TV: Should Jews save the werewolf from extinction?

Although few people in the Jewish community noticed, on May 2, 2000, a watershed event occurred: The last in a long line of Jewish werewolves disappeared when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the wildly popular vampire dramedy series, said goodbye to Oz, the character played by Seth Green. Oz left the show explaining that he had to go off to learn how to “control the wolf within.”

With this, a 60-year-long thematic liaison between Jews and werewolves ended. In fact, the whole werewolf myth seems to be in jeopardy. In this age of sophisticated computer graphics, werewolves have become steroid-bulked but ultimately vapid monsters – second fiddles to vampires. (Witness 2004’s pitiable “Van Helsing,” the year’s 16th-place box office finisher.)

The decline of the modern-day werewolf should be of concern, since it is largely a metaphor for being Jewish in the 20th century. Consider the modern werewolf narrative: A hairy young outsider becomes saddled with an identity he doesn’t want or particularly like, the meaning of which is told to him by an old European lady speaking a lot of mumbo jumbo. He is in love with a blonde girl who loves him back, but their love is doomed. Eventually he gets chased and killed by a bunch of peasants with pitchforks and torches. And, oh, yes, he feasts on human blood, but it’s not his fault.

The parallels between Jewish ideas of how non-Jews perceived us and the lifecycle of the werewolf aren’t surprising, considering that Jews effectively created the modern werewolf. Given how much has changed for Jews over the past half-century, should we try to save the werewolf or let him wander off into the California sunset?
From ancient Greece on, there have been stories of people who willingly or unwillingly became wolves. Yet, most of what you know about werewolves comes from Hollywood. In 1940, a producer at Universal Pictures told Curt Siodmak to write a werewolf picture.

Siodmak was a German Jew who had fled his native country in 1933 after hearing a virulently anti-Semitic speech by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. Several silent films as well as one talkie on the subject had been made between 1913 and 1940, but none had been commercially successful. “The Wolf Man” was wildly so, and quickly became the template for future werewolf tales.
Most of the werewolf traits familiar to contemporary readers come from Siodmak’s films — including, most fundamentally, the transformation of the werewolf into not just a sympathetic figure but also the very subject through whose perspective the action is seen.

In fact, Siodmak wrote an early draft of the script in which the lead actor was only seen as the Wolf Man through his own perspective, reflected in ponds of water and so forth so that it would never be clear to the audience whether his transformation was real or psychological. Siodmak made the werewolf into the classic existentialist anti-hero. In later years, Siodmak slipped up in at least one interview and said that “The Wolf Man” was set in Germany, although it is in fact set in Wales. Still, Siodmak kept his Jewish references close to the vest.

By contrast, the most explicitly Jewish treatment of the werewolf by Hollywood is John Landis’s 1981 film, “An American Werewolf in London.” Yet it makes constant reference to Siodmak’s wolf man. In “American Werewolf,” Jewish American kids David Kessler and Jack Goodman (played respectively by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are on a European road trip. While in the moors of Wales, Jack is killed and David becomes the titular beast after surviving the attack. In an interview, Landis said that though he used a less Jewishly evocative setting of Wales for his film (at least for the early scenes), the idea for “American Werewolf” came to him while he was in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, despite the setting, Landis did not shy away from the kinds of parallels to European Jewish history that Siodmak left implicit: While David is in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he has a dream in which he is back at home with his family in America; the doorbell rings, and in come Nazi-clad wolf monsters who murder David’s family before his eyes.

What is one to make of the young Jewish man’s transformation into a beast identified with the Jew haters of Europe? Landis called the transformation into a werewolf a metaphor for teenage male sexuality. But there is also a quality of adolescent revenge fantasy found in the werewolf tale. In fact, Landis said that fantasies and nightmares of death at the hands of the Nazis were part of his own psychic landscape as a boy growing up in the 1950s. In the fantasy world of the werewolf movie, the Jew, or Jew surrogate, becomes as dangerous and powerful as his tormentors.

Landis wasn’t the first to see an allegory for adolescence in the werewolf’s transformation. In 1957, Herman Cohen cast a young Michael Landon in “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” In fact, the teenage werewolf is a subspecies until itself with 1985’s underappreciated movie “Teen Wolf” and the fabulous Canadian film “Ginger Snaps” as prominent examples.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the apex of the trend that saw adolescence and monstrosity play off each other. Unfortunately, “Buffy,” though marvelous in many ways, shied away from questions of ethnicity. The fictional Sunnydale, Calif., was a multihued but ultimately pareve town, except for the higher-than-average number of supernatural creatures that lived there.

And Oz was the kind of Jewish werewolf that Birthright Israel might be aimed at attracting: If his character was meant to be Jewish, it was strictly an accident of birth. His Jewishness seems to have extended only as far as being sensitive, smart and short. He was good looking, a guitar player and un-Jewishly laconic. And being Jewish no longer qualified him as an outsider. Oz would never have had nightmares of anti-Semitic violence.

Therein lies his failure as a werewolf: North American Jews of the “Buffy” generation are so comfortable in their skins, they don’t need to put on fur. At least not in the presence of non-Jews.

So if the werewolf is no longer a viable metaphor for Jewish life among non-Jews, why should Jews go out of their way to preserve it? Let werewolves join self-help groups where they can learn to be normal members of society, ? la Oz?

The Subbotniks: an Armenian community on the fringe of extinction

A community of rural residents in the former Soviet Union, descended from Russian peasants who converted to Judaism two centuries ago, may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Mikhail Zharkov, the 76-year-old leader of Armenia’s tiny Subbotnik community, said only 13 of the 30,000 people living in his small alpine town of Sevan are Subbotniks. There are three men and 10 women, and all are nearing the age of 80.
The community in Sevan is part of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Subbotniks spread across the former Soviet Union. Zharkov, a retired welder who is wiry and full of energy, estimated that about 2,000 Subbotniks lived in Sevan during the community’s zenith in the 1930s.

Located at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Lake Sevan’s turquoise waters were seen as a vast exploitable natural resource. After Armenia became a Soviet republic in the 1930s, the lake fell victim to disastrous Soviet planning and industrial expansion.

During Soviet rule, the Subbotniks’ religious freedom, which had helped preserve their identity for almost two centuries, vanished, along with their prime waterfront real estate.

According to Zharkov, Soviet authorities confiscated the Subbotnik synagogue in the mid-1930s. It has since been privatized, and the building no longer belongs to the community.

An unknown number of Subbotniks from elsewhere in the region immigrated to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, but community members in Sevan never dreamed of leaving for Israel. In Sevan, Soviet repression, combined with Armenia’s difficult economic conditions after the fall of communism 15 years ago, tore into the fabric of the community.

“My son, who is 48, and daughter, who is 36, are in Moldova. And of course, they have been baptized,” Zharkov said. “They did it without consulting me or my wife. My daughter had to. She married a Russian Orthodox man.”

Zharkov’s family situation is mirrored in the rest of the community. Sevan’s Subbotniks have dispersed all over the former Soviet Union and offer no financial assistance to their parents, Zharkov said.

“We lead a simple life, but life has become very expensive. Without the aid of the Jewish community, we would have a very tough time,” he said. “Our pensions are meager, not even enough to cover utilities.”

The Armenian office of Hesed Avraham, a welfare center sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, periodically provides the Subbotniks with food packages.

The Subbotniks’ mysterious 19th century conversion to Judaism, strict adherence to the Torah and staunch refusal to convert back to Christianity exposed them to repression and persecution. During the rule of Czar Alexander I in the first quarter of the 19th century, Subbotniks were deported en masse to remote parts of the Russian empire.

According to Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, an Israel-based organization that reaches out to “lost Jews,” the Subbotniks are spread out in small pockets across remote corners of the former Soviet Union. Sevan’s Subbotniks do not know what part of Russia their ancestors came from or what prompted them to convert to Judaism.

“Maybe they thought it a purer form of religion,” Zharkov speculated.
Subbotniks derived their name from their observance of the Sabbath on Saturday — Subbota in Russian — rather than Sunday. Most Subbotnik communities practice circumcision, but otherwise, the Subbotniks do not differ in outward appearance from other Russian peasants.

The women wear head scarves and long skirts; the men dress in simple slacks and shirts. They do not observe kashrut or Jewish dietary laws, and their melodic Shabbat prayers, chanted in Russian, could be mistaken for Russian folksongs.
According to Gersh-Meir Burshtein, who heads a small Chabad-sponsored synagogue in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the fact that the community owned two Torah scrolls is proof that Sevan’s Subbotniks once were well-versed in Hebrew.

Some years ago, one of the old Torah scrolls was taken to the Yerevan synagogue, where it remains to this day. The other was stolen from the small community. Sevan’s Subbotniks now sing and read out of their own Torah-based Russian-language prayer book.

“Maybe at some point one of their elders realized that the community was losing its Hebrew knowledge and adapted the Torah into a Russian-language prayer book that they use now,” Burshtein said.