February 4, 2011

Tenenbaum lecturer defines Jewish horror

Seeking to define horror and its presence in Jewish literature, Columbia University professor Jeremy Dauber delivered the 2011 Tenenbaum Lecture at the Carlos Museum Feb. 1.

Introducing Dauber, Tenenbaum Lecture Series Chair Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History, asked, "What is Jewish horror? What has frightened Jews over the millennia? Anti-Semites? Dybbuks? Is there something unique about Jewish horror? What does it tell us about the Jews?"

Speaking on "Frightening Jews: Towards a Definition of Jewish Horror," Dauber asked the audience to consider Jewish humor.  "Laughter and fright are similar.  Frequently, texts can be read as comic or horrific simultaneously—think Kafka, who understood that if something is a joke, maybe everything is a joke. And part of horror is coming to face the possibility of meaninglessness—that hands Hitler a posthumous victory."

 "Any work of horror occurs in historical and cultural context," he said. "You can't have sewer-dwelling alligators without sewers for them to dwell in."

But horror's central essence is something that transcends geography and history that preys on neuroses of its culture, relates the grand narratives of Jewish history and culture, but remains marginal at the same time—to stand outside, to suggest dark truth while hoping to avoid it.

Horror, Dauber asserted, works best when it taps into our primal fears, preying on our fear of the dark, of death, of creepy crawly creatures.

He defined Jewish horror as the assemblage of literary texts that resonate in the majority culture, but are inflected through the strong literary tradition of the Jews, for instance, the dybbuk and the golem, which are demonic creations in Jewish tradition.  The golem has a long tradition both within and outside of Jewry.

Dauber traced horror throughout Jewish tradition, from the binding of Isaac to Biblical depictions in Lamentations to the book of Esther to medieval writings and more contemporary writers like Sholem Aleichem.

"My wish for you," he concluded, "is that you read these horror stories and get scared."

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