April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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We live in the Age of Reason. Or so we believe. But mankind has a long history of confronting disturbing phenomena: supernatural occurrences, inexplicable sightings of creatures believed to be not of this earth. Serious exploratory research has been done by Torah scholars to determine how many such creatures have their source in reality, and recently several books have been published listing and describing any number of these. The authors of these volumes have discussed at length the nature of these beasts and whether or not they are real or merely figments of man’s fertile imagination. Foremost among these books is “Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash,” written by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Slifkin in 2007 (3d ed. 2018), wherein no fewer than 20 creatures are listed with details as to their nature, habits and history. Well known among those cited by Slifkin are mermaids, unicorns, krakens, leviathans, phoenixes, griffins, dragons and the shamir of midrashic fame, to name a few.

It is not my objective in this essay to rebut any of the conclusions of these authors as to the existence or nonexistence of these creatures; rather, I have independently reviewed the original materials they suggested as probative of their reality as well as gathering examples of my own, which tend to show conclusively that there are many events that have taken place—even recently, and locally—that cannot be rationally explained without accepting the existence of at least some of these fantastic creatures. Below I recount several experiences I, and others in Teaneck, have undergone that illustrate what I am writing about. I do caution the faint of heart to stop reading this essay now, before reaching a point of no return! If you decide to proceed, it is strongly recommended that you read these stories only during daylight hours, making certain your doors are securely locked.

In the Beginning

Before our forebears came to the New World and populated it with a scattering of Gothic peoples (you know them as the English, French, Germans and Spanish, but Goths they mostly were originally), travellers from the Old World, among whom were some who had been promised a future ensured by the Almighty in lands of milk and honey, the continent and land they encountered was occupied by native peoples, by empty wildernesses, by forests primeval filled with myriad creatures who could alternately feed them or feed on them. Early man had shared this New World with these creatures and others too unspeakable to imagine. Evil beings who brought troubles, worries, disease and other harm to men despite their efforts to assuage them. It is true that ages passed and man evolved, but these harmful creatures did not totally disappear, instead either going underground or often hiding in plain sight. Whether they were called demons or devils, witches or sorcerers didn’t matter: They were still harmful to the sons of men who occupied this large, mostly inhospitable territory, losing none of their potency to frighten or their power to harm.

With the advent of the first, daring explorers among the Old World residents came early visits to these shores by the Goths; they brought with them memories of baleful spirits and fearsome creatures of their own; they also brought into this new realm of darkness and doubt Old World fears and terrors, and along with courage came superstitions ancient and troubling.

As an example, take the Dutch who around 1620 settled along a stretch of land along a tidal river that emerged from that mighty body of water called the Hudson, so named after the Englishman who first travelled up it in 1609. The local Algonquin natives, the Lenni Lenape or Delaware tribe called the river Hackensack in their language and the Dutch named their settlement along its banks Tieneck.

As the years, decades, even centuries went by, each new group who came to these shores brought with them their unique legends, tales and stories of creatures of the night. Tieneck, which in time became known as Teaneck, was not immune from this lore and many unexplained occurrences over the years became part and parcel of the history, the background of those who came to live there. The aforementioned Dutch had plenty to frighten them when in their valley whispered mentions of Satan-worshipers filled their ears, giving rise to witchcraft trials in the 1670s that rivaled those of Salem in the Massachusetts Bay colony. Now innocent-looking Tokoloka Park, known today to many in the West Englewood/Roemer section of Teaneck, was thought in those days to be the site of occult rites, and witch hunters abounded there.

Along with the slow arrival of Jewish settlers to this region came the ancient superstitions of the children of Israel. Among the Jews, historically, belief in demons and devils was in no way universal. From biblical times, it was clear that no dualism was permitted in the Orthodox view of things: God was the source of all good and evil. There was no independent source or master of the dark side. The Jews were certainly exposed to foreign gods during their period of independence in Canaan such as Baal, Dagon and Ashteroth, but these idols were deemed alternate sources of good and evil as well. However, as Jews were exiled from their promised land, they came in contact with other cultures, in particular, in Babylon and Persia, that asserted that the world theologically was divided among competing sources of light (good) and darkness (evil). Along with this duality came detailed belief in legions of demons and devils, in forces that would wreak havoc in the lives of humans, Jewish or otherwise. Many of the Tannaim and Amoraim of the Babylonian Mishnaic and Talmudic eras appeared to believe in such creatures and Midrashic sources are also replete with descriptions of such demons. A well-regarded Amorah, Acha ben Yaakov of Paphunia near the academy of Pumpedita in Babylon, contemporary of Abayeh and Rava, was known to have exorcised one such demon. During the later Geonic period, belief in the existence of these phenomena continued without stop, and the early Kabbalists further elaborated on the universe of the dark side (sidrah atra). Finally, in later times, Jewish communities became familiar sources of tales of dybbuks (evil spirits of the dead possessing humans) and golems (animated forms of humans with superhuman powers). In summary, by the time Jews came to live on the banks of the Hackensack, a rich tradition of beliefs in the dark side had been built up, rivaling those of their non-Jewish neighbors.

In the weeks to come, I will attempt to recount to you several contemporary tales of the unusual and bizarre. What will be unique is that all took place either in Teaneck and its surroundings or involved Teaneck residents while abroad. Each story will involve creatures and/or beings that are part of the long history and mystical tradition of the Jewish people and their culture. Prepare then to receive some “old wine in new bottles!”


Joseph Rotenberg, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Link, has resided in Teaneck for over 45 years with his wife, Barbara. His first collection of short stories and essays entitled “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” was published in 2018 by Gefen Books and is available online at Amazon.com. He is currently working on a follow-up volume of stories and essays.

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