One of those questions it isn’t politic to ask is “Are you Jewish?” I get asked that once in a while but mainly by Jews. I’m not Jewish but some people tell me I look like I am. In any case, as a Bible editor at an academic press, the question of someone’s ethnic affiliation sometimes comes up. The dilemma is that we can’t ask that. And it is very difficult to know the answer if someone doesn’t tell you. The reason that this is on my mind is that I recently watched John R. Leonetti’s horror film Lullaby. The film was one of at least two that came out with that title in 2022. And since it deals with Jewish themes, that question naturally comes to mind: is the director, or are the writers, Jewish? I suspect, from the way all of this plays out that the answer is “No.” Or, if they are, they didn’t do their homework.
Lullaby is a Lilith story. A young couple—she’s Jewish, he’s a convert for her—have a newborn. The woman’s sister has sent to them, among other things, a book in Hebrew that contains a Lilith-summoning lullaby. Lilith shows up and steals the baby but a tattooed rabbi gives the husband some Jewish rituals to combat Lilith. Apart from the spurious etymology of “lullaby” as “Lilith be gone,” this rabbi doesn’t seem convincing. His Hebrew handwriting looks as if he might be a first-year student. And keeping a menorah lit all night is supposed to keep a demon at bay? Not only that, his assistant can be bribed to regain the cursed book. All of this begins to look like a gentile trying to direct a horror film in a religion he doesn’t understand.
Religion and horror go naturally together. I’ve written several posts about Jewish horror that really works. In those instances, it’s clear that the writers and directors understand what Judaism is. The solution here is that the convert husband must “really believe” in order to conquer Lilith. The rabbi tells him to have faith. The thing is, Judaism isn’t a religion based on having faith—Christianity is. And taking that aspect of Christianity and using it to try to make other religions faith-based is one of the most common mistakes of those who don’t study religions professionally. Horror works well with religion when those doing it actually understand the religion they’re trying to portray. When they don’t, it can end up looking like appropriation of the worst kind. I watched the movie because it was about Lilith. What I found was a basic misunderstanding of how religions work.