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On Tik Tok, ‘dybbuk girl’ is mashing up Jewish history and culture

Golems and teens do not typically meet outside of the Prague Ghetto, but on the popular video app Tik Tok, Dybukk.girl.03 (aka Leonora Tepper.) is making sure they do. Tepper, a high school senior in Brooklyn, started making videos as a way to combat quarantine boredom, but soon found herself a niche and a following by combining modernity and memes with the history, culture, folklore and ideals of Jewish shtetl life. While the videos are hilarious and fun, they also serve as an important continuation of Jewish culture, showing how relevant our not-too-distant past is to our current struggles, The videos cover everything from romance to radical labor, with a healthy fear of the dybbuk.

Though Tik Tok is one of the most common platforms used by people Tepper’s age, she initially disregarded the app because, she said, “Tik Tok was stupid and I wasn’t going to use it.” But Tepper she found a deeper and more interesting side to the app beyond the viral dance videos and cute pet clips: the people who used it to talk about their passions and share their knowledge.

Tepper’s first videos showcased traditional Eastern European Jewish clothing. She began by researching how Jewish people coming to America dressed at the turn of the 20th century. She says that wearing this clothing made her feel connected to Jewish culture. “It’s surreal, the past and the present coming together,” she said.

In Tepper’s most popular video, which has over 90,000 views, she is dressed like an Ellis Island immigrant who, when she tries to enter the country, is marked by a circle with an ‘X’ through it — a symbol that was used to indicate that a person might have a mental defect or hold radical views. In the background, Rihanna sings “uh oh,” a line taken from an “SNL” sketch. By combining the contemporary and recognizable sound of Rihanna’s voice with more obscure bits of history, Tepper’s video forces us to engage with and reconsider how our history relates to America’s current immigration policies.

As one of the newer stars of Jewish Tik Tok, Tepper sees only one major downside to the platform: the anti-Semitic comments. “People have these misconceptions about being Jewish,” she says, but adds that it’s “just part of being on the internet.”

Tepper says that her experience of being a quaran-teen “feels like a regression to being in middle school. All of your independence has been taken away.” On the bright side, though, it has given her the chance to be creative. She even staged a virtual reading of “The Trial of God” by Elie Wiesel on Zoom with friends, something she had been trying to plan for years.

Asked what she would do if Tik Tok was banned, Tepper said, “Oh well it was fun while it lasted.”

Alexandra Pucciarelli is a writer based in New York. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and her MA in sociology of collective memory and trauma at the New School for Social Research.

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