The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Dybbuk

Honestly, I could just write forever about Jews and the occult. Eastern European Jews lived in what  astrophysicist Carl Sagan once described as a "demon-haunted world," rich in monsters, ghosts, curses, magic, and miracles. Some of these, like the giant bird Bar Juchne, were drawn from Talmudic sources. Some, like the demon Agrat bat Mahlat, came from mystical rabbinic literature. Some, like the witch Baba Yaga, were absorbed from Slavic folklore.

But this is a list of 100 words, so one cannot be as expansively supernatural as one may wish, and must limit oneself to just a few words taken from the massive canon of mystical Yiddish language, god damn oneself. So we will begin with a dybbuk, which, thanks to a certain literary cache, has managed to remain popular even in the modern word.

Dybbuk is a loan-word from Hebrew, coming from a root word meaning "cling," and this is pretty much what a dybbuk does: He or she clings to you, a dead soul or evil spirit that enters you and takes charge, wearing you like a suit of skin. In English, this is a possession, and it's a story we still tell: Regan in "The Exorcist," accidentally using a Ouija Board to invite the demon Pazuzu to enter her.

So it was in Judaism -- a sin, even an accidental one, could cause a demonic infestation, and one of the phrases that we likely borrowed the word dybbuk from is "dibbuk me-ru'akh ra'ah," or "cleavage of an evil spirit." This sounds a bit risque, but it is not that sort of cleavage, but instead something cleaving to you, a word used in the Bible with a variety of associations, most worrisome: pursue, stick to, join together, and engage in the sexual union of a man and woman. It's as though the word contains every verb required for an especially vicious (and sexually violent) 1970s horror film.

But something interesting happened with the dybbuk. They stopped being demons, sort of, and became people, sort of. In the folk beliefs of European Jews, there were people who died, and died having committed such dreadful sins that they could not enter the afterworld, and so wandered the earth, growing increasingly demonic, until a sinning Jew gave them the opportunity to pursue, stick to, join together, and cleave in some other dreadful manner.

These dybbuks could be cast out with the help of scholars of Jewish mysticism, who published descriptions of spirit possessions and techniques for casting them out. Just as this sort of thing became popular in non-Yiddish literature, and remains so, it became popular in Yiddish literature, with the most famous example being playwright S. Ansky's "The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds," based on folk myths Ansky had researched in Ukraine and Belarus. (Interestingly, Anky's original version of the play was in Russian, in hopes Russian theater would be interested; they weren't, and so Anski prepared a new draft in Yiddish.) The play was authored between 1913 and 1916 and tells of a bride who is possessed by the soul of soul of a spurned suitor. The play, in translation, remains one of the most produced works of Yiddish theater, and was adapted into a well-regarded film in 1937.

There is a positive for of a dybbuk, by the way, called an ibbur, which is generally a deceased soul who has unfinished business, often of a religious nature, and so borrows a living body, often with permission, to accomplish the task. It's all well and good, except that one of the meanings of the Hebrew word ibbur is "impregnation," which again calls to mind a genre of 1970s exploration film, this time more along the lines of the softcore "The Adult Version of Jekyll and Hide."

Some uses of the word dybbuk:

Twelve Wounds, Steven Lehrer, Carmen Rodriguez: "'His crazy landlady, she told us he had a dybbuk,' said Ricci. 'A dybbuk?' said Dr. Herz.'That figures. Whenever someone may have some kind of mental problem, the Hasids resort to an ancient, primitive explanation: the dybbuk.'"

The Glitter Box,  Pat Tito, Pat Bellavia: "Velvel's flight encountered turbulence over the Rocky Mountains. But what else could he expect? Every time he boarded a plane something went wrong. His was sure his personal dybbuk spent all his spare moments plotting ways to scare him at every turn."

The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter: "Harry and Esther Ginsburg ... came by from time to time with baked food of various sorts, and who informed me that the cause of my divorce was not actually myself, or my happenstantial faults, but the house I lived in. At first I thought they meant this metaphorically, but no: the reference was to the physical enclosure, the walls and windows and ceilings. They claimed there was a dybbuk living in it."

Waiting for Guffman: "I think I got a, a, an entertaining bug ... from my grandfather ... uh, Chaim Pearlgut, who was very very big in the, um, Yiddish, uh, theater, back in New York. He was in the, the very ... the sardonically irreverent ... 'Dybbuk Shmybbuk, I Said More Ham.'"