Vam­pires and the Chu­pacabra share a pen­chant for drink­ing blood, Godzil­la and were­wolves are both pret­ty hairy, and it is hard to spot either Nessie or a zom­bie in the wild… but what makes them all mon­sters? When look­ing at the Latin root of the word mon­strum, mon­sters are lit­er­al­ly omi­nous” or warn­ing signs.” In his stud­ies of medieval lit­er­a­ture, Jef­frey Jerome Cohen com­piled sev­en the­ses about the char­ac­ter­is­tics of mon­strous crea­tures. Accord­ing to him, mon­sters warn us about our­selves because they are signs of our cul­tur­al fears and desires. Because they live at the edges of what we imag­ine as dif­fer­ent and impos­si­ble, mon­sters always man­age to get away when we hunt them and then return to haunt us. This under­stand­ing of mon­sters as cul­tur­al signs might make you won­der what kinds of crea­tures pop­u­late Jew­ish his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture — and what they tells us about Jew­ish cul­ture. In response, here is a typol­o­gy of Jew­ish mon­sters” that draws on a new book about Mon­sters and Mon­stros­i­ty in Jew­ish His­to­ry, edit­ed by Iris Idel­son-Shein and Chris­t­ian Wiese. It will take us from myth­i­cal fig­ures to anti-Semit­ic ascrip­tions of ani­mal­i­ty, all the way to those pos­ing a mon­strous threat to Jew­ish thriving.

Prague Golem

1. Demons, Dyb­buks, and the Golem

Some of the most famous mon­sters in Jew­ish cul­ture are crea­tures of the night. Demons, for instance, have been imag­ined for cen­turies as evil spir­its that inter­fere with human lives by throw­ing indi­vid­u­als or the com­mu­ni­ty into dis­ar­ray through their acts of destruc­tion. Dyb­buks pos­sess a per­son as pun­ish­ment or revenge, such as in S. Ansky’s ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry play The Dyb­buk, in which the spir­it of a spurned lover pos­sess­es his beloved on the day of her wed­ding to anoth­er. The Golem, on the oth­er hand, is the result of the mag­i­cal ani­ma­tion of a clay struc­ture that comes to life in ways sim­i­lar to Frankenstein’s mon­ster. Its most famous iter­a­tion, the sto­ry of the Golem of Prague, has been adapt­ed count­less times in lit­er­a­ture and film, from the likes of Isaac Bashe­vis Singer to Michael Chabon in his Pulitzer prize-win­ning nov­el The Amaz­ing Adven­tures of Kava­lier & Clay, and from expres­sion­ist silent films to appear­ances on TV shows like The X‑Files and The Simp­sons. All of these famous mon­sters are Jew­ish because they are firm­ly root­ed in Jew­ish myth, folk­lore, and reli­gious texts. They haunt those with­in Jew­ish cul­ture or pro­tect the bor­ders of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. These Jew­ish mon­sters” dif­fer from the fig­ure of the vam­pire, for instance, which is the Jew as mon­ster,” an anti­se­mit­ic stereo­type of a blood­suck­ing par­a­site that goes hand in hand with accu­sa­tions of blood libel.


2. Jew­ish Were­wolves and Oth­er Animals

Sim­i­lar to the vam­pire, imag­in­ing Jews as ani­mals or human-ani­mal hybrids fre­quent­ly falls into the range of anti-Semit­ic stereo­types of Jews as threats to their pre­sum­ably Chris­t­ian neigh­bors. Yet mon­strous Jew-Ani­mals” can also attack their own com­mu­ni­ty, as the exam­ple of H. Leivick’s The Wolf shows. In this ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Yid­dish poem, a rab­bi who is the sole sur­vivor of his mas­sa­cred con­gre­ga­tion is turned into a were­wolf, and when he attacks Jew­ish fam­i­lies who are try­ing to build a com­mu­ni­ty on the same blood-soaked grounds, he becomes a lit­er­al warn­ing sign in order to save them from the same fate. In Franz Kafka’s writ­ing, ani­mal fig­ures can also be under­stood as warn­ings to Jew­ish read­ers about gen­tiles, albeit in less grue­some and more satir­i­cal ways. His Report to an Acad­e­my from 1917 fea­tures an ape-turned-human, who learns how to smoke, drink, and final­ly speak by imi­tat­ing the rough sailors ship­ping him to a Euro­pean zoo. In this alle­go­ry of Jew­ish assim­i­la­tion to gen­tile soci­ety, an elo­quent ape ridicules the sup­pos­ed­ly civ­i­lized, Chris­t­ian, West­ern ide­al by reveal­ing it to be a brutish idol.

Pho­to cred­it to NBC

3. Fig­ures of Assimilation

Jew­ish char­ac­ters that under­go a mon­strous meta­mor­pho­sis are not always swap­ping species or using an ani­mal tale as an alle­go­ry for assim­i­la­tion. In Oskar Panizza’s late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry sto­ry The Oper­at­ed Jew, a young Jew­ish man invests a lot of mon­ey in doc­tors and sci­en­tists to change his appear­ance, behav­ior, and man­ner of speak­ing in order to be accept­ed as gen­tile in Ger­man soci­ety. He suc­ceeds spec­tac­u­lar­ly, but only for a while — on his wed­ding night, he drinks too much and dis­in­te­grates to reveal his essence, that of the mon­strous Jew.” At a time when assim­i­lat­ed West­ern Euro­pean Jew­ry found that bap­tism grant­ed equal treat­ment only on paper, the sto­ry sat­i­rizes the impos­si­ble demands of assim­i­la­tion. Thir­ty years lat­er, in the 1920s, Salo­mo Fried­laen­der reversed the sto­ry in The Oper­at­ed Goy, which has a Nazi sup­port­er fall in love with a Jew­ish woman. After Sig­mund Freud per­son­al­ly makes the young man aware of his sup­pressed amorous afflic­tion in the sto­ry, the lat­ter con­verts to Judaism in a series of sim­i­lar­ly grotesque oper­a­tions that alter his appear­ance, behav­ior, and speech. This satire paints a future in which one can change one’s skin col­or like one’s hair col­or, which under­mines pseu­do-sci­en­tif­ic nation­al­ist and racist ide­olo­gies. The new­ly mint­ed Jew lives out his life peace­ful­ly with his wife and many sons in Jerusalem.

Cov­er of The Oper­at­ed Jew

4. The Mon­strous Nazi

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, such a hap­py end­ing was only to be in lit­er­a­ture. Real­i­ty would threat­en Jew­ish cul­ture with a fatal­ly mon­strous type, the Nazi. Sur­vivor tes­ti­monies often refer to key per­pe­tra­tors of the Holo­caust, such as Adolf Eich­mann, as mon­sters because their crimes are seem­ing­ly ungras­pable and inde­scrib­able. Yet with the phrase the banal­i­ty of evil,” philoso­pher Han­nah Arendt has point­ed to the ordi­nary and aver­age nature of peo­ple like Eich­mann, who defend­ed his deeds by say­ing that he was just doing his job” and fol­low­ing orders.” Mon­stros­i­ty is a way to explain the unimag­in­able, yet by doing so, the monster’s ori­gin from the midst of soci­ety is obscured. Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture also fea­tures many exam­ples in which dehu­man­iz­ing acts ren­der the per­pe­tra­tors mon­strous, yet dehu­man­iza­tion some­times taints the vic­tims with a sense of their own mon­stros­i­ty in these texts. In Edgar Hilsenrath’s nov­el Night, for instance, the inhab­i­tants of a fic­tion­al ghet­to treat one anoth­er in increas­ing­ly inhu­mane ways in order to ensure their own sur­vival. The nov­el sug­gests that under mon­strous cir­cum­stances, mon­sters can beget monsters.

As his­to­ry shows, the demo­niza­tion of one group by anoth­er, such as anti­se­mit­ic Nazi pro­pa­gan­da that depict­ed Jews as mon­strous crea­tures, prompt­ed hor­rif­ic acts of dehu­man­iza­tion. The assump­tion of Jew­ish mon­stros­i­ty enabled the per­pe­tra­tors to deny the human­i­ty of their vic­tims. In this under­stand­ing of mon­stros­i­ty, the oppo­site of a mon­ster would be a human — a men­sch both in its Ger­man root of human being” and its Yid­dish mean­ing of a good per­son. Draw­ing on a sim­i­lar under­stand­ing of mon­stros­i­ty and human moral­i­ty, Friedrich Niet­zsche there­fore famous­ly cau­tioned, Who­ev­er fights mon­sters should see to it that in the process he does not become a mon­ster.” Yet the dis­tinc­tion between mon­ster and men­sch is not always this clear. As Cohen has shown, mon­stros­i­ty emerges from our fears and desires, from the midst of human cul­ture. There­fore, engag­ing with mon­stros­i­ty requires us to look beyond the dif­fer­ent and impos­si­ble, and instead focus on the famil­iar — to iden­ti­fy the fears and desires with­in human nature that give rise to the monstrous.

Joela Jacobs is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Ger­man at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona. Her research focus­es on inter­sec­tions of Jew­ish stud­ies and the Envi­ron­men­tal Human­i­ties with Ger­man lit­er­a­ture. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a mono­graph about the mod­ernist micro-genre of the Lit­er­ary Grotesque (die Groteske), which cri­tiques the insti­tu­tion­al­ized mar­gin­al­iza­tion of human and non-human life.