Earlier this year SCoJeC was awarded funding from the Scottish Book Trust's Live Literature scheme, allowing us to host a series of author reading events of Jewish interest. The second event in the series took place on a particularly sunny evening on the enchanting Isle of Arran in the home of a local member of the Jewish community. There was a good turnout – including a lady carrying a harp under her arm – and, after guests enjoyed some light refreshments, we settled down in the dining room, with our speaker sitting against the backdrop of the evening sun and stunning sea views.
The featured author on this occasion was Dr Lynn Holden, a cultural historian from East Lothian, who is currently working on her forthcoming book, A Cultural History of Ghost Stories. Lynn read a number of excerpts, sharing with audience members the other-worldly tales she has gathered from around the globe, and highlighting the enormous variation of spirit folklore across different cultures throughout history. She paid particular attention to stories of the malevolent spirit in Jewish mythology known as the dybbuk, which comes from the Hebrew word 'davak' meaning to 'stick' to or 'cling' to. A dybbuk is believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person that can possess the bodies of the living.
Lynn discussed with audience members various stories featuring a dybbuk, one of which tells the tale of a bride becoming possessed by a dybbuk just as she is about to be married. The only way the marriage could take place was if the rabbi could perform an exorcism. One of the audience added that the dybbuk has become part of the Kabbalistic concept of reincarnation – gigul haneshamot (literally, "cycle of souls") – according to which souls attach to different bodies over time.
Throughout the evening, Lynn encouraged guests to contribute ghost stories they may be familiar with, which spurred some lively discussions about the role of ghost stories in different cultures. One local resident spoke about 'changelings' – fairies who swap places with human babies – in Scottish and Celtic mythology. Such stories are said to have developed as a way of explaining infant illness before medical science had progressed. One gentleman added that ghost stories may develop as a means of confronting fear, such as fear of death and afterlife, adding "The more you associate with the frightening, the less you are frightened".
Before the event finished, our youngest participant – only 4 years old – was keen to tell his own story by drawing a lovely picture of a ghost and describing to the audience how the mischievous ghost was 'kidnapping' the fruit! Lynn then read her final story, accompanied by gentle playing of the harp – a wonderful and unexpected contribution that really created an ethereal atmosphere.
Guests were then served a delicious kosher buffet in the conservatory, providing a good opportunity to further discuss what we had all been learning in the readings, but also get to know where all our guests had travelled from. As well as the wide age range of audience members, there was also a great mix of nationalities; some were visitors from the USA, some from Israel, some from mainland Scotland, and, of course, locals to Arran. There was a mix of people from the Jewish community and others who were not Jewish but were interested in the topic. The wealth of cultural diversity in the room shaped a wonderful evening, with a vast range of stories from across the world being shared.
As the evening ended, guests provided overwhelmingly positive feedback to SCoJeC, with many saying they were very impressed with the variety of audience members and that it made for very interesting discussions. "I came for the company," said one participant, "for the chance to meet people and Jewish people who come to Arran, and to hear ghost stories. And the food was good too!" Another told us that it had been a "Really pleasant evening with a surprising variety of ages and origins. Lovely and inclusive atmosphere. Would highly recommend attending future events here", while a third added, "I loved the variety of people, and the different experiences they brought to share. So fun!"
We are grateful to Netherlee and Clarkston Charitable Trust and the Scottish Book Trust for their support for this event.