May 21, 2019

Jewish Vampire Is Out for Blood in Israeli Series ‘Juda’

Photo by Banijay

The scary bloodsuckers of “Dracula” and “Nosferatu” can be found at one end of the spectrum of film and television vampires, while the immortal heartthrobs of “Twilight,” “True Blood” and “Interview With the Vampire” are on the other. But the quirky, hapless undead hero of the Israeli series “Juda” defies categorization. To start with, he’s Jewish.

The eight-episode sci-fi/caper/horror/comedy hybrid, which premieres on March 19 on Hulu, introduces petty criminal and gambler Juda Ben-Chayim. Juda heads to a poker game in Romania, where a beautiful vampire bites him in the neck and takes his winnings. Suddenly, he’s super strong and literally bloodthirsty, and she’s horrified to realize her victim is a Jew because the vampire code prohibits biting them. The consequences are dire, because feeding on Jews means vampires lose their powers. And as Juda later learns from a rabbi, his destiny is to destroy all other vampires.

The series was created by and stars Israeli actor, director, writer, musician, radio host, painter and comedian Tzion Baruch. Baruch, 39, came across the idea for the show in a dream seven years ago. He was also inspired by his love of superheroes, movies including “Interview With the Vampire,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and films by Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton. In creating “Juda,” Baruch wanted to make up for the lack of Jewish vampires in cinematic lore and take a bite out of the age-old anti-Semitic myth that Jews feed on the blood of Christians.

“That’s what makes this series different than others,” Baruch told the Journal. “The hero’s name is Juda and the name has a negative connotation [to other vampires] because he’s Jewish. We cleanse his name. The audience falls in love with him and, with that, I make a spiritual correction. Vampires were always associated with the Christian world. The Jewish people were persecuted throughout history, and it’s time for a Jewish superhero,” Baruch said.

He describes the show as “the vampire world meets Judaism meets ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ ” As for the theme that feeding on Jewish blood is forbidden, Baruch said, “You can look at it from two angles: that the blood is cursed or that it is actually blessed.”

In the series, Juda’s adviser is a rabbi who “explains everything through kabbalah,” Baruch said. “He explains that nothing was made up. Everything is in history. You just need to read things correctly. If we look at the Torah as a vampire story, then Cain killed Abel in one bite and Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me swallow some of this red, red pottage for I am faint.’ If you take all of this and put it in a vampire story, it all connects.”

Baruch is the son of a Tunisian-Jewish mother and a Russian-Jewish father. His family escaped to Israel before World War II. Baruch said he leads “a traditional and spiritual life. I am very connected to Judaism. “[‘Juda’] is a very personal story for me. My wife (actress Yana Yosef) converted to Judaism. [Ours] was a forbidden love that became possible.” 

Growing up in a “tough neighborhood” in Ramla in central Israel, “I had an amazing childhood,” Baruch said. “I was different from people around me. My escape was art. I sat in my room and painted all day long. I knew I wanted to be an actor and performed onstage for the first time at 13. I started off as a comedian. I’m part of a famous comedic trio (Shlishiyat Ma Kashur) in Israel.” 

 “Vampires were always associated with the Christian world. The Jewish people were persecuted throughout history, and it’s time for a Jewish superhero.” — Tzion Baruch

Although he’s acted for seven years in the series “The Arbitrator” (2007-13) and movies including “Hallelujah” (2003) and “The Bubble” (2006), “Juda” is the first project Baruch created. It was a hit with Israeli audiences, winning top ratings and awards at the Series Mania Festival in 2017. 

“We were worried at the beginning and afraid of anti-Semitism, but in the end [audiences] loved it,” Baruch said. “It was No. 2 on the top-10 series downloads on VOD in Israel. The broadcaster thought it would be a niche series, but at the end, it spoke to everyone.”

The series’ second season is now in production. “It’ll be even crazier than Season 1,” Baruch promised. His next projects are a movie titled “The Rabbi’s Pledge” and a series titled “The Guard,” about an Israeli who moves to the United States “and gets in trouble with his identity. It has a spiritual [angle],” he said.

An English-language version “Juda” is also in the works, “which we are very excited about, but the details are still under wraps,” he said. “I will be involved.” 

However, Baruch is eager for American audiences to see the show in its original form, and thinks viewers will be drawn to the action, music, comedy and its unlikely Jewish hero as he comes to understand his powers and begins to enjoy them. 

“From the beginning, I wanted to touch the entire spectrum of human emotions: to scare them, to excite them, to entertain them and make them laugh. They can expect entertainment and fun,” he said. And fodder for discussion as well. “After each episode they’ll want to check the Holy Books to make sure that what they saw is true.”

“Juda” begins streaming on March 19 on Hulu.