Believe it or not, Jews were among the first cultures in history to talk about vampires. In fact, some of the earliest texts that deal with vampires were written in Hebrew.
The first Jewish vampire, Alukah, appears in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). Later Jewish writings regarding vampires were written in the Middle Ages, around a thousand years ago.
The first of the Medieval Jewish texts dealing with vampires is the Midrash Shmuel, though there is only a vague reference, a statement made by Rabbi Aivo, where he calls creatures known as “terafim,” translated as “idols” or “household gods,” “nikorim of vrokali.” This reference confused scholars for centuries, until 2004, when professor and rabbi Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University suggested that Rabbi Aivo was talking about vampires that Michal piled under King David’s bed so that the followers of her father, King Saul, wouldn’t know that King David had escaped.
This isn’t the only time that “terafim” are referred to as supernatural beings. Another example is found in the Midrash Tanhuma, where, according to its writings, you can make terafim speak by using a corpse, salt, incense, and a spell.
“Alukah” is a kind of Jewish vampire which appears in Biblical texts, specifically in the Proverbs of Solomon.
“Alukah” means horse leech, a leech with many teeth that can feed on the throats of animals.
In the Proverbs of Solomon, Alukah is referred to as a female demon possibly related to Lilith; it’s also possible that Alukah is an alternate name for Lilith. Alukah is able to curse a pregnant womb.
The Sefer Hasidim refers to the Alukah as a living human being that can shape-shift into a wolf. It can fly and it must feed on blood to survive. When it dies, its mouth must be stuffed with dirt to prevent it from becoming a demon.
Estries, the plural word for “striya,” are female vampires in Medieval Jewish folklore that are believed to prey on Hebrew citizens. The word comes from the French word “strix,” meaning night owl.
It’s likely that Medieval Jewish writers were influenced by their non-Jewish neighbors to believe in estries, as there are no references to them in the Tanakh, Mishnah, or Talmud. For example, Romanians believed in living dead creatures known as “strigoi.” Similarly, Albanians believed in “shtriga” and Poles in “strzyga.”
According to the Sefer Hasidim, estries prefer the night, though it’s unclear whether they can also roam during the day, unlike the archetypical European vampire. Estries are not deterred by religious iconography and can walk freely into holy places. They can seek healing and prayer from unsuspecting religious people trying to do good, though blessing estries is considered an evil act. Injured estries can heal by drinking blood or eating bread and salt from the person who caused the injury.
Estries can kill pregnant women and babies out of spite or jealousy and can seduce or sexually assault men. They can also exist as non-human spirits and transform into non-human animals.
Estries can be decapitated or burned. In later mythology, estries are depicted more like European vampires; for example, they become vulnerable to silver bullets, wooden stakes, blessed weapons, and holy water.
The second of the Medieval Jewish texts dealing with vampires is the Sefer Hasidim, written by Jews in Germany during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While the Midrash Shmuel’s reference to vampires is rather vague, the Sefer Hasidim is far more explicit, stating the following:
“There was once a woman that was a striya and was very sick, and there were two women with her at night — one sleeping and one awake. And that same sick woman stood before her and crackled her hair and wanted to fly and wanted to suck the blood of the sleeping woman. And the one that was awake woke up the one who was asleep, and they grabbed the striya. And the one that slept, slept more and the one that was awake didn’t sleep. And since she couldn’t do harm, the striya died because she needed that which comes from the blood, to swallow the blood and the flesh.”
The third Medieval Jewish text dealing with vampires is the Sefer HaRokeah, which was also written in Germany. This book lists precautions to prevent a striya — a vampire in Jewish folklore — from coming back from the dead.
Before she is buried, the undertaker must examine her mouth. The text goes on to say, “If it is open, it is clear that she will harm again a year after she died, and he should fill her mouth with an ample amount of earth so she will harm no more.”
BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA
There is no vampire in history as famous as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a character largely based on a (non-Jewish) tyrannical Romanian leader known as Vlad the Impaler.
Unfortunately, Stoker’s well-renowned 1897 novel was largely influenced by antisemitic stereotypes, tropes, and conspiracies, and reflected British societal anxieties about an influx of Jewish immigrants arriving to Great Britain after fleeing antisemitic violence in Eastern Europe.
Dracula as a metaphor for Jewry is most evident in his association with blood; for thousands of years, Jews had been persecuted on the premise that they killed Christian children for ritual purposes, such as using their blood to bake matzah. But the associations don’t end there. Dracula is depicted as a sexual deviant, praying on young virginal girls. During this time period, Jews too were characterized as sexual deviants “polluting” and “corrupting” white society, particularly young girls.
But the similarities don’t stop there. Physically, too, Dracula is depicted as a stereotypical Jew. This is especially significant at the height of social Darwinism and the scientific racist movement, which demonized Jews not based on their religion, but based on their “race.” As Sara Libby Robinson explains, “Count Dracula’s nose, ‘a very strong...aquiline [nose], with [a] high bridge and peculiarly arched nostrils,’ labeled constantly throughout the book as hooked or ‘beaky’ is simultaneously stereotypically Jewish and criminal…”
Most notably, perhaps, is that Dracula is depicted as an outsider who comes in and is responsible for the degeneration of society, echoing thousands of years’ worth of antisemitic tropes.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was allegedly directly inspired by the 1820 Gothic novel by Charles Maturin titled “Melmoth the Wanderer,” a novel based on the antisemitic trope of the “Wandering Jew.”
That said, the vampire as a metaphor for the Jews was not a new idea; the associations go as far back as the Middle Ages. As the ANU Museum of the Jewish People explains, “The image of the Jew as a proto-vampire is found on cathedral walls and in sculptures, paintings, frescoes and literature dating back to the Middle Ages.”
THE NAZIS AND VAMPIRES
Jew-coding is when characters in literature, movies, television, and other media are not explicitly stated as Jewish but possess enough “stereotypically (often negative) Jewish” characteristics to be subconsciously read as Jewish. Jew-coding is extremely common in classic European folklore and fairytales.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis used classic European folktales as antisemitic propaganda catered toward children. For example, in Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf represented Jews. In Cinderella, a beautiful Aryan girl was held captive by “racially foreign” (“rassenfremd”) wicked stepsisters, which invoked tropes of the “wandering Jew” and dual loyalties. In stories such as Rapunzel, a beautiful Aryan girl was held captive by a heavily Jew-coded witch.
The Nazis approached vampires in a similar manner.
In 1922, a man named Julius Streicher attended the premier of Nosferatu, a German silent film based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The main character, Count Orlok, based on Count Dracula, was heavily Jew-coded, with “a curved nose and greedy little eyes that lusted hungrily after young, fair-haired Aryan women.”
Streicher became obsessed with the film, returning to watch it day after day. The following year, in 1923, Streicher became the founder, publisher, and editor in chief of the infamous Der Stürmer newspaper, which became a mouthpiece for Nazi propaganda. Soon enough, Der Stürmer began publishing antisemitic caricatures of Jews depicted as vampires.
According to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People, “For Streicher, the vampire represented the Other — the deformed, ugly, un-German, disease-ridden well-poisoner. In other words, the Jew.”
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