Review by Israel Drazin
Jewish Tales of the Supernatural
Selected and retold by Howard Schwartz
Oxford University Press, 1988, 274 pages
What is thought-provoking about this book, its fifty Jewish tales of demons and the supernatural, is that most of the demons are women. Yes, Satan appears, but it is women who seduce men, control of their minds, and steer them to vile acts. Surprisingly, the most frightening of these tales were derived from Sefer Hasidim, a thirteenth century Hebrew text recording the teachings of Judah the Pious and his followers, teachings that guide Jews to pious behavior. Even the seemingly harmless biblical Queen of Sheba is depicted as a demon. There are legendary tales of famous rabbis such as Ba’al Shem Tov and Rabbi Loew of Prague combating female demons. These facts seem to indicate that men, especially pious men, fear women, and feel they need to avoid them and combat their deleterious nature.
Henning Mankell wrote about the white interlopers into Africa in his 2013 enjoyable novel A Treacherous Paradise about 1904 Mozambique. He portrays whites enslaving, mistreating, and yet avoiding contact with native blacks when not forcing them to work. Whites compelled blacks to walk in the streets when they passed by on pavements. Whites helping blacks were despised and shunned. Mankell reveals that despite controlling blacks and despite the blacks’ total submission to whites, white people feared the blacks. He is noting that an aspect of discrimination is fear of the people against whom one is discriminating.
This seems to explain, at least in part, why so many fearful demons are women: many men are afraid of women. This fear is especially prevalent among people who consider themselves pious. Many pious men fear that women will seduce them and draw them from piety, as shown repeatedly in Schwartz’s tales. They find ways to segregate women and mistreat them, hoping the mistreatments and subjugations will keep women apart from them, in their proper place.