If you know anything about vampires, it’s probably that Christian relics — holy water and crosses, in particular — have the power to ward off these creatures of the night. But now along comes a 2017 Israeli dramedy in which nearly everything you know about vampires gets rewritten.
“Juda” made its debut on Hulu on March 19, with an eight-episode first season. The first 45-minute episode brings us into the life of gambler Juda Ben-Haim (whose name basically means “Jew, son of life”), who borrows money from the French mafia to play in a high-stakes Romanian poker game — and wins big.
When a seductive woman shows up at his door to help him celebrate, he invites her in and, after a musical lip-sync interlude that’s weird and delightful, her teeth come out and she bites him. Tania — a vampiress! — is momentarily drugged by the blood, which tastes like no blood she’s ever tasted before. Then she realizes he’s a Jew and flees. Tania’s vampire brother and father later reprimand her for biting a Jew, whose blood is forbidden.
As an excuse, she says she couldn’t tell he was Jewish because her victim was “faithless.” (What an argument for Jewish affiliation.) Apparently, at the moment of attack, two processes began: Juda is becoming a vampire … and Tania is becoming human. Tania must cut off Juda’s head within eight days (“paging Mohel Dracula …”) before he totally becomes a vampire and Tania loses her immortality.
At the same time, a rabbi portrayed by American Israeli actor Mike Burstyn is after Juda, too, determined to protect him and turn him back toward humanity, lest he become an unstoppable force for evil.
A Jew becoming a vampire has happened before, he explains, launching into a tale of how, in 1941, Dracula and his son saved a young Jewish boy fleeing from Nazis in the Transylvanian woods, and it didn’t end well. (“Nice story; I’ll buy the book,” Juda snarks at the rabbi.)
Tania and her fampires (vampire family) go to Israel to track down Juda, but Tania is having second thoughts as she regains her humanity, and by episode 2, she’s finding the threads of humanity confusing. (Us too, sister.)
Her fampires explain that as a future Jewish vampire, Juda will have all of their strengths and none of their weaknesses (sunlight, holy water and crosses don’t work on Jews). They must kill him at all costs.
To get a comment on the show, I reached out to Rani Bleier, who is in seven of Juda’s first eight episodes as Avichai, the police investigator assigned to find which wild animal killed both a flight attendant and a gangster. (Spoiler: It wasn’t a wild animal.)
Bleier described “Juda” as “a new POV [point of view] of vampire stories, and an amusing one. I love it,” he wrote, comparing it to “a good graphic novel adapted for television.”
That description tracks, as the visually slick series takes cues from graphic novels and seems to owe a debt to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s 11”), especially in the first episode.
But the series owes an even deeper debt to Judaism.
Juda the character may be “faithless,” but the episode titles are straight out of the Jewish religious tradition.
“Ye Shall Not Eat of It, Neither Shall Ye Touch It, Lest Ye Die” imports God’s admonition to Adam and Eve into the episode that tells us vampires are forbidden from consuming Jewish blood.
“And Esau Said to Jacob: Pour Into Me Some of This Red, Red, for I am Faint” brings the story of Jacob deceiving his brother Esau into giving up his firstborn inheritance rights into a series where creatures of the night will do anything to score some “red, red.”
Other episodes include “Appoint a Teacher for Yourself and Avoid Doubt” (from the Mishnah) and “God of Great Deeds, Find Us Forgiveness, at the Time of Ne’ila (Jewish liturgy).
Having seen only the first two episodes, I can only guess at how the narrative unfolds within the thematic confines of these titles.The first season is from 2017, and the show’s star and creator is Tzion Baruch, a 39-year-old actor, writer, musician, radio host, painter and comedian.
The press release promises episodes full of “an unwilling hero’s journey to redemption, true friendship and forbidden love.” If the show focuses on the first two of these, it should be solid. I’m still not sure why it’s forbidden for vampires to pursue and kill Jews, but with our history of persecution, I think we should take it as a win.