On January 6th, the world watched as neo-Nazis, among other right-wing extremists, laid siege to and infiltrated the United States’ Capitol. I watched one walk right up to a CNN camera and make Nazi hand symbols. I was mortified and enraged on one level, as one is when Nazis attempt a coup. But I was lacking the personal sense of existential fear for my life I’ve always been told I would have if fascism came to our shores. Was it because years of Trumpism have inured me to even the most harrowing circumstances? Has the American cultural reference point to Nazism shirked their explicitly anti-Jewish overtones?
I’ve been struggling with this multi-layered guilt for weeks. As a white Jew in the United States, my privilege is immense. But, it has its limits. Grappling with how to feel about my own place in the midst of all the world’s injustices could be a lifetime’s worth of contemplation.
Then, I watched The Vigil, a horror film written and directed by Keith Thomas that could perhaps be the first feature horror film to take place during the Jewish vigil ritual of watching over a dead body in the days before burial. Thomas himself is not Hasidic, but the story is about a man who left his Hasidic community only to be asked to come back and be a Shomer, the person who is paid to stand vigil when there are no family or friends to do so. You can read all about The Vigil itself in our review here.
Spoilers for The Vigil begin here
The underlying crux of The Vigil is that a man was forced by Nazis to murder his sister during World War II and was subsequently possessed by a malevolent spirit, a Mazzik, as he went on to survive a concentration camp and lived a miserable life thereafter. The Mazzik is perhaps a type of Dybbuk, a spirit that possesses somebody living, but Jewish and Yiddish mythology on spirits is not totally robust, so I say use whatever word would make your bubbe shiver.
This particular rendering of the Mazzik is conveniently conceived to deliver The Vigil’s main message, or at least, the main message I derived. The spirit possesses you and your household when you have tremendous guilt over something, like a sibling’s death, and blame yourself for it. To boot, its head is turned backward so as to be cursed to look back upon this trauma and tragedy for all eternity. Like Mr. Litvak, the man who was forced to kill his sister as a child and whose body is being watched over, main character Yakov (Dave Davis) watched his brother’s death at the hands of antisemites who jumped them and pushed him inadvertently in front of an oncoming car.
Yakov didn’t kill his brother like Mr. Litvak killed his sister, but, his trauma is real. While the precipitating incident is much less severe than that of the Holocaust survivor, it is still visceral. I can’t help but immediately draw comparisons between the way Jews in the United States and abroad today endure rising hate crimes and mass casualty events and witness the rise of the normalization of Nazis, yet, that trauma is still constantly compared to that of the Holocaust to little avail.
Yakov himself is also a fair heuristic for the experience of white millennial Jews in North America. His departure from his likely toxic former Hasidic life, as evidenced by his participation in a support group for people in similar circumstances, puts him in a precarious place in society. While no longer so easily recognizable as a Jew without his peyot (the long curly sideburns of certain orthodox Jews) and black hat, he is still indeed Jewish with a Yiddish-speaking accent. Yet, he’s not fully welcome in his own community either.
Other Hasidim, members of his former community, are bent on bringing him back into the fold and he is rather likely to find himself uncomfortable in other types of Jewish spaces, at least while he is still acclimating to outside life. It’s a potentially lonely experience that, while not directly comparable to that of white assimilated Jews, works as a good stand-in in the context of a film that was not made by a Hasidic person in the first place. The constant struggle of all types of Jews to feel like they truly belong is real.
And so is the constant need to keep your head turned backward in awe of the generations worth of trauma that shackle us. To some degree, The Vigil can be read as a commentary on the need for Jewish life and expression to continuously evolve, not be stuck in the past like Hasidic Judaism is but to grow with and survive with the times like Yakov is trying to do. I’m not necessarily comfortable with a non-Hasidic director making that commentary, even if The Vigil’s cast contains currently and formerly Hasidic members. I am, however, completely here for the commentary on burning Nazis’ faces off.
Mr. Litvak was possessed for his whole life by the guilt of killing his sister but, you know what? It wasn’t his fault. Not one iota. Not a single scintilla of the onus is on Mr. Litvak for what happened to his sister. You know who holds 100 percent of the blame? The Nazis. I am all too familiar with the internalization of guilt; blaming myself for the actions of others and being trapped emotionally and physically a guilt that I have no right to hold onto. Perhaps it’s another type of generational trauma, but that Mazzik is utterly relatable, regardless of the extreme circumstance under which it latched onto Mr. Litvak.
We have to stop blaming ourselves for the atrocities of others. It’s a Jewish tradition that goes back to the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and 72 A.D. The Rabbis, in later generations, rationalized these tragedies and the subsequent expulsions, enslavement, etc. of Jews on sinat chinam, or senseless hatred. They straight up said, “No, it wasn’t the Babylonians’ faults they came and ransacked our kingdom, it’s our faults because we were too divided as a people.”
Sure, there’s another several thousand words that can be written on sinat chinam and the dangers and tragedy of a divided community (heck, a non-Hasidic director making a somewhat anti-Hasidic film borders on sinat chinam itself). But let’s be real. An invading force conquered and expelled our people. Self-blame doesn’t change this most basic fact. And neither does blaming Jews for choosing to assimilate, or choosing not to assimilate, or blaming ourselves (or being blamed by others for just existing) change the fact that real-life Nazis are on the rise, gaining power and normalization in the U.S., and virtually nobody is doing much about it.
This is why I appreciate The Vigil‘s resolution so much. You don’t begin to resolve thousands of years of Jewish trauma by keeping your head on backward and staring it down for all eternity. You light a candle and you burn its face off. You don’t sit there and watch CNN as men make Nazi hand symbols at the camera for fun and then DM with your Jewish friends about how nobody is talking about this. You get out there and you punch a Nazi (mostly metaphorically).
The Holocaust and World War II as a whole saw the murder and deaths of millions upon millions of people, including at least 6 million Jews. We have deep and ceaseless generational trauma from thousands of years of expulsion, displacement, discrimination, and running from one place only to find it again eventually in the next. None of the trauma is more acute than that of the Holocaust. It is within living memory, its history and lessons seared into the minds of many of its survivor’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Virtually, there is no escaping the pale of how its trauma continues to affect many Jewish families and the branches of the greater Jewish communal psyche today.
I don’t know what will happen over the next several years. Neo-Nazis aren’t going to just go away on their own and pleas by centrists to return to civility and normalcy won’t help either. So my resolve is to be like Yakov and stick it through the long, grueling night and fulfill my responsibility to confront Nazism whether I like it or not. I won’t do it in the extremely and uncomfortably Christain-esque way Yakov does it. The way he wraps tefillin and then says Shema repeatedly while holding a single Shabbat candle was so cringy for how much it resembled an exorcism scene and felt utterly not-Jewish. Maybe I’ll do it in a way aligned with the film’s closing song, Ashrei by Zusha, which states “Blessed is the one who remembers to feel the pleasantness of Torah,” because that’s personally where I get a piece of my connection to being Jewish.
But the best part is, nobody’s fights against modern Nazis need to look exactly the same as one another. Just as long as it’s clear that confronting the past requires putting our heads on straight and looking forward rather than being trapped in cyclical traumas of the past. Let our history guide us, but ultimately, let’s slay those monsters before dawn breaks and it’s too late.
The Vigil is available on digital platforms and VOD on February 26, 2021.