Stranger Judaism
Courtesy of Netflix

It’s time to explore the 'Upside Down' of Jewish belief

Just because Jews don’t traditionally celebrate Halloween (a Pagan holiday, by the way), doesn’t mean we don’t have our share of scary stories, spooky superstitions and otherworldly creatures, and believe me, there are a lot. In honor of the release of the second season of the Netflix horror/drama/comedy/’80s nostalgiafest “Stranger Things”, here’s a short rundown of the scarier aspects of Judaism that best relate to the show that you’ll probably be binging instead of reading this article--aside from the fact that Winona Ryder is Jewish. In any case, here are a few of the spine-tingling facets of our culture they don’t teach you in day school.

Courtesy of Netflix

1. Shedim:

Think demons are a wholly non-Jewish construct? Think again, dear reader! Not only does Judaism believe in them, shedim are also basically the demogorgons of our mystical lore. They exist just out of sight (in another dimension, almost), numbering in the thousands. According to the Talmud, if you’d like to see them, all you need to do is burn the fetus of a black cat and sprinkle the ashes into your eyes. Alternately, you can spread them around your bed, which will allow you to see the chicken-like footprints left by shedim. However, this is probably a bad idea because the Talmud also recounts the story of a man who did this and was subsequently attacked by the demons when they realized he could glimpse them. Moreover, it states that even if you did have the ability to view them, you would not have the strength to face them.

2. The Golem:

A mindless automaton crafted from the earth (clay or mud) and inscribed with the sacred, 72-letter name of God (you write it on a piece of parchment and place it in the figure’s mouth) that serves as a protector of the Jewish people in dark times. It is often depicted as being this hulking, undefined man-like being with the word “Emet” (meaning truth in Hebrew) carved across its forehead. Perhaps one of the most iconic figures of the kabbalistic tradition, the golem’s most famous home is Prague, his most famous “creator” being Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the 16th century. Since then, the idea of the golem — from its appearance to its function — has been used in novels,  comics, television shows, and early European expressionistic films. Across all of these, the golem’s helped baseball teams win games, young Irish kids protect themselves from bullies and served as an anti-hero for DC Comics? In terms of tying this to “Stranger Things,” think of the Jewish kabbalists as the researchers at the Hawkins lab, attempting to harness forces they don’t fully understand.

3. Dybbuk:

Similar to the shedim, dybukks are hostile, spiritual entities with the ability to possess humans. Like the golem, on the other hand, we can trace their folkloric roots back to the 16th century. Think about those white-sheeted ghosts you see whipping in the wind on the display of your neighbor’s lawn for Halloween and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the dybbuk. Akin to the concept of ghosts in popular culture, they are the souls of deceased individuals who are unable to move on to the afterlife and as such, are forced to roam the earth in a Purgatory-esque Hell; being stuck on this plane of existence would make anyone’s spirit ornery. Some sources say that those most susceptible to being possessed are women and people who live in houses with no or damaged mezuzahs, which makes you wonder if Barb might still be alive if she’d only had her mezuzahs checked. Fortunately, dybbuks can be exorcised and while there’s no concrete process for doing so, it’s often agreed that it must be done in a synagogue by a righteous individual with the presence of a minyan. Discovering the spirit’s name is also important in Judaism because once you know the entity’s name, you can control it better.

4. The Unfinished Corner of Creation:

Jewish mythology believes that there is a northern corner of the world where God purposefully did not finish creation. As a challenge to any pompous-headed beings to roam the earth, He issued a challenge that if anyone were to declare themselves as “God,” then let them journey to this dark, cold and barren wasteland to prove their skill of creation. It’s an ego-quasher for sure, but this “unfinished” land is supposedly said to contain evil spirits, demons, and earthquakes. In other words, it’s the Jewish version of the Upside Down.

5. The Tannin:

In Season 2 of “Stranger Things,” our young protagonists will find themselves squaring off some kind of evil, multi-appendaged and unthinkable enemy from another dimension known simply as “The Shadow Monster,” which is a nickname bestowed upon it by the heroes of Hawkins. The show’s creators have said that this villain is Lovecraftian in nature and for those of you unaware of H.P. Lovecraft, he is the father of modern horror, responsible for creating Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth, beings so ancient and malevolent, that they wouldn’t think twice about destroying the human race who could barely begin to comprehend the infiniteness of these entities, lest they go insane. With that preamble out of the way, the Tannin is a sea monster in Jewish mythology that can be considered the physical embodiment of evil and chaos, of the antediluvian conflict between a restless, mystery sea and all-powerful creator. Similarly, the deities occupying the Lovecraft mythos are also physical representations of chaos and suffering whose purpose is to spread as much of each as they can. You often find names like “Crawling Chaos,” “The Blackness from the Stars,” “The Defiler,” “The Devourer in the Earth,” “Eater of the Insane,” “The Bringer of Pestilence,” etc., etc. In Judaism, the Tannin were brought into existence on the fifth day of creation and the creatures that will be killed by God at the End of Days. 


Stranger Things

Jewish folklore

Upside Down


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