The history behind “The Red Dybbuk”

THE STORY IN BRIEF
A woman starts to suspect something strange is happening when her daughter begins acting out of character.

HOW IT WAS WRITTEN
Back in 1987, my great-aunt Razel, my grandmother’s sister-in-law, died, the last of her generation. There were only a few of us at her funeral; she had no children and few relatives left.

When we went to the cemetery, I expected to see a series of modest headstones like those at my grandmother’s cemetery, or perhaps a confusion of old stones with Hebrew prayers and ancient symbols. But instead, to my astonishment, there were, side by side with the more traditional headstones, marble stones elaborately carved with memorials to their comrades’ fights on behalf of the working class, Yiddish poetry extolling radical social change, statues of rebels with raised fists, and unembarrassed engravings of the hammer and sickle.

I really wanted to know who these people were and what their lives had been like. I even hatched a plan with a photographer friend to create a book in which we’d hunt down their relatives and write what was known of their histories, accompanied by images of the gravestones and any family photos that we could discover. We applied for a grant but didn’t get it, and then life intervened, and the project was put away and never resumed.

But while the project faded, my impression of the place remained.  I kept thinking about all those strong, rebellious spirits and wondered how they could rest with their tasks undone, and what they would think of the politics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. That eventually led to “The Red Dybbuk,” which was published in the Crossed Genres anthology Subversion: Science Fiction & Fantasy tales of challenging the norm in December 2011. Crossed Genres, a wonderful independent press, ceased publishing in 2019.

Marilyn knows she’s come to the right place when she spots, high against the early afternoon clouds, a statue of a woman in coveralls, fist thrust to the sky.

The Red Dybbuk

NOTES ON THE PEOPLE
Chana is based on my grandmother, whose name was actually Chana (Anna in English). She was a tough, radical woman who survived pogroms in Ukraine, nursed soldiers in WWI Russia (and, later, the children of her Brooklyn neighbors), worked in one of the first birth control clinics in New York City, and guided me stubbornly through cursing crowds when we attended pro-civil rights events. She died shortly after I graduated from college, and the thing I remember most from her funeral was an elderly man telling stories of how he remembered her as a vibrant, fearless young girl ice skating on the lake near their home. If I had had a daughter, I would have named her after my grandmother.

Becky is very loosely based on my mother, who did indeed live through McCarthy’s red scares of the 1950s (which affected more than just movie stars and famous writers — for example, NYC schoolteachers were also a target).

Marilyn is of my generation, and so I know her well; but my life and hers parted somewhere around college.

Annie is completely fictional.

NOTES ON THE PLACE
The cemetery where half of the story takes place is based on a small part of the very large New Montefiore Cemetery in Suffolk County where my great aunt Razel and great uncle Morris (and, I think, other family members) are buried. The fact that all those radicals were buried in the same area of the cemetery is not a coincidence. Many Jewish immigrants belonged to burial societies sponsored by others who came from the same Eastern European towns (making them “landsmen”) or by their synagogues. It was a form of insurance; you paid a certain amount every month and you were assured a burial plot and a proper funeral.

The people in my aunt and uncle’s section were neither landsmen nor from a synagogue; they were all members of the International Workers Order, a social organization that was a radical offshoot of the socialist society Workman’s Circle. The IWO was not just a burial society; it sponsored educational activities, medical clinics, summer camps for the kids — and, of course, political activism. The IWO was disbanded in 1954 because its radical politics were too dangerous for the times; however, its former members still held the rights to the burial plots that they had paid for through the society.

THE DYBBUK
The legend of the dybbuk is that of a restless soul who, unable to rest after death, finds a living body to inhabit. In Michal Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish film, Der Dibuk, an impoverished young student is denied marriage to the girl who is his soulmate, dies when he tries to use forbidden knowledge to change his fate, and his soul joins with his beloved’s in her body. (The YouTube video here is a very bad copy, but it gives some idea of the film.)

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