Jewish supernatural horror movies might seem like redundancy in a world full of genuine Jewish horrors, past and present, to dwell on. Plus, they might seem like an oxymoron, as supernatural horror usually requires powerful entities – witches, demons, and raging spirits – that either exist in a Godless universe or are in direct conflict with God. Anyway, this is not a Jewish universe. In our universe, a benevolent and omnipotent Creator is a given.
Yet our world, like that of our biblical ancestors, is filled with wars, disease, death, and disaster. Wild beasts abound. Plagues have defined our past and now persist in our present. How these horrors can be compatible with a benevolent and omnipotent God has been a question that has been going on for centuries. But one answer that our tradition teaches is that they are trials to be overcome, like Abraham’s ten trials. They are the natural consequences of living in a world where each of us has to die one day. That they are the fulcrum of free will that we must exercise if we are to choose between good and evil.
Jewish supernatural horror can be Jewish, supernatural, and gruesome if it reflects this philosophy. If, for reasons we may not understand, horror comes from the One Source of all good and all evil. (It is easy to bless God as the source of good news; to bless Him as the source of bad news, as we are enjoined to do, is not so easy.) Last year, a small independent film called “The Vigil – Trifecta of supernatural horror. It made this accomplishment easy.
Apparently, that’s not the case. Now comes another independent film claiming to be a Jewish supernatural horror: “The Offering,” produced by Millennium Media. [Mamish spoilers ahead.] The offering tells the story of Arthur, a lapsed Hasidic Jew who returns to the family home.sperm-the funeral home of his father, Saul, in a Hasidic enclave in modern Brooklyn, with Claire, his non-Jewish pregnant wife. As a domestic drama unfolds above ground, a supernatural drama unfolds in the mortuary basement. An ancient demon, who we’re told preys on children, but who seems to have more eclectic tastes, enters the house, hitchhiking into a corpse. He eventually takes over the house and haunts its inhabitants before killing them. Yeah, that’s it.
The creative team behind the film said they wanted to portray Hasidim and relationships between Hasidic men and women in a positive light. In this he surprisingly succeeds. The least attractive character is Arthur who, in getting rid of his Judaism, seems to have also got rid of certain moral scruples; Hasidim, on the other hand, are to varying degrees loving, loyal, and caring. In a particularly poignant moment, Saul, as part of his Friday night rituals, sings Ayshes Chayl (A Women of Valor) to a photograph of his deceased wife. And it’s a quiet refutation of the actions of Yosille, another widower, whose obsession with bringing his the late wife returned from the dead kicks off the plot by invoking the demon.
The film looks and feels mostly Hasidic, with its detailed and authentic production and costume design. Which is why it’s odd that Saul responds to Claire’s outstretched hand by greeting her with a kiss. Certainly, this demonstrates his fervent hope that the family can overcome the schism that intermarriage has caused. But how much more authentic, more Jewish, it would be if Saul wrestled with his faith’s restriction of touching a woman and not his wife, while seeking another way to show his feelings.
This isn’t the only example of authenticity being pushed aside when it gets in the way of lazy storytelling. In Orthodox Judaism, a Chevra Kadisha (Holy Brotherhood) would quickly and sensitively cleanse a corpse and otherwise prepare it for the immediate burial that tradition demands. There is no Chevra Kadisha here to tend to Yosille’s corpse, nothing seems to be going in its preparation for burial and, the next day or so (the passage of time is difficult to calculate), it is just guarded in the morgue with no particular purpose.
The problem isn’t just that the movie gets these details wrong. It’s that understanding them well and using those details to propel the narrative would have given The Offrande the authenticity it seems to strive for. This would have vindicated the Jewish framework and made Judaism an integral and organic part of history.
Without fidelity to the tradition in which it seeks to wrap itself, L’Offrande only exploits the Jewish context. It’s dressing up a creaky old fashion model in new clothes. It’s costume Jewry, it’s true as long as you don’t scratch the surface.
But the Offering does far more than miss opportunities. This flips one of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism, one of the crucial teachings that Judaism gave the world, on its head. God revealed himself to Abraham, according to the Bible, in the midst of a world that practiced human sacrifice and, even more odiously, child sacrifice. It was the story of Akeidis Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac) who taught Abraham, and through him the world, that God abhors this, that he wants us to cherish human life, not destroy it in the name of worship .
The irony then does not begin to describe the shock of discovering that the “offering” of the Offering is a human sacrifice: Arthur and Yosille both sacrifice themselves in the hope that it will “bind” the demon, and Yosille sacrificed a baby girl to win his late wife back from the dead. In a bit of explanation, a Kabbalist tells us that it happened throughout Jewish history – that Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac (never mind that he didn’t actually sacrifice Isaac ) was undertaken to bind the same daemon.
It is a slander against the Jewish faith, a vicious stab that is blood libel. Now, Jews don’t just kill to do their matzos, they kill – themselves and others – as taught in the ancient Kabbalistic Jewish texts of demon worship.
Promoting this belief is the true heartless horror of The Offering.
Mark Levenson is a novelist. His new work of Jewish fantasy is The Hidden Saint (Level Best Books, 2022). For more information, visit www.marklevensonbooks.com.