generally sad. Then, each year after that, pick one day to go get really stinking sad about their absence. Then get up, dust yourself off, and get on with life.

The laws of mourning don't turn our focus to death; that happens naturally. The rituals turn us back towards life.

And at any rate, compared to most - if not all - the world's other major religions, our death and afterlife focus is so small as to be negligible.


  1. I did laugh a bit at the article, and even laughed (inside, of course) at the older lady at the synagogue who scoffed when I was reading the Jewish Journal because she thought this issue was "disgusting, nothing worth reading this week." Yes, the "blood splatter" on the article was amusing to me, and not just because I felt caught between the scornful, disgusted older generation and the younger, Twilight-enamored generation.

    But I've definitely come into a different (better?) understanding of the Kaddish prayer, having lost a close friend on Oct 1st. I always felt weird when the congregation was encouraged to "say Kaddish for the six million who had no one to say Kaddish for them." Who am I, to consider myself a mourner for them? I wasn't a child, spouse, sibling, parent for someone who died.

    But when Kolfinna fell ill and I was in Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur services, my pain and fear for her was just under the surface. After Oct 1, the prayer was too hard to say, because the grief was so fresh and so shocking. Now, there's some perspective I have gained from the definitions of shiva, shloshim, and yahrtzeit that I never understood before.

    Perhaps it is impossible to understand grief until you've truly experienced it. And because Kolfinna was almost like a sister to me, there's a closeness to the mourner that I finally understand. And strangely, I know I'm partially prepared for the day when I might be "officially" a mourner, may that day be very long in coming. *sniff*

  2. I wanted to point out that Kaddish is said at multiple points during the service, and only is associated with death in one. The prayer itself says nothing about death, dying, heaven, afterlife, or reward. It is all about the greatness of God.

    It is intended (as I understand it) to bring us back down to earth after the celebratory singing during P'sukei d'zimrah (morning psalms); to give us a breather after approaching God during the Amidah and before the Torah service; to focus on the here and now after being caught up in the poetry of Torah and Haftarah before we say Musaf - (ie: Amidah: The Sequel). And so on.

    Obsessed with death? Take a closer look and you realize how hard we work to focus on life.