Der dibek

[The Dybbuk]


Act 1. A synagogue in Brinitz, a small town in the Pale of Settlement. Three Batlonim (idlers) sit around in the synagogue and tell stories about famous rabbis. The Messenger, an enigmatic stranger who seems to know a great deal about everything, sits among them. Soon they are joined by Khonen, a young student who is pensive and dreamy. They gossip about the rich man Sender who is trying – and so far, failing – to find a suitor for his daughter, Leah. Khonen, who is clearly in love with Leah, is pleased to hear that the most recent planned match fell through. After nearly everyone leaves, Khonen and his friend Henekh remain in the dark synagogue contemplating the Holy Ark, which has been left open. Henekh warns Khonen that he has delved too far into the Kabbalah and is at risk of falling into the abyss. Leah enters to look at the old embroidered ark hangings, as she has promised to embroider new ones to mark the anniversary of her mother’s death. Khonen stares at her. After she leaves, he vows to acquire what he longs for by unholy means if he cannot be with Leah by holy means. Sender arrives and tells everyone in the synagogue that, although he said no at first, he eventually agreed to the match after all, and Leah is now betrothed. Khonen falls to the ground, but nobody notices. The people of Brinitz congratulate Sender and rejoice. Later, they try to rouse Khonen and realize that he is dead.

Act 2. A street in Brinitz, three months later. In the middle of the street is a gravestone marking the death of a bride and groom who were martyred in the Khmielnitski massacres in 1648. It is Leah’s wedding day. In keeping with tradition, Sender has organized a feast for the poor people of Brinitz prior to the wedding ceremony. As is customary, Leah dances with the local beggars. She and her nurse, Frade, talk about what happens to the souls of people after they die. Leah invites the bride and groom commemorated by the gravestone in the middle of the street to join her wedding. The Messenger warns Leah that some souls – those who belong nowhere – return to this world by taking possession of another person’s body as a dybbuk. Leah visits her mother’s grave and invites her mother to the wedding. She also invites Khonen. During the wedding ceremony, Leah tears off her veil, pushes the groom away, and declares that he is not her bridegroom. The Messenger announces that a dybbuk has possessed Leah.

Act 3. The home of a famous tsadik, Reb Azriel, in Miropolye, two days later. A servant announces that Sender of Brinitz has arrive with his possessed daughter. Azriel worries that he is too old and weak to help, but his servants convince him by reminding him of how his father and grandfather were miracle-workers. Leah enters and Azriel demands that the dybbuk leave her body. Leah-as-dybbuk refuses. Azriel realizes that the spirit is Khonen, the son of Nisn. Nisn’s spirit appeared three times the night before in the chief rabbi’s dreams demanding that Sender be summoned to a trial. Sender had promised to marry his daughter to Nisn’s son, but broke his promise. Reb Azriel decides to give the dybbuk a day to leave Leah’s body and to schedule a trial for the following day between Sender and the spirit of Nisn, followed by an excommunication. Sender is informed about the trial, and the plans are set.

Act 4. Reb Azriel’s home, half a day later. The trial. Nisn’s soul arrives and communicates via the chief rabbi, Reb Shimson. Nisn tells the court about how he and Sender promised their children to one another, and states that Sender broke his promise because he did not want his daughter to marry a poor man. Nisn blames Sender for his son’s untimely demise, leaving Nisn without anyone to say Kaddish for him. The court absolves Sender of guilt but sentences him to pay a fine and obligates him to say Kaddish for Nisn and Khonen for the rest of his life. Azriel demands that Khonen leave Leah’s body, but the spirit refuses. Azriel conducts an exorcism and forces the spirit to leave. Everyone leaves to prepare for Leah’s wedding. Alone, Leah hears Khonen’s disembodied voice. She leaves her body and walks to find him. They are together in death. Reb Azriel and the Messenger return to find her dead.