As Israeli TV series grow in popularity in the United States, Hulu has added to the offerings with “Juda,” a show about an Israeli vampire. On Dec. 2, Vered Weiss, a visiting Israel Institute teaching fellow in the San Francisco State University Jewish studies department, will discuss “Juda, Judaism and Vampirism,” her in-progress work on the 2016 show and its critique of Israeli society and identity. Born and raised in Jerusalem, Weiss has a master’s in comparative and world literature from SFSU and a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.
J.: What is “Juda” about?
Weiss: I’ll try not to ruin the series, although I have to say that in my talk there are going to be several spoilers — so spoiler alert! The premise of the series is that the main character is a petty thief antihero who goes to Romania to gamble, and he is bit by a vampiress, and he turns into a vampire. Like any quality horror story — and “Juda” is a quality series — it’s entertaining, but simultaneously it offers a very profound social critique. I warmly recommend it. It is absolutely hilarious, as well.
What is that critique?
The creator of the show said that he wanted to make the first Jewish vampire. I’m going to show that, with all respect, Juda is not the first Jewish vampire, per se, either in literature or on screen. What I’m going to show is the importance of Juda as the first Israeli vampire.
Judaism and anti-Semitic depictions have been aligned with vampires going back to medieval times. But what happens in “Juda” is that negative attributes related to vampirism, such as violence or vindictiveness, which have been tied to anti-Semitic depictions of Jews, they are owned up to in an important way. He is destined to be the vampire who vanquishes all vampires; it suggests that to defeat your enemies, you need to become even more vicious and violent. If you think about what’s going on in Israeli society, it’s a very interesting commentary. If you look at the Bible, God is forgiving and loving, but also a god of vengeance. The series asks: What does it mean to become a fighter? Does that mean I’m a monster?
You are an expert on Gothic and Victorian literature and monsters in literature. How did you become interested in those topics?
I’ve always felt empathy for monsters and otherness, which is what my research looks at, broadly. I’m currently writing specifically about how and why is it that we do feel empathy for monsters. When I first read Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” I cried. It is a narrative of horrible loneliness that the creature has to endure as an other. This resonates with the Judaic tradition because Jews are so often the persecuted other. And also, monsters are cool.
How popular are horror and fantasy genres in Israel?
For a while, the Jewish Zionist narrative was really keen on creating narratives of heroes. It was very realistic, and there wasn’t a lot of room for other stories. This has changed quite significantly, starting in the 1990s, arguably with the influx of about a million and a half ex-Soviet immigrants to Israel. There’s been a real flourishing of the fantasy and horror genres in Israel. So Israeli culture caught up, and there are a lot of TV series, a lot of fantasy and vampires and witches that you can find on Israeli television.
“Juda” is available in the U.S. on Hulu. If people like it, what should they watch next?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that other similar TV series would be available here. More broadly, if they’re interested in fantasy, they can look at my favorite fantasy film, “Jellyfish” by Etgar Keret [subtitled in English on Amazon Prime]. “Split,” which is a teenage show about moving between the worlds of vampires and humans, it’s fun [available on YouTube dubbed into English].