By Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel
The series, Supernatural, on the CW Network, delivered what may well be the best and most effective Jewish reality check directed at the next generation ever featured on television. On Supernatural, two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), chase down sinister and malevolent spiritual forces intent on harming human beings. They do so with ingenuity, humor and grace.
The impressive episode by Ben Edlund is entitled “Everybody Hates Hitler.” It begins with a golem annihilating a unit of Nazi soldiers in Vitebsk, Belarus, a venerable Jewish shtetl. In Jewish mysticism, going back to the Talmud, a golem is a creature fashioned by rabbis from clay and animated by Divine names (or, in this case, by human names). The most famous golem was that in the legends of Rabbi Judah Low of Prague (sixteenth century), created to defend the Jewish people against libels and physical attacks.
This golem episode takes place in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (which itself has a venerable Jewish shtetl to this day) where an old rabbi, Isaac Bass (played by Hal Linden of Barney Miller fame), is tracking down an old manuscript at a university library. As soon as he peruses it, he is shaken and sighs, “Oy vay,” but he still has the presence of mind to insult the rigid librarian in Yiddish. (Yiddish is used on television mainly as a language of crudity and insult, but in this context we can forgive both the rabbi and writer Edlund.)
It seems that the rabbi is being followed by a Aryan-looking man. He ducks into a student café and then challenges the “Nazi piece of rubbish” to come in and have coffee with him. Then the rabbi self-combusts—that is, explodes with fire.
Fortunately, the Winchester brothers are on the case and learn that Rabbi Bass was the last surviving member of the “Judah Initiative,” a hard-core group of underground Jewish saboteurs who fought the Nazis during World War Two, which Bass joined at age seventeen. Some college girls in the café recall that the rabbi has been obsessed with Nazi necromancers. The brothers suspect right away that the manuscript, as well as the rabbi’s death, may have something to do with black magic utilized by the Nazis.
One of the brothers believes that he is being followed by a short dark-haired man; but when he confronts the man, the latter pretends to have been under the impression that they shared a moment of mutual infatuation. Then it turns out that this young man is the rabbi’s grandson and that he is in possession of the golem that had killed the Vitebsk Nazis who found a black magic method to come back to life in order to destroy this Jewish secret weapon and then, we infer, to destroy the Jews and everyone else who would stand in their way.
John De Santis is just perfect as the golem, both in physical stature and in his deadpan bearing. His performance is memorable, at once ominous and comedic. But this golem bears a very serious and poignant message. He says of the rabbi’s grandson, Aaron Bass: “This boy knows nothing, observes none of the mitzvahs, labors on Sabbath, dines on swine.” The golem adds in disgust, “He’s no rabbi.”
All that the rabbi’s grandson can respond is that, “Everybody loves bacon.” He does reminisce a bit about his grandfather, however. Of the latter’s golem stories, he says: “I thought it was make-believe, fantasies to help him cope with all the horrible stuff he had seen.” Of himself, Aaron says, “I grew up in Short Hills, I cheated my way through Hebrew School, I never really listened to my grandfather, what he was saying.” He recalls that his parents did all they could “to prevent him from screwing me up with all this crazy talk.”
The pièce de resistance of all this autobiographical talk, emblematic of a generation not so much lost as unmotivated, is Aaron’s recollection that his father had given him a Hebrew book as a gift for his bar mitzvah, an “owner’s manual” for the golem, and that later, when he “drifted” from Judaism, he used its thin leaves to roll joints!
When Aaron asks the golem how to control and guide him, the golem is utterly disillusioned and disgusted with his young master: “It’s not my place to tell the rabbi, to teach the teacher. It’s not my place. You own me.”
Yet Aaron (affectingly played by Adam Rose) is no fool. He is good and likable, witty and resourceful and brave, and regrets his past indifference to his heritage. He is all four sons of the Passover Haggadah rolled into one, as, I suppose, are most Jews at one time or another. Aaron suffers a terrible humiliation when some of the Nazis invade his “rented” home (which has already been damaged too much by the golem) and give him a lesson in immobilizing the golem. One could almost hear him utter a cultural “Ouch.”
Fortunately, the Winchester brothers are on hand and know how to keep the Nazis from “re-animating.” Aaron makes his contribution, too, and writer Edlund makes the point that Aaron’s contribution to Jewish learning and action is just beginning.
While generally speaking, I am wary of the use of the Holocaust and Nazis in fantasy, supernatural and science fiction genres, I must say that this episode of Supernatural appropriately and effectively employs these genres to highlight the abiding evils of fascism and anti-Semitism and the need to be vigilant against them. Most important of all, it does not, in New Age fashion, regard the occult and spiritism as forces that can only be mastered by “evolved” or “enlightened” individuals who break free from old religions, but suggests that one must take ownership of one’s Judaism, and thus walk humbly with one’s God, in order to combat evil—or to do good—more effectively.
Published in The National Jewish Post and Opinion, April 10, 2013
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