Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jews, Vampires and the "Twilight" Phenomenon

When a student came into my office to work on her bat mitzvah speech last month, and only wanted to talk about the book and film "Twilight," I wondered how I possibly could link the themes of this story about vampires with Jewish themes. You can read Sophie's own commentary here. I took this as a challenge, because the last thing I wanted to do was perpetuate some old stereotypes about bloodthirsty Jews, which seem to have shared roots with the vampire legends. You can see the results of my research, the handout I prepared for last week's service, by clicking here. I'm grateful to a congregant for forwarding me an additional link from Jewcy, focusing on not only the blood libel connection, but also the theme of the Wandering Jew.

As you'll see from my service sheet, I thought the film had many Jewish themes to reinforce, especially to its target audience of teenagers. I was very impressed with the movie when I saw it (though it felt weird to be just about the only Y chromosome in the place) and immediately I saw Edward Cullen, the "good" vampire here, as the embodiment of the Jewish ideal of self restraint. Pirke Avot considers the true hero to be the one who can control his own urges. For Edward to manange to overcome his innate bloodthirst and not devour Bella is akin to a human choosing to stop breathing and a feat no less spectacular than the way Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav used to act.

Nachman of Bratzlav was Cullen-like, a superhero. He would go to extremes to torture his body. He would fast for days on end, because he so loved to eat, and in this way he learned to control his hunger. Legend has it that he would roll naked in the snow to control his physical desires (and this is without having a hot tub on the backyard). But the most amazing thing about Reb Nachman, in his own estimation, is that he never scratched himself. I kid you not. Never. Imagine a mosquito bite and the itch is just crawling up your arm – and not doing anything about it. The Torah doesn’t command us not to scratch. And the man suffered quite abit in his life. Through all of this, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav said, “My suffering is always in my power.” When things became unbearable, he simply could will away the pain.

When I spoke to people at the service last week about "Twilight," I understood that this was one of the last times this group of 8th graders would be attending en masse. The bar mitzvah "season" is nearly over for this class. So I turned to the subject of drug abuse, alcohol and addiction in general. If kids ever need that lecture, this is the time when they need it most. The book and movie were also speaking of sexual urges, of course, but at one point Edward does call Bella his narcotic - his drug. I took that cue to deliver a very strong message about the dangers awaiting these students as they make the leap to high school.

Judaism's notion of the good and evil inclinations (the yetzer ha tov and yetzer ha ra) fit well into the world of "Twilight." I collected some sources and compared them to quotes from the book in my service handout. You can see some of the sources in an interesting article at MyJewishLearning.com. According to tradition, we are born with an inclination to do evil, but it is only at the onset of adolescence, bar mitzvah, that our inclination to do good sets in. Perfect timing for Bella and Edward (although Edward's inclination to do good has developed quite a bit more).

So I have my student Sophie to thank in opening my eyes to the Jewish possibilities in "Twilight." I can't wait to see what teen-craze book series the next student brings in.

1 comment:

Paul Kipnes said...

Bravo Rabbi H, on your masterful use of this movie to teach Jewish themes. I'm sharing this teaching on my blog Or Am I? - http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com. This is a nice diversion from my current obsession with blogging about Israel.